Police cuts, Black icon references bring out tension at Durham City Council meeting

·5 min read

A vote on reducing the city’s police force brought out tensions Thursday when a City Council member rebuked a colleague for invoking Black political activists to explain his stance.

City leaders are setting the budget for the new fiscal year that begins July 1. Two community groups, Durham For All and Durham Beyond Policing, have pushed the council to transfer funding for vacant police positions into a new Community Safety Department.

The new department, part of City Manager Wanda Page’s recommended budget, would house new public safety initiatives, like sending unarmed clinicians on emergency, mental health-related 911 calls.

Page has proposed 15 full-time staffers, with funding for five coming from vacant police positions.

Last week, a majority of City Council members pledged to move 20 vacant police officer positions to the Community Safety Department during a meeting with Durham For All and Durham Beyond Policing.

At Thursday’s council meeting, Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson, co-founder of Durham For All, reiterated that plan. It would shift 60 police vacancies, over three years, starting with 20 positions in the coming budget.

After Johnson spoke, Council member Charlie Reece modified that by proposed transferring 15 police vacancies to the new department at mid-year, in addition to the five that Page proposed to start the fiscal year.

That started an intense debate.

Johnson, Javiera Caballero and Pierce Freelon spoke in favor of Reece’s proposal.

Mark-Anthony Middleton, DeDreana Freeman and Mayor Steve Schewel opposed it, preferring the council move just the five positions now and revisit the issue in six months.

An hour later, all but Johnson agreed on a compromise: shift five police vacancies initially, freeze 15 more, evaluate the new department after six months, and transfer up to 15 frozen positions based on what the department needs at that time.

‘The biggest offense’

In the meeting, Freelon explained why he wanted to earmark the 15 additional police vacancies for the Community Safety Department.

People like Harriet Tubman, John Lewis, Ida B. Wells and Pauli Murray, his cultural ancestors, came from the tradition of the Black freedom struggle, he said.

“There are a lot of things they did that may have seemed unusual to their peers and contemporaries,” Freelon said. “And I think that’s OK to have the discussion, to have the disagreement, to have some folks that don’t align or vibrate with the vision.”

Freeman, who like Freelon and Johnson is Black, responded with anger.

“It’s offensive, it’s disgusting and appalling that you would even try to use my ancestors, and the struggle that they’ve experienced as a part of this,” she said, saying the council needs time to discuss the manager’s proposal and should not put politics before public safety.

“This has been about white supremacy. This has been about ‘defund the police,’ not Black Lives Matter,” she said. “Because if it was about Black Lives Matter we would have had ShotSpotter, a free program, available in neighborhoods.”

Freeman and Middleton with Schewel have supported outgoing Police Chief C.J. Davis’ request for more police officers in recent years, which the council majority (before Freelon was appointed to fill a vacancy) has mostly rejected. The council majority also rejected a free trial offer from Shotspotter, a gunshot surveillance system, in part for fear it could bring officers to already overpoliced communities.

“I’m very measured about how I respond to things,” Freeman said. “And I want to be clear that this was the biggest offense you could have done.”

Middleton, who also is Black, also questioned Freelon’s invoking the names of Black civil rights activists, and said there was nothing radical about moving 15 positions into a new department without knowing what they would be doing.

“This motion is politics. This ain’t John Lewis. This ain’t mother Rosa. This ain’t the ancestors,” he said. “This is about satisfying the commitments you made, et al, to Durham Beyond Policing and Durham For All.”

Johnson, defending her support for moving vacant police positions, said she has clearly communicated her political views since she first ran for City Council.

“I think that the conflating of, ‘Well, this is just politics,’ is not reasonable,” she said. “This is a specific policy decision that I am committed to.”

Freeman said she appreciates other council members’ points of view, even when they are at odds with hers.

“What I don’t want is for us to look like other boards, commissions, committees, or the Capitol, because we want to tear apart our city, making our points the only point that matters,” she said.

Reaching a compromise

Schewel, who announced he will not seek re-election Thursday, had first suggested the council earmark “up to” 15 police vacancies for the new department, rather than commit all 15 positions from the start.

“I think the biggest risk that we face here is that we take actions that are further polarizing,” he said.

Johnson the lone vote against the compromise, pushed back.

“Up to 15 could be zero. I don’t think it’s meaningful,” she said. “And I’m not willing — it doesn’t feel like a commitment to me. I’m not willing to support that. To me, 15 already feels like a compromise.”

Reallocating the 60 police vacancies over three years would be a good down payment for the Community Safety Department, she said. “If we had that level of resources in alternative response, I think we would be doing something really significant and visionary,” she said.

The police department currently has 79 vacancies among 556 sworn officer positions, Davis told the council Thursday.

What’s next

The council’s compromise vote Thursday gives direction to staff as they finalize the proposed budget’s details.

A public hearing for the budget is scheduled for June 7, and council members may adopt it on June 21.