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A City Says ‘No’ to More Police Officers

Durham City Council voted to not add more police officers to the force.

Durham City Council voted to not add more police officers to the force. Bennian/Shutterstock

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The city council in Durham, North Carolina recently rebuffed a police department push to add more cops on the beat, with a narrow majority deciding instead to spend the money on employee raises.

The city council of Durham, North Carolina recently did something unusual when approving their new annual budget—they struck a request for additional police officers, spending the money instead on raises for part-time employees.

The formal budget approved on June 17 excluded funding for 18 additional police officers, which would’ve cost a reported $1.2 million annually. A compromise plan put forward by the mayor didn’t enough gain traction, either. Instead, by a 4-3 vote, the Durham council opted to raise hourly wages for city part-time employees to more than $15.40, up from as low as $9.

It’s rare for cities to reject police funding requests out of hand, even in Durham. The city is arguably a progressive bastion—almost 78% of Durham County residents voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 general election—yet left-leaning council members regularly agree to fulfill departmental funding requests. Late last year, Durham completed work on a new $71.3 million police headquarters.

This time, Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson said, was different.

“My reasoning for not wanting to add additional officers was based on the performance of the department as is, and what I felt was a lack of real evidence from the police department that more officers were needed,” she told Route Fifty. “Increasing police capacity without any real evidence that police are underperforming is not a solution.”

While noting that she’s voted for extra departmental resources in recent years, Johnson added that adding officers without a clear indication they’re needed isn’t the best recipe for community health and safety.

“I think that the expansion of policing in Durham—but also across the United States—uses resources that could and should be going to meet other community priorities,” Johnson said.

The police department had originally asked for more than 70 additional patrol officers with plans to alter its shifts to improve community relationships, officer morale, and call response time.

Police spokesperson Kammie Michael declined to comment, directing questions to the council. City Manager Tom Bonfield, whose draft budget suggested a two-year pilot to add just 18 new officers, said he felt it made sense to test the model.

“We try to look at a long-range forecast of needs … 23 people a day are moving here,” Bonfield said. “We made a recommendation that we test this new model of staffing and deployment in one of our districts.”

The proposal would’ve moved district staffing from two 12-hour shifts to three 10-hour shifts, overlapping when call volume is typically the highest, Bonfield said. It also would’ve helped officers get to know the community they patrolled, and if the pilot worked, the council could’ve expanded the model citywide, he said.

Bonfield’s budget also included raises for part-time workers, phased in over three years, he said.

But many on the Durham City Council didn’t want to wait on the pay increases. Years had already passed since they raised the base pay for full-time employees, and to Johnson and others, three more years wasn’t fast enough. By turning down proposals for more officers, they could direct money to both employees and fund programs assisting recently incarcerated residents and offering driver’s license restoration and record expungement, Johnson said. And they lowered the recommended tax rate too, she added.

“In most communities, we’re using police and incarceration as solutions to violence,” Johnson said. “I’m glad Durham is a place where our elected officials and community members are starting to question those decisions.”

Mayor Steve Schewel, who tried to negotiate funding nine additional officers, did not respond to requests for comment.

While some residents spoke in favor of the policing increases, a coalition of organizers had been pushing to reject the request. Coalescing under the banner of Durham Beyond Policing, residents put forward an extensive proposal calling on council members to rethink the role of police. The group, which originally formed to fight the new police headquarters, describes itself as “a grassroots coalition to divest from policing and prisons and reinvest municipal resources into supporting the health and wellbeing of Black & Brown communities.”

Chanelle Croxton, one of the group’s originators and a co-founder of the Durham chapter of Black Youth Project 100, argued that the city needs to realign its priorities.

“We seem to be able to find limitless resources for the police, who don’t contribute to the safety and wellbeing of our communities,” she said. “We’ve been pushing for solutions that actually look at the source of crime and how do we end poverty.”

Durham Beyond Policing asked the city to allocate $200,000 to “a community-led safety and wellness task force to develop viable structural alternatives to policing and incarceration as public safety.” While the city council didn’t approve that request, organizers plan to fight for it to be included in the next budget.

Johnson said she is hopeful that something like that could be possible soon. She’s up for reelection in the fall, running on a slate with two other council members that includes a similar proposal “for an on-call crisis intervention system” akin to a program called CAHOOTS in Eugene, Ore.

For now, Croxton said her organization’s members consider the police funding votes a victory.

“We hope this is something that can spawn conversations and organizing in other communities,” she said.

Eric Ginsburg is a freelance journalist.

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