Durham’s Police Reform Finds Its Backlash

Mon., Nov. 8: Amid a spike in violent crime, voters seemed to recoil from a plan to transfer police vacancies to a new civilian department + Nida Allam runs for Congress

Hey, everyone. The story I’ve been working on, like, forever, finally published yesterday, so I’m going to share a bit of it with you. It’s about Durham’s election and what it means for its planned public safety reforms—i.e., transferring police positions to the new Community Safety Department.

But it’s about more than that, too. It’s about the fundamental challenges any attempt to reimagine policing, here or anywhere, is going to run into.

There’s a quote from Jillian Johnson that ended up getting cut for space—a lot of things got cut for space, and the story is still very long—that gets at the central issue. It went something like this (I’m paraphrasing): We know how to prevent violence—strong gun control and a strong safety net. But local governments can’t do either of those things.

There’s a lot of talk about addressing the “root causes” of violence, which everyone agrees is the goal. But the city lacks the resources to do it in a meaningful way. Not even defunding the entire police department would change that. Instead, like most cities tackling police reform, Durham is transferring some lower-risk police work to civilians.

The question is how big that civilian agency should be, and to what extent its growth should come at the expense of the police department. Right now, the Community Safety Department has snagged five police vacancies, and the new city council will decide whether to give it “up to” 15 more next month. But it seems unlikely that the department will receive 60 over the next three years, as Jillian Johnson wanted.

A quick programming note: The story that’s live on The Assembly is about half the size of the draft I filed. I’m not complaining in the slightest; the edits made the story a much stronger read, and the editors are terrific to work with. But a lot of what didn’t make it was what might be called Very Durham material—in other words, stuff that was too Durham-centric for a statewide (and national) audience. I think you’ll find some of it quite interesting.

So over the next week, I’m going to dive deeper into what the Community Safety Department is planning to do, talk a little about gang violence in Durham, and pull out items from interviews that didn’t make the story—including the nuances of incoming city council members’ thoughts about policing. (I might also share the long version of the paragraph on why crime dropped after the 1990s and violence has ticked up since 2019 or so.)

Long story short: Check back in this week for the closer-to-home angles on Durham’s public safety future.

Heads up: Speaking of Durham, at noon today, County Commissioner Nida Allam will announce that she’s running for Congress in what will no doubt be a very crowded field seeking to replace the retiring David Price. Already, state Sen. Wiley Nickel is in. I’ve heard several other possibilities, including Sen. Valerie Foushee and former Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr. It’s basically a lifetime gig, which means a lot of Democrats will be interested. There are only five months between now and the primary. (The general election won’t matter, given the way the district is currently drawn.)

  • Allam will try to stake an early claim to the progressive lane.

  • I planned to honor the campaign’s embargo request, but Allam posted her announcement video on Facebook this morning, so fair’s fair.

Quick request: If you or someone you love is a criminal defense attorney in Wake County, please email me. (If you’re one of the defense attorneys I talk to on a semi-regular basis, we’ve probably already talked about this.)

Now, without further ado:


Police Reform Finds Its Backlash

Durham was transforming the police long before ‘Defund’ became a national discussion. But after an electoral shift in the deep blue city, the future of an aggressive push on policing alternatives is uncertain—and shootings continue

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Two decades ago, when Danielle Purifoy was in high school, Durham had a well-earned reputation as a dangerous city. It’s since evolved into a culinary and cultural hotspot. But the violence never went away.

For a time, Purifoy lived in Watts-Hillandale, the historic neighborhood just outside of downtown that Steve Schewel, Durham’s outgoing mayor, calls home. She could walk her dog at 5 a.m. She was surrounded by well-kept, well-lit parks. She didn’t hear gunshots. 

And she rarely saw a police officer. 

“There is safety here, but the police are not here,” said Purifoy, an assistant professor at UNC-Chapel Hill. “The big difference is that the folks there had what they need, and that creates a safe place.”

The idea that resource stability, not police, makes communities safe, forms the foundation of the Durham Beyond Policing coalition, which Purifoy helped found in 2016. 

Three years later, the organization persuaded the Durham City Council to reject the police chief’s request for 18 new officers, setting in motion what Schewel later called the city’s “movement to transform policing.” The centerpiece of that shift: a promise to transfer 60 vacant police positions to a newly created agency tasked with developing alternatives to policing, the Community Safety Department. 

But as gun violence spiked this summer, that promise drew a fierce backlash.

“Don’t defund the police!” warned a mailer from the Friends of Durham political action committee. “Law enforcement is under assault.”

On Tuesday, a pro-police slate of candidates swept Durham’s municipal elections, jeopardizing the future of Durham’s public safety experiment.   

Durham was as well-positioned as any city in the country to dramatically change the role of the police. It had a progressive government, an organized, savvy activist community, and a state law that bans police unions. But even in North Carolina’s bluest city, reformers appear to have pushed too far ahead of voters.

As advocates pick up the pieces, the story of Durham’s effort to reimagine public safety—and the setback it suffered last week—highlights the challenges awaiting such campaigns across the country. 

Not least of all: how to convince residents of high-crime neighborhoods that they’ll be better off without more cops. 

***

Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis was sworn in as Durham’s police chief the morning of June 6, 2016. That evening, a speaker at a city council meeting called her officers “a team of murderers.” 

Davis, who is Black, inherited a troubled, distrusted police department with a record of racial disparities and controversial deaths, most famously a Hispanic teenager who police say shot himself in the face while handcuffed in the back of a police car. For weeks before Davis’ arrival, critics denounced the city’s plan to spend $71 million on a new police headquarters. 

Durham Beyond Policing, a conglomeration of social justice groups that opposed what they saw as the city’s misplaced priorities, emerged from that fight. They didn’t stop the headquarters, but the pendulum soon swung in their direction. 

Satana Deberry was elected district attorney in 2018, leading to an overhaul of the county’s bail system. The city initiated programs to forgive court debts and reintegrate returning prisoners. And under Chief Davis, the Durham Police Department (DPD) conducted fewer traffic stops, deprioritized marijuana arrests, halted random traffic checkpoints, boosted participation in a misdemeanor diversion program, and required written consent for vehicle searches.

City officials credited Davis for changing the DPD’s culture. But in early 2019, when Davis asked to hire 72 more cops, some council members balked. 

After the city manager scaled back Davis’ request to 18 patrol officers, Durham Beyond Policing released a manifesto: a 50-page counterproposal that lobbied for a three-year moratorium on hiring new officers. Instead of paying $1.2 million for more cops, the coalition argued, the city should spend $650,000 to provide its part-time employees with a living wage and establish a Community and Safety Wellness Task Force to develop “viable alternatives to policing.”

The council agreed. A 4-3 majority rejected the 18 officers, and further rejected Mayor Schewel’s compromise offer of nine officers. 

That hard line didn’t prove absolute. In March 2020, with gang violence escalating, the council unanimously agreed to hire six new cops. But the city’s police force still felt besieged. 

Then a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd. 

Nearly half of the country’s 50 largest cities cut their police budgets in the aftermath: 11% in Seattle, 15% in New York and Minneapolis, 33% in Austin. Though more than 4,000 people emailed Durham’s city council to demand they do the same, Durham didn’t. 

“The movement to transform policing may be new to some communities, but it’s not new to Durham,” the council explained in a statement, promising to increase investments in community safety. 

Protesters painted “DEFUND” in massive, bright-yellow letters outside of DPD headquarters. The city council let it stay for a year, and more than a few cops took offense. 

In an interview, a spokesman for the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police blamed the “toxic political climate” for low morale and high turnover. Last fiscal year, about six officers left the DPD each month. At the end of June, the department—which is budgeted for 677 full-time positions—had more than 90 vacancies.

But morale problems aren’t unique to Durham. And the DPD’s biggest recruiting issue is starting pay, which is among the lowest in the area. The city says it plans to fix that soon. 

This April, Chief Davis announced that she was decamping to Memphis, where she now heads a police department about three times the size of Durham’s. The Memphis Police Department did not respond to requests to interview Davis.

In the midst of the turnover, tension, and a divisive national dialogue, Durham had to decide its next move. Through it all, the violence increased.

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