What Durham’s New Council Majority Thinks About the Police

Thurs., Nov. 11: Going deeper into the public safety debate + judge orders state to fund school

Happy Veterans Day to all who served.

Before we begin, I’d like to thank Mecklenburg County for this timely response—which I received on TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 9—to a basic public records request:

Your hard work is appreciated.


» What Durham’s New Council Majority Thinks About the Police

After The Assembly published my story on Durham’s public safety debate, I received some pushback for describing the victorious candidates as “pro-police.” We used the term because it was both accurate and succinct—unlike their opponents, they hadn’t committed to reducing the size of the police department—but it also strips away nuance.

In about a month, this new majority will decide whether to transfer “up to” 15 vacant police positions—the DPD is very unlikely to fill most of its 90-plus vacancies anytime soon—to the nascent Community Safety Department, which hasn’t yet begun rolling out its pilot programs.

While reporting for The Assembly, I spoke with members of the new majority—Mark-Anthony Middleton, DeDreana Freeman, Leonardo Williams, and Elaine O’Neal—at length, though very little of those interviews made the piece. Today and tomorrow, I’ll publish excerpts of our conversations, lightly edited for clarity.

  • The gist: They don’t see the DPD/Community Safety conversation as either/or, but more like “yes, and.”

» MARK-ANTHONY MIDDLETON

JCB: In 2019, when the council’s majority spiked the 18 officers, you said something about the “dark side of the progressive movement” and you referred to a “pecking order” in terms of what gets funded. What did you mean?

MAM: If you look at some of the things that we funded that were even considered experimental, DeDreana, the mayor and I all supported participatory budgeting—I mean, the expansion of democracy, who is gonna argue against that? But the mayor and I thought that the initial funding level was really high—$2 million. I think the staff came back with the $700,000 recommendation. And we funded participatory budgeting, you know, we funded, or at least at that time philosophically agreed to fund the Community Safety Task Force.

And then you had people who live in McDougald Terrace, the people who live in Oxford Manor, and people that live in [the Cornwallis Road public housing community] saying, “Hey, could we try ShotSpotter?” At that point, I don't think it was even free. I just felt in a city that has a demonstrated affinity for pilots, here’s an opportunity to do a pilot that some folk who aren’t ordinarily at City Hall, who don't usually flood our inboxes with emails like the environmental crew and the bike people—which is fine. That’s what you do to your government—you petition. But these folk were asking for officers so they could have a community engagement unit at Oxford Manor like they do at McDougald Terrace.

I had been talking about ShotSpotter, incidentally, not to address violent crime, when I first introduced it. It was about unreported gunfire. It was a quality of life issue, and ShotSpotter was meant not to necessarily bring down violent crime—if it did, fine. But we were concerned about the people whose children were jumping in bathtubs at night when it wasn't bathtime. I kept hearing all these people talk about, you know, “We don’t even call the cops anymore.” Or in the Latino community, they told me, “Well, we hear gunshots, but we’re afraid to call the police because we’re undocumented. And in our country, you know, the police were controlled by the criminals.”

So here was an opportunity, I thought, where we could try something for folk who are the marginalized of the marginalized, who said, “Can we try something?” And that was nixed, I thought, based on ideological entrenchment [and], I thought mischaracterizations also of the technology. So I started to put to my peers, you know, we had a million dollars worth of protected bike lanes downtown. Most of the constituents I was talking to at these public housing complexes don’t ride their bikes downtown. There’s no protected bike lanes in their neighborhood. So that led me to opine about the perceived pecking order in terms of what gets funded, who has access and who doesn’t, although we pay a lot of lip service to inclusion and equity and marginalized people.

One of the things that drew me to this story was the idea that if anyplace could pull off this public safety transformation, it was Durham. At some level, it becomes a case study in that it’s also easy to screw it up.

Well, if you’re arrogant and in an echo chamber, yeah. I mean, one of the things Durham doesn’t play is zero-sum game politics.

Listen, everybody kind of latches on to ShotSpotter. That’s the shiny object in this debate. But I was the first elected official in the city to actually call for the training and deployment of unarmed mental health response to augment our capabilities. [Note: I ran this quote by Jillian Johnson. “That’s not true,” she said.] I was the one who called for the expansion of Bull City United, the violence interrupter program, which is a nonpolicing intervention. I’m the one who called for guaranteed income to address root causes and, you know, Marshall Plan-type infusion into legacy Black neighborhoods. [Note: A citywide guaranteed jobs program would almost certainly cost more than the city’s annual budget.]

So, there was never a denial or nullification or pushback on those pilots, but it just wasn't a zero-sum game for me. I mean, there were other constituents who wanted at the table as well. And I think we squandered an opportunity to really capitalize on some goodwill.

There’s sort of a—I don’t know if paradox is the right word. A lot of the people I’ve talked to in Durham Beyond Policing, I think they’re correct in talking about root causes and long-term solutions. But if you’re worried about your kid getting shot today, root causes aren’t your immediate concern.

I've asked my friends in Durham Beyond Policing—and I use “friends” seriously because they are allies and folk who care about the city deeply. Ask them to concretize that next time, because when I say OK, other than cutting police funding and staffing levels, what are the root-cause initiatives that you actually proposed? I didn’t get a letter of support from Durham Beyond Policing for guaranteed income, when I was talking about radically transforming our budgetary culture, when I proposed the front-end initiative. They only come before the council and ask us not to hire more cops. So where are the root-cause initiatives? What are they proposing other than cutting?

I would be their biggest champion on the council, but the only person in the public square that's actually been talking about the short-term, tactical, my-kids-get-shot-right-now and putting money into root causes has been me. And prove me wrong if I'm not. I'd love to be refuted and proven wrong. Where are those policies? What are they proposing for root causes other than cut? That's all they talk about.

I asked Danielle Purifoy from Durham Beyond Policing about this quote.

“I don’t think that’s a fair assessment of our work,” she responded, pointing to Durham Beyond Policing’s 2019 counterproposal to the city’s plan to hire 18 new officers, which included launching the Community Safety and Wellness Task Force. “It’s not like that is our full-scale picture of the total reimagining of the city. We don’t pretend to have all the answers. With respect, I don’t think [Middleton] does either. I don’t think any of us do.”

She added that the task force was “literally institution-building in this city to get us to a vision of safety that is not policing.”

Back to Middleton:

Let me ask you specifically: You have no issue with the Community Safety Department itself, right?

No, absolutely not. But it needs to be right-sized. And we have a professional staff that can advise us on at what rate to step it up and scale it up. It's called governance. What's wrong with that?

For my friends on the other side, wholesale transference is an article of faith. For them, it's not attached to metrics, it's not attached to good governance, it's just that we got to make this national honor roll of local progressive groups that report to these national groups, of which I'm a member. We've done it in our city, without any regard to Durham's data points, and the voters said hell no. …

There's even been some rumblings, “Oh, they're going to dismantle the Community Safety Department, they're going to undo the work we've done,” We’re not. It’s disgusting. The Community Safety Department is based upon fundamentally an idea that I was the first one to [suggest]. There’s not going to be any Trumpian dismantling of stuff like the Obama legacy.

If this election goes the way I think it’s going to go [note: It did], we’ll have full support of the department, and listen, I’ll put a hiring freeze on the police department when I'm given the power to control population growth. Governance without holding those two numbers in tension is just ridiculous. It's nonsense.

So yeah, I believe that we should make do everything in our power to make this department successful. Why? Because I want Black and Brown people to survive. The end result is to keep people alive. So if a brother or sister needs unarmed mental health responders, I want to have that tool in my box as a government official. But if white supremacists storm my city center, I'm not sending unarmed mental health responders. I'm sending a SWAT team. And as a government official, I need all those tools. [Note: The council members arguing to reduce the DPD’s size say they want the police to focus more of their attention on violent crime and let civilians handle other things.]

» LEONARDO WILLIAMS

JCB: When you say a national dialogue has infiltrated Durham, what sort of issues are you talking about?

LW: The narrative around funding the police or defunding the police has [inaudible] now because it was a really misleading catchphrase, and that represented the aggression behind the extreme progressive perspective on how we address public safety.

But those same folks, did they ever go into the neighborhoods that were impacted the most and ask them, What are your thoughts around the police?” And yeah, they may say, “Yes, somebody got shot,” or, “The kids got held up in that situation.” But we aren't having George Floyd-type situations on a daily basis like [inaudible] or Minnesota are.

We actually our police chief saying, “I am ready to reform policing as we know it,” and yet we still push her out.” And with all due respect to my hopeful future colleague, Jillian Johnson, going into USA Today to totally tarnish public safety in Durham and our department that she's responsible for, that's not what Durham wants because folks actually have decent relationships with police.

We have some work to do, but let's not act like we didn't have an opportunity to totally change and pioneer how we how policing looked, you know, how public safety can look. And also, what I've been saying is, public safety is not a binary. It's much more complex than that. And it's not fair to our communities to just say fund or defund. It’s is a much more complex situation.

If I'm understanding correctly, you think don't have to take away positions from the police department to create this Community Safety Department.

So think about it. First of all, crime is rising. And more police is not going to necessarily solve that, you know, but at the same time, you can't, you can't just, like, you know, give the community whiplash by taking away a police resource when they already shortstaffed. So, the crime is rising, we have to have the infrastructure to respond to those things, but we also have to ante up on, you know, resources that address these things in a proactive manner. Mental health is only one component of that. What I’ve said is that 15 positions, or eight mental health officers, is not enough. We can't just say we have this issue where we want to have less police officers on officers engaging with nonviolent crimes. We can't say all right, you know, we're gonna put a few people here. We have to take this seriously. We have to have full relationships with like Alliance Health, who's already doing this type of work, who’s already experimenting with an emergency response number.

What you need to keep in mind is sending unarmed mental health social workers to 911 calls that aren't—a call without a violent suspicion. Well, most of the calls that come in are not violent, but they damn well can turn violent, and many of them do. So the reports that people are referencing based on the calls are just a 911 call itself. It does not cover what happens at that call when the officer gets there. So instead of sending your unarmed mental health force or social worker, you're going to have to send an officer so that they can set the perimeter and call backup.

Mental health and social workers are part of it. But you know what, education is also a part of it. The average age of the current perpetuator is 16 and 17 years old. Those are high school juniors and seniors and sophomores. Why aren’t we adding education to be a part of this conversation, because the council? Yes, the [Board of County Commissioners] is funding schools, but the council can be responsible for funding resources around the school day, such as extending it, such as apprenticeship programs that are citywide, any type of program that's going to engage our students at earlier ages and sustain them all the way until they’re independent and getting jobs and going to college or military or wherever.

Going back to something you said a minute ago. A lot of what they're doing is based on this program out of Eugene called CAHOOTS. I think CAHOOTS had about 2% of their calls, the social workers called for backup, and they took about 10% of the 911 calls that otherwise would have been gone to the cops. So it hasn't been a big thing where they've run into situations where there's been a violent response. Have you read through the RTI study they did this year?

I haven't read all the way through it. It’s been referenced to me, but I haven’t read all the way through it.

There's a finite amount of resources, and so at some point, it becomes difficult to do everything. You have to kind of pick and choose. I think you’re right that there obviously has to be a holistic approach to public safety. But if you're talking about how to fund the police department versus doing all these other things, the police department is 30% of the general fund.

So when I say national dialogue, infiltrating locally—well, let me just say, initially, all we were talking about was defunding the police or not defunding the police, and that was nationwide because of what we were seeing nationwide. But Durham Beyond Policing came up with—I believe it’s 8 Can't Wait or 10 points or something. I thought they were really good. I think it was 8 Can't Wait or something like that. [Note: 8 Can’t Wait was a national initiative to reduce the use of force that Durham signed on to. It was not Durham Beyond Policing’s idea.]

I thought it was pretty good, and actually, the chief adopted some of those as well. [Note: Durham says it complies with all eight standards.] And I thought that was a beautiful approach to having dialogue around what does public safety look like here in Durham, you know, but I also thought that we were being distracted.

I went to a town hall with the [inaudible] and the chief of police and NCCU’s chief of police. In the room were about 60, 65 older Black people. And they were all worried about their police being taken away from them. I listened to the dialogue and listened to the conversation. And at the end, I was the last question. I'm like, “What are we going to do. What does public safety infrastructure need from us as the community?”

You know, we have to own some of this, too. The public safety infrastructure is designed to be reactive. Government has the opportunity to be proactive. But proactive and reactive, the community can assume that responsibility as well.

That's what my approach practically has been. That's why I kicked off 1.000 Black Men, a collective to actually generate resources to support the work that's already being done on the ground and let it serve as a cohesive effort providing some tenacity amongst the organizations that are already doing interference on the ground.


» Judge Orders State to Fund Schools; NCGA Mad

This wasn’t a surprise, but it still sets up an intriguing constitutional showdown. On Tuesday, State Superior Court Judge David Lee ordered state officials to route $1.7 billion to education agencies, theoretically the culmination of a 17-year school-funding dispute.

The N&O reports:

State Superior Court Judge David Lee ruled Wednesday that North Carolina has failed to provide students with their Constitutional guarantee to a “sound basic education.” To remedy the violation, Lee ordered the state budget director, state treasurer and state controller to “take the necessary actions to transfer the total amount” to fund the next two years of a plan developed by an education consultant.

Lee, speaking at a court hearing in Raleigh, said that the state Constitution empowers the courts to act when the other branches of government don’t follow their constitutional obligations. He said “the court’s deference is at an end” after waiting 17 years since the last time the N.C. Supreme Court said the state wasn’t meeting its educational obligations.

“The repeated failure by the state is a constitutional violation that has to be remedied,” Lee said.

The General Assembly has its knickers in a twist, calling Lee “rogue” and accusing him of “misconduct.”

House Speaker Tim Moore:

Attorney General Josh Stein, who only considers the North Carolina Constitution a suggestion on how to perform his duties, now sees a mandate where none exists. The North Carolina Constitution gives the General Assembly the exclusive authority to appropriate funds. Any attempt to circumvent the legislature in this regard would amount to judicial misconduct and will be met with the strongest possible response.

The legislative branch is the closest to the people. And the people were loud and clear when they elected their representatives in the General Assembly to do their job as outlined in our constitution. How many times will the courts tell North Carolinians their vote doesn’t matter?

The Constitution does say that only the General Assembly can allocate funds. But it also says the General Assembly has to provide a “sound basic education” to all students. And Republicans have simply ignored Lee’s orders to remedy that. So Lee saw that the state had well over $1.7 billion in the bank, and, well …

In a joint statement, Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger argued:

If Judge Lee’s orders are followed, the legislature’s core duty is usurped by [an] unelected county-level trial judge and an out-of-state consultancy funded by the Governor and his political allies.

The consultancy is WestEd, which developed the plan Governor Cooper and the State Board of Education approved. It includes teacher pay increases and more funding for low-income school districts.

  • As Republicans note, the Cooper administration funded the WestEd study; as Lee pointed out, he used WestEd’s plan because Republicans never proposed their own.

None of this is happening soon. The ruling won’t take effect for 30 days—or maybe ever.

  • The General Assembly will almost certainly appeal, and they might win.

  • But I wonder if they’ll be doing Democrats a favor by going into the midterms trying to take money out of schools to put back into a reserve fund. North Carolina Democrats (not named Roy Cooper) are generally terrible at messaging, but not even they could screw that up.

  • (Or … could they?)

The GOP’s alternative would be to let the funding go through and claim credit for better schools while railing about out-of-control judges. There are two Democratic Supreme Court seats on next year’s ballot, after all.

  • Of course, the General Assembly doesn’t appreciate challenges to its supremacy. Remember, right after Cooper’s election, when they stripped the governor’s office of a bunch of powers?

  • The state House might impeach Lee, which would have the practical effect of preventing him from taking part in the case while the Senate tries him. (He’ll be acquitted so long as Republicans don’t have a supermajority.) But it would also send a message to other judges about who’s in control.

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