Hail to the chief
It's no secret that the Durham Police Department has gotten a lot of criticism for their Gestapo-style alcohol raids and their disgraceful conduct during the lacrosse case.
But the tragic murder of Duke graduate student Abhijit Mahato-coupled with last week's string of violent robberies (many of them near campus and some involving Duke community members)-underscores an even more disturbing reality: DPD officers are pretty bad crime fighters.
Statistics bear that out. The city's homicide rate, which was up 53 percent last year, now stands at approximately one murder per 6,960 people. That's much higher than New York City's rate of one per 14,400 and Raleigh's totals, which stand at one per 20,000 people.
Just as alarming is Durham's overall rate of violent crime, which stood at 937 offenses per 100,000 people in 2006. Consider that those statistics were 638 per 100,000 in Raleigh and 637 per 100,000 in New York City during the same year.
All those figures add up to a very serious crime problem in Durham-one that threatens this county's continued growth and vitality. And although much of that crime is confined to a limited number of "bad" neighborhoods, it touched our community last week when Abhijit Mahato was brutally shot and killed in his own apartment and several other Duke students were robbed at gunpoint. Dolores Benito Gomez, a Honduran immigrant with no connection to Duke, was also tragically murdered not far from our campus.
Four men-two of them just 14 years old-have been arrested in connection with those attacks, but serious questions about the DPD's conduct and Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez's judgment still remain.
That's because Lopez (who has already earned the nickname J-Lo for his occasional temper tantrums) made the controversial decision not to inform the public about an unusually violent cluster of robberies emerging this January, reasoning that the guilty parties would "hide out or commit crimes in a neighboring city for a while to throw detectives off their trail."
Surely those outcomes would have been preferable to the Mahato and Gomez families, who now find themselves burying loved ones. And make no mistake, had Lopez alerted the community, it is entirely possible that these tragedies could have been averted.
In fact, one recent graduate told The Chronicle that he narrowly escaped the band of criminals when he recognized their silver SUV following him Jan. 19. As the unidentified man explained, "If I hadn't known from my team member that it was a silver SUV that mugged him, I probably would have just kept walking home and wouldn't have noticed.... Communication is key."
That Lopez's vision for the DPD does not embrace that spirit of open exchange is deeply disturbing. Unfortunately, his remarks also cast serious doubt on the chief's judgment for the second time in less than six months on the job.
As you may recall, Lopez drew pointed criticism when he withheld information that Durham police officers were back under investigation for prostitution and other misconduct charges (for the third time in 20 years, no less) until after municipal elections had concluded last November. Two officers-Sgt. Keith Cheeks and Officer Demond Gooch-have since resigned, leaving no doubt that it has been a tough year for the man hired to restore public confidence in Durham's police force.
January's events leave me with serious doubts as to whether Lopez is the right man for that job.
Between the University's increasing emphasis on unarmed security guards-indeed, Executive Vice President Tallman Trask suggested in a September 2006 Chronicle article that "the number of occasions where it's important to have an armed officer is somewhat less than you might think"-and the growing number of students living off campus, Duke community members rely on DPD officers more than ever for protection.
But the department's unforgivable failures in the lacrosse case and officers' heavy-handed pursuit of noise and drinking citations have strained that relationship severely. It's hard to see how any of Lopez's actions thus far stand a realistic chance of rehabilitating the DPD's image on campus.
Although we all know that Durham has a crime problem, perhaps it's time to ask whether we have a police problem as well.
Kristin Butler is a Trinity senior. Her column runs every Tuesday.