The controversy over the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Mo. has driven the Durham community to reevaluate its own policies regarding police conduct. A group of students, faculty and Durham residents attended a town hall meeting Tuesday to discuss the militarization of American police, a lack of transparency and excessive court proceedings, among other topics, in light of Ferguson shooting. Additionally, the Durham Human Relations Commission published a report that confirmed racial bias and profiling on the part of the Durham Police Department. We are pleased that dialogue about this controversial issue is coming to a head, but we feel there is more to be said.
Discrimination based on race is unacceptable and disgraceful, but it is important to maintain rational understanding of the balance that the police force must maintain. Some critics claim that the authorities intentionally over-police communities of color. But these accusations do not always consider the full picture. In a report responding to allegations of racial profiling, the Durham Police Department explained that it deploys its resources based on need, as determined by factors like 911 calls, known criminal activity observed by officers and crime data. According to the department, the data shows that the areas with the highest volume of reported activity are often communities of color. This is clearly not a validation of racial profiling, but we acknowledge that it does leave the police with a difficult dilemma—if they respond to the calls, they may face allegations of race-profiling. But if they were to ignore these calls, they could face accusations of abandonment.
Ensuring the safety of all communities should be the foremost priority. A model like the existing one where officers are deployed based on need is thus preferable to one that, for example, distributes officers evenly across districts. But we are concerned by the fact that areas with the highest activity of calls tend to be communities of color. On the one hand, statistical feedback may feed a vicious cycle that continues to increase the perception that these communities are problematic. On the other, the disproportionate calls points to larger, more systemic socio-cultural issues that need to be addressed.
We propose a policy change for the police to better serve the community—a system similar to the one that functions now in terms of serving areas based on need, and to highlight some of the recommendations proposed by HRC that we believe are particularly important. First, there should be an emphasis on more cooperation between the police and the community. Not only would improved relations allow officers to better serve their community, but greater trust and understanding could also reduce the number of crimes and conflict. This relationship needs improvement, and we believe the onus is on the police to improve it.
There should also be more stringent protocols and expectations for police conduct. We agree with the recommendations that officers wear body cameras and that all police vehicles have dashboard cameras. These protocols should be emphasized in training. Although the proposed changes will not solve the ongoing issues, nor can they correct past tragedies, they are a step in the right direction.