The independent news organization of Duke University

Durham Police Chief Lopez leaving mixed legacy, to retire at year's end

<p>Durham Police Department Chief Jose Lopez is retiring this year after eight years of service and a controversial tenure. </p>

Durham Police Department Chief Jose Lopez is retiring this year after eight years of service and a controversial tenure. 

Durham Police Department Chief Jose Lopez’s decision to retire at the end of the year has sparked a discussion about the merits of his eight-year tenure.

Lopez’s decision to retire came after discussions with Durham City Manger Tom Bonfield, who determined that a change in DPD’s leadership was necessary. Bonfield attributed three key factors to his decision—rising violent crime rates in the last two years, concerns about community-police relationships and morale issues within DPD. Members of the community have mixed impressions of Lopez’s record as chief, with some criticizing him for poor community outreach and others praising numerous initiatives enacted during his time.

“There were factors moving forward that we needed to get better and that the community deserved, and a change in leadership was one of the necessary steps to get us there,” Bonfield said.

Since Lopez took over the job in 2007, violent crime has seen a downward trend—falling from 818.36 incidents per 100,000 residents in 2008 to 683.08 incidents in 2013, according to data from the City Manager’s office. The last two years, however, have seen a significant rise in the same metric—up to 764.76 incidents per 100,000 residents in 2014. According to DPD’s 2015 Second Quarter Report, violent crime overall has increased by 13.5 percent between 2014 and the first half of 2015.

Lopez pointed to the decreasing crime rate overall as a measure of DPD’s effectiveness under his watch, adding that criminal behavior is nonlinear and that sudden upticks are to be expected from time to time. He also said that DPD is pursuing efforts to combat the recent increase.

“If you look around at the region and also the country, our uptick is not as high as many other cities are experiencing,” Lopez said. “If you compare Durham to other places, we’re not doing as bad as others.”

The decision to seek a change was made during the summer, Bonfield said, but for various reasons Lopez was only officially informed of the decision recently.

Throughout Lopez’s eight years there have been numerous calls for his resignation, said Eddie Davis, who serves on the Durham City Council. He explained that such calls have often come after highly controversial events such as the 2013 death of Jesus Huerta—a Durham teen who was in police custody at the time.

DPD and the community

Complaints about DPD’s relationship with minority and low-income communities have persisted throughout Lopez’s time as chief. Mayor Bill Bell asked the Durham Human Relations Commission in 2013 to investigate alleged racial bias in DPD, and in an April 2014 report the Commission “found the existence of racial bias and profiling present in DPD practices.”

Reverend Melvin Whitley, a commissioner on the Durham City-County Planning Commission and resident of East Durham, pointed to numerous practices that he felt indicate a deterioration in community-police relationships. In addition, he noted a lack of understanding of the situations people face in lower-income, minority neighborhoods.

Whitley said that under Lopez, there has been a decline in the practice known as community policing—in which the police department works with the community to address the causes of crime. Police have made a habit of going straight to the door of residents calling 911 and putting them in danger by making it apparent that someone had called the police. Under prior police chief Steve Chalmers, residents could talk to officers on their cellphones, he explained.

In contrast to the situation during Chalmers’ tenure, Whitley also feels that DPD’s efforts have been misdirected under Lopez—focusing on low-level criminals instead of more dangerous individuals, such as drug dealers—and thus failing to effectively combat crime in his area.

The adoption of community policing and outreach initiatives were some of the recommendations provided by the HRC to the Durham City Council last year.

Whitley said that while most DPD officers are “wonderful,” there are a few “bigots” who stereotype against certain neighborhoods and treat residents like criminals—even the victims. He accused Lopez of failing to hold the select few officers engaging in improper conduct responsible, adding that prior police chiefs were more willing to take action.

“He turns a blind eye,” Whitley said. “Lopez comes to our community and says we could reduce crime if you were working with the police officers, but some police officers treat us like criminals, and I can’t work with them.”

Lopez responded that he has not heard comments reflecting a serious level of discrimination. He also talked about his own Puerto Rican heritage and experience overcoming discrimination.

“I’ve yet to encounter anyone who has spoken to me about bias and discrimination in this organization that has experienced the discrimination against them and bias against them that I have [experienced],” he said.

Lopez argued that the majority of the community does not share these negative views of the police department, but those who tend to complain have a political or personal agenda.

Davis noted that some minority communities have a more favorable view of Lopez than others, and that he has seen Lopez get support from the Hispanic community, support which is less prevalent in African-American neighborhoods.

Lopez has worked with the Hispanic community on immigration issues, said Pilar Rocha-Goldberg, president of El Centro Hispano. She added that many in the community are concerned that Lopez’s retirement might make it harder for Latinos to address their concerns.

You feel a little better when the police chief is Latino,” she said.

Positive growth

Since the HRC report was released, the DPD has implemented some of its recommendations, such as attempting to communicate more effectively during traffic stops and implementing racial equity training, according to an August 2015 update from the City Manager’s office.

Lopez pointed to numerous DPD accomplishments earned under his watch, including receiving the Gold Standard from the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, strengthening the forensics unit and creating fruitful relationships with neighboring police departments.

Other members of the community have also expressed support for his policies.

Michelle Irvine, co-facilitator of District 5 Partners Against Crime and director of audience services at the Carolina Theatre, said that the police department has done a good job managing protests and communicating with businesses ahead of time.

Lopez also pointed to work he has done reforming the department’s mental health policies by working on a Mental Health Outreach Program as well as improving the department’s Crisis Intervention Team.

During the first few years of his tenure, employee morale improved, said Andy Miller, president of the North Carolina Sherriff Police Alliance, who was a DPD captain until 2009.

In response to concerns about low employee morale today, Lopez said that similar problems can be found in departments across the city and that most of the dissatisfaction is attributable to the city, not to the department.

Moving forward

Bonfield said that the community will be involved in the process of selecting a new chief, but the exact mechanism has yet to be defined.

For Lopez’s successor, Whitley said that he wants to see a greater willingness to combat discrimination in the department as well as a renewed emphasis on engaging the community.

Ultimately, Lopez said that he hopes his legacy as police chief will be evaluated based on the breadth of his work in eight years, rather than specific highly-charged instances.

It’s unfortunate that the totality of my service here to the City of Durham is just viewed by some in the span of a moment,” he said. “Most chiefs of police stay for about three and a half years—there’s no commitment. I’ve committed myself and I’ve been meeting my commitment as I leave here after eight years.”