Just over a year ago, the grassroots coalition Durham Beyond Policing proposed that Durham launch a Community Safety and Wellness Task Force to help transition some public safety responsibilities — and eventually, funding — away from the police department and towards social services.
The proposal was in limbo until late March, when the council passed bylaws for the task force that outlined broad objectives and set expectations for appointing members.
Then, the coronavirus pandemic happened, halting any more progress on it.
But on June 10, as protests against police violence began ramping up in Durham and across the U.S., the city council approved $1 million to officially launch the task force.
“The renewed interest in the task force was directly tied to spikes in violence here in our city and shootings here in our city,” said Mark-Anthony Middleton, council member representing Durham Ward 2.
“I guess George Floyd has sort of put it on steroids now,” he added, referring to the death of Floyd, who was killed by Minneapolis police in May.
Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson said some ideas for Durham’s task force include creating a new City Department of Community Safety that would specialize in the transition away from policing; establishing an Office of Violence Prevention like Minneapolis, which is trying to reduce the risk of community violence; or hiring consultants to communicate with other cities and counties working to reallocate police budgets.
She said Durham is also moving forward with evaluating police departments to see where there may be opportunities to transfer responsibilities to other agencies, and auditing 911 call systems to begin the redistribution of call responses for non-violent crimes.
The county, city and the school board will each appoint five people to the task force. Johnson said there are certain requirements for representing community members of diverse ages, races and expertise. For example, the task force must have two people under 25 and at least three people who focus on racial justice.
According to the bylaws, members are expected to work together to conduct a “comprehensive review of existing institutional and community-based public safety and wellness resources,” hold three listening sessions in 90 days and make recommendations about how Durham can become safer without using policing, incarceration or other punitive measures.
Johnson said the $1 million will be used as monthly stipends for task force members as well as for the implementation of the group’s recommendations. The task force is expected to have completed its evaluation and given recommendations within two years of member appointment.
“We’ll be relying on the task force to direct the work,” Johnson said, adding that any significant next steps for public safety reform will be decided by the group.
There is no official timeline for appointing members and beginning recommendations. However, Johnson said she is confident it will move forward quickly because of the increased scrutiny of police departments.
That process is already beginning. On June 25, the school board unanimously voted to support the task force.
Natalie Beyer, a community volunteer and advocate who is a school board member, told 9th Street Journal that the board hopes to find nominations for the task force from high school principals and equity leaders within the public school system. She added that they will likely announce their choices in August.
“I think we can do things better in Durham and I think that’s what this task force could help us imagine,” she said.
Durham Beyond Policing, which originally proposed the idea, is concerned about whether $1 million is enough to do meaningful work — especially since the city council voted to pass a $70 million police department budget this year.
“The $1 million felt like an odd sort of consolation prize,” said Durham Beyond Policing organizer Danielle Purifoy. “It just feels like an empty kind of gesture.”
Johnson said the $1 million is just a start. As the task force starts providing recommendations and public safety services are transferred to other departments, she said she anticipates the financial investment to increase.
Purifoy also raised a concern that some city council members share: Ensuring the task force represents community members most affected by policing.
Middleton vowed to make sure members are diverse. “It’s absolutely critical to the efficacy of this task force that the people on it are the people that are most impacted by police contact,” he said.
One way to achieve that goal, Purifoy said, is to ensure meeting times accommodate working people and offer fair compensation.
“We have not placed a strict timeline on this because we felt like there’s going to be a lot of back and forth that we’re going to need to do in order to make sure that the task force is in the best position possible to to do the work that it needs to do,” Purifoy said.
The task force is part of Durham Beyond Policing’s broader plan to get the city to divest from the current police system and redistribute funding to services that address mental health, homelessness and addiction.
Finding alternatives “that are going to actually work in the city and be as well-funded and as well-supported as the police” will take time, Purifoy said. “It’s a trade-off between making sure that this is an urgent thing, but also not pushing so fast that we end up with something that won’t work.”
Durham city council members say they’re committed to continuing the debate about how communities should spend money instead of policing.
Middleton wrote in an op-ed recently that it would be irresponsible for the city to immediately cut police funding without first gradually transitioning services to other departments.
“My belief is that if the initiatives have the expected impacts there will be an almost naturally occurring defunding effect as the mission of the police department is fine-tuned and right-sized,” he wrote.
Johnson, who is also pushing for gradual defunding, said this work has to “create the space for these kinds of conversations in our community around how we stay safe, around what the most effective ways to stay safe are and about how we can do things differently.”
9th Street Journal reporter Cameron Oglesby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Top photo: Artwork by Sonofsimba. Photo by Henry Haggart.