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Council members question chief about crime-fighting team

At a recent Durham City Council meeting, a routine crime report by Police Chief Patrice Andrews evolved into a tense discussion about the impact of aggressive crime-fighting tactics in Durham.

On Feb. 23, Andrews updated council members on the Crime Area Target Team (CATT), an eight-person specialized team established in April 2022 to patrol areas that have recently experienced violent crime. Several council members, led by Jillian Johnson, expressed concern regarding how the team may affect Durham citizens.

“If we are going to do this kind of policing, how do we make sure that… we don’t create the same problems that other cities have had with these teams becoming dangerous to residents?” Johnson asked.

The exchange took place less than two months after the  Jan. 10 death of 29-year-old Tyre Nichols, who died after being beaten during a traffic stop by the Scorpion Unit, a special Memphis police team. The Memphis police chief who created the  unit — Cerelyn “CJ” Davis —  led the Durham Police Department from 2016 to 2021. During her tenure in Durham, a previous iteration of CATT existed under the name HEAT 1.

The Scorpion Unit, CATT and HEAT 1 all practice proactive policing in high-crime areas. Nichols’ beating and subsequent death have sparked nationwide conversations about the sometimes tragic consequences of these specialized police units.

During the meeting, Johnson asked for assurance that Durham’s CATT team won’t result in similar tragedies. 

“I can’t definitively say that there’s a zero percent chance that that could ever happen here in Durham,” Andrews answered. “The difference is what we are doing here in Durham is that we have competent leadership in place that is committed to ensuring that we have checks and balances.”

During the fourth quarter of 2022, CATT made several significant arrests, Andrews said. Between October and December of 2022, the team seized $15,681, collected 173.8 grams of Schedule II drugs and confiscated 7,878 grams of Schedule VI drugs, according to a police department report..

During the same quarter, CATT also conducted 836 traffic stops. Johnson said the team often stops motorists for routine offenses that have little effect on public safety, such as an expired registration or a busted tail light.

“It seems like the violations are a pretense to get to a stop and a search because they’re in an area where there’s been higher crime,” she said. 

Johnson also criticized CATT as a shift in direction away from focusing on individuals who commit violent crimes. “We need to be focusing on the people who are causing the most harm in our communities and this is taking us away from that,” she said.

Council member Javiera Caballero also expressed concern about CATT, while applauding the Durham Police Department’s efforts towards recruitment and transparency.

“I hear council member Johnson’s concerns, but I also understand that our police chief is working really diligently to try and target violent crime,” she said in an interview. “I’m just not 100% sold on if this is the right way to do it. I need to be shown that this isn’t going to give me an outcome worse for the community.”

Andrews noted that when officers are selected for the team, their entire history with the Durham Police Department is taken into consideration, including their record of community service, enforcement, and any sustained complaints against them.

The police department monitors the effectiveness of the specialized team through a weekly review of their body camera footage and an evaluation of how the officers interact with the community, said Andrews. Use of force brings an additional layer of review.

“When officers use force against someone, that automatically starts a ‘use of force’ evaluation,” Andrews said.

Andrews also reminded the council to learn from Tyre Nichols’s death. “If we don’t learn from that… tragedy, then we are bound to repeat it.”