How a federal grant incentivized a police department to go nuts on drug arrests — and terrorize its community
In the late afternoon of Jan. 3, Robin Dean, a 50-year-old county employee, pulled into a Durham, N.C., Burger King parking lot to give a friend a package of frozen chitlins that she had cooked over the holidays. After the transfer was complete, the pair said goodbye and parted ways. Both were subsequently pulled over by Durham Police.
Dean says an officer told her that there was evidence that she had just engaged in an illegal drug transaction, searched her car without her consent, and called for backup. When Dean worried aloud that she had been racially profiled, she says the white officer called her an “idiot,” although the nearly hour-long stop revealed nothing illegal apart from a window-tinting violation that was later dismissed.
In recent years, stories like this have come to epitomize heightened concerns that, as Durham becomes a regional center for sophisticated culture and cuisine, the drug enforcement strategies of its police increasingly assign second-class status to the city’s minority communities. Over the past several months, protesters alleging police misconduct have pummeled the city’s police headquarters with rocks and met tear gas along the usually amiable streets of this city of 240,000.
In seeking to understand the roots of the city’s divisive policing, lawyers at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice were astonished by what a recent round of public records requests produced. Not only was a federal grant subsidizing what they regarded as the most perniciously targeted drug enforcement operations of the department, but the grant — with a key “performance measure” emphasizing police report their sheer volume of arrests — also appeared to be incentivizing the department to raise its overall number of drug arrests, which overwhelmingly affect the city’s black community. SCSJ attorneys add that recently revealed evidence also indicates that the federally funded program included an illegal system of secret payments law enforcement made to witnesses who delivered successful drug prosecutions — another sign, they say, that the city’s policing has flown off the rails. (more…)