Durham’s safety and wellness task force at a standstill

During a tense meeting Tuesday, Durham Mayor Steve Schewel told county leaders the city will move forward with a committee on police alternatives with or without their participation.

The morning after three people were shot to death in Durham on Monday, elected officials from the city and county met to discuss the planned Community Safety and Wellness Task Force.

The task force, a City Council initiative, will recommend community-based alternatives to policing and the criminal justice system. The city, the county, and school board would each appoint five members.

But some county commissioners balked at the group’s proposed bylaws, or operating rules, Tuesday.

“Our children are dying in the streets. You’ve created something that was thrown at us and say ‘get on board or not,’” Commissioner Brenda Howerton said. “And half of my board didn’t know anything about it.”

“This has not been done in the most collegiate kind of way for two boards to work together,” she said.

Commissioner James Hill said he would also vote against proposed bylaws. County Commissioners Chair Wendy Jacobs and Commissioner Heidi Carter supported the bylaws, and Commissioner Ellen Reckhow was undecided.

“We will move forward, if we have to, by ourselves and with the school board,” Schewel said. “But it would be so much better to have the county involved.”

Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson proposed creating the task force in early March. The City Council aproved $1 million in June toward implementing whatever it eventually recommends.

Should police, sheriff employees serve on task force?

The tension revolved around whether the county commissioners were sufficiently engaged during the initial planning process.

The elected leaders also debated whether the task force should include law enforcement members.

Hill said he wanted to include the police chief and the county sheriff.

“We have two professionals in Durham that are doing a pretty good job of law enforcement,” Hill said. “And like I said, we don’t have a rabid police union in Durham, thank God.”

Johnson disagreed and said the task force should not include city staff, county staff, or elected officials as members.

City Council member DeDreana Freeman said she understands Hill’s concerns.

“Without having a way forward to make sure that the conversation is not just about bashing police or the sheriff or what have you, it’s concerning,” Freeman said.

Commissioner accuses mayor of disrespect

Howerton said the City Council had thrust the task force’s bylaws into the county commissioners’ orbit without discussing it enough beforehand.

Schewel said the county had plenty of time to raise concerns.

“We’ve had this out here for a long time. And it’s really impossible to deal with someone’s concerns if you don’t know what they are,” Schewel told Howerton. “So, if you want to put those (concerns) in an email tomorrow or something like that, we can deal with it.”

Howerton later accused Schewel of disrespecting her.

“What you just did was just disrespected that I have a right to have concerns,” Howerton said. “And as I said, I’ve got all due respect, mayor. I have a right to have my concerns. And not just my concerns, but concerns I’ve heard from community as well, and you’re not listening to me.”

Johnson said council members proposed the task force after Durham residents asked the city to do more about policing.

“This proposal is not something that the council just came up with,” she said. “This was brought to us by residents asking for us to do more around safety and also to do more around policing, because, you know, because there are such serious issues with violence in Durham.”

The ultimate goal is to bring in more input from Durham residents about public safety, Johnson said.

“We’re moving forward on community based anti-violence and public-safety solutions regardless,” she said. “This is the goal of this project. It’s for the community to have a voice.”

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Charlie Innis covers Durham government for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun through the Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellowship. He has been a New York-based freelance writer, covering housing and technology for Kings County Politics, with additional reporting for the Brooklyn Eagle, The Billfold, Brooklyn Reporter and Greenpoint Gazette.