Big crowd greets finalists for Durham Police chief

Davis (left) and Smathers (Durham Police)

DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) — The two finalists to be Durham’s next police chief answered questions in front of an audience of more than 100 people Wednesday, touching on issues such as racial bias and body cameras.

The two finalists are Cerelyn Davis and Michael Smathers. Davis is the deputy chief in Atlanta and directs the Strategy and Special Projects Division. Smathers is a major who oversees the Fields and Services Group with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department.

Durham Police Chief finalists on Wednesday. (WNCN)
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“We have to be able to say (bias) does exist. Those fears and those concerns and those realities are real and they are present today,” said Smathers.

Davis added, “Set up and checks and balances to ensure that you don’t have officers that are participating in biased-based profiling.”

The search comes after Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez was forced out and decided to retire effective Dec. 31, 2015.

Some people who attended the forum were concerned about a recent report by RTI International showing African-American men were 20 percent more likely to be pulled over by Durham Police.

Rev. Mark-Anthony Middleton has been part of a panel helping to narrow the field of candidates, including participating in mock news conferences with them about various issues they could face as chief.

“So, I think this next chief has got to come into a culture of expectancy, where we’ve already had a discussion as a city and have defined some of the things we want, rather than leave them to their defaults,” Middleton said.

Davis and Smathers also spoke to the media at a news conference Wednesday morning. Both said they support public access to body camera footage, with reasonable exceptions to protect investigations.

They also agreed that Durham needs a new approach to curb violent crime and they spoke about the need for diversity training.

“We all have biases. We all bring different life experiences into everyday life and into the work that we do,” Smathers said.

“Culture diversity training should be done in a way where it awakens the senses of the individual officer that yes, you do have biases,” Davis said.

City manager Tom Bonefield said it was time for Lopez to go and the decision was not based on any single event, but a culmination of issues. Spikes in crime rates, allegations of racial bias, and lack of transparency plagued the department under Lopez’s leadership.

Davis and Smathers have also seen controversy over their careers.

Davis weathered past storms including concerns over Atlanta’s new body-camera program and a police cover-up scandal for which she was later cleared.

Smathers took heat recently when he oversaw the arrest of a former officer for the shooting death of an unarmed black man.

Bonefield is expected to offer the job to one of the two candidates by the end of April, with the goal of that person starting work in May.

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