DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) — If the city of Durham’s budget passes next month, Durham council members decided on Thursday morning that as many as 20 vacant police officer positions could be cut over the next year to help fund the city’s new community safety department.
The proposed community safety department will include a total of 15 employees who will be focused on alternative policing initiatives. Four of those individuals would be unarmed responders who could start responding to certain 911 calls as early as this fall.
City leaders said these unarmed responders would be social workers and nurses who would respond to mental health calls, minor traffic accidents, and quality of life calls.
Durham City Manager Wanda Page’s original budget only proposed cutting five vacant police positions, which included four sworn officers and one civilian employee.
But during a virtual budget work session, some city councilors said that cutting these five positions was not enough.
“I know that we are going to need more resources in the department, and I believe those resources need to come from the police department because this is police work,” said Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson.
There was a motion on the floor to cut an additional 15 vacant police positions in January, but some council members questioned if all 15 of those positions would be needed for the new community safety department.
“I think saying to people now we’re going to take a certain number of positions from the police department with nothing specific for them to be doing in this new department yet, I feel like that’s a way to really undercut community confidence in what we’re trying to do,” said Mayor Schewel.
Council decided to amend the motion and plan on cutting “up to” 15 vacant police positions in January. The plan would be to ask staff how many positions are needed for the community safety department at that time. If you add those to the five vacant police positions in the original budget, the city could cut as many as 20 vacant police officer positions over the next year.
Durham County FOP spokesperson Larry Smith said they are nervous about the city wanting to take away vacant positions from the police department.
Even though these social workers would help take a load off of the police department by responding to certain calls, Smith said there are still a lot of unanswered questions about what types of calls unarmed civilians can legally respond to.
“This is a trial-and-error program,” Smith said “I don’t think they’ll know what they can and can’t do until the program gets off the ground. The department doesn’t want to lose positions over a trial program trying to get off the ground, and then we have to fight to get those positions to get back.”