Should some of Durham’s 80 vacant police jobs be filled with unarmed responders?

Durham County News

DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) – As Durham faces a dire shortage of police officers, the department is now preparing to send criminal investigators and officers from other specialized units out on patrol, according to internal emails CBS 17 obtained.

According to the recent data from Durham police, there are 80 vacancies out of 537 sworn officer positions in the department.

Other data CBS 17 obtained through an open records requests shows that patrols over the last few months have often been staffed between 50 percent and 70 percent.

In a news conference on Wednesday morning, new Durham Mayor Elaine O’Neal said she thinks it’s crucial that the officer jobs get filled. She said she will support a pay increase for officers that will be heard by the city council next month.

“I do believe that we need to fill vacancies,” O’Neal said. “You actually have to have people who go out and ride around and make sure our community is safe.”

But Durham City Council member Jillian Johnson has a different idea for how to fill these 80 officer vacancies.

“I think that we should fill as many positions as possible with unarmed responders,” Johnson said.

CBS 17 asked if she thinks all 80 of the vacant police officer positions should be filled with unarmed responders.

“I would love that, and I think we should have even more unarmed responders,” Johnson said.

The city of Durham has already created a community safety department made up of 15 authorized employees, and they will soon start hiring unarmed responders.

Starting next year, the plan is to send at least half a dozen trained unarmed responders, which include nurses, social workers, and therapists, on non-violent 911 calls. The calls these unarmed responders would respond to include mental health calls, abandoned vehicles, and welfare checks.

Currently, 15 police officer positions are frozen and could be moved to the community safety department next year.

Johnson said since only 6 percent of the 911 calls in Durham are for violent crime, she thinks the 80 vacant officer positions should move to the community safety department.

CBS 17 asked Johnson if cutting police officer positions is a good idea, especially since the police department is struggling to fill shifts for patrol.

“I think that taking away some of the unnecessary work that police officers are doing now, gives them more time to do that necessary work,” Johnson said. “There are so many calls that police officers respond to that are not violent crime. If we could have other trained individuals doing that work, that frees up so much time for our police officers to really deal with the wave of violence we’re experiencing.”

Johnson said she and the other city councilors will have conversations in the coming months about how to build up the community safety department.

CBS 17 asked Mayor Pro Tem Mark Anthony Middleton on Tuesday if he would support Johnson’s suggestion to fill the vacant officer positions in the Durham Police Department with trained unarmed first responders.

“I think in our toolbox we should have the ability to send the appropriate folk to the appropriate situation, but to suggest arbitrarily we take 80 positions that were designated as police officers and turn them into unarmed mental health responders, I don’t understand the science of that,” Middleton said.

After hearing about the measures the police department is having to take to keep the streets patrolled, Middleton said it’s crucial they pass a pay increase for police officers so they can get these positions filled as soon as possible.

“Listen, I want folk to remain alive,” Middleton said. “I don’t want folk to be subjected to violence. I want us to be able as a government to send unarmed responders when it’s appropriate. But I also want us to be able to send the appropriate other responders if the situation should develop into something else.”

Durham city council is expected to hear a proposal to increase police officer pay on Jan. 6.

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