Some Durham leaders want to cut 60 vacant officer positions, reallocate funds for unarmed responders

Durham County News

DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) — Four Durham city councilors want to cut 60 vacant police officer positions over the next three years and reallocate those funds for unarmed responders who can answer mental health calls.

Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson, councilman Pierce Freelon, councilor Javiera Caballero, and councilman Charlie Reece said they would support cutting these positions during a Durham For All town hall meeting on Thursday.

The council members said they wanted to start by cutting 20 vacant officer positions this fiscal year. That is 15 more vacant positions than the five that Durham city manager Wanda Page is proposing to cut and reallocate to fund alternative policing initiatives.

“I think moving 60 positions from the police department to the public safety department is a great start,” said Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson. “I think we’ll actually need much more than that for this work to really be successful.”

Johnson said these unarmed responders would not be “police officers” and they would not have the ability to make an arrest or detain anyone.

“They would respond to incidents that include minor traffic incidents, crisis calls, quality-of-life issues, such pan handling, welfare checks,” Johnson said.

Johnson said they are looking for individuals who are social workers or nurses to respond to mental health calls.

She said the goal is start hiring these individuals after July 1.

Some in the community are not happy that these four councilors spoke about their support for taking city action during a “non-city” meeting that not everyone in the public was informed of.

“It has the appearance of a ‘back-door deal,'” said Larry Smith, spokesperson for the Durham County Fraternal Order of Police. “I think there needs to be some more people at the table because this doesn’t just affect that group, it affects the entire city.”

Smith argued that even though these positions are vacant, the city is still using funding for these vacant positions to pay officers overtime to cover shifts.

“If you move that funding with it, and so that could affect the ability to bring in officers to work and cover the vacancies,” Smith said. “Right now, there is a tremendous violent crime spike in the city. Do you really want to take away your most immediate resource to deal with this?”

CBS 17 brought Smith’s concerns to Johnson, who is in support of cutting 60 vacant officer positions.

She said she still thinks the city should cut these positions.

She said that soon police officers will not have to respond to as many calls, because the unarmed responders will be taking on some of their workload.

“I think that, by allowing police officers to spend more time investigating violent crime, it’s possible that we may get more convictions,” Johnson said.

Councilor DeDreana Freeman did not commit to Durham For All’s request.

Mayor Steve Schewel and councilman Mark Anthony Middleton did not attend the Durham For All Town Hall.

In a text message, Schewel said he is supportive of the current budget proposed by Page, which would move five positions from the Durham Police Department to the city’s public safety department.

“I’m certainly open to hearing from my colleagues and the public about reallocating more positions from the Police Department to the Community Safety Department,” Schewel said. “We need a police department that can effectively fight gun violence, and we need more effective responses to mental health and other calls. We need both.”

Middleton said he was not aware of why the other four city councilors had decided to pledge to cut 60 vacant officer positions over the next three years. However, he said he is open to hearing about what their thoughts are on this issue.

The City of Durham will be having a virtual budget work sessions on Thursday and Friday.

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