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Community has mixed reaction to departure of Durham police chief

Posted September 15, 2015
Updated September 16, 2015

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— Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez Sr. will retire at the end of this year, the city announced Tuesday. The move comes after the city manager decided a change in leadership was "necessary."

City Manager Tom Bonfield said he came to the conclusion this summer, citing the city's "considerable spike in violent crime over the last couple of years" and unhappiness within the police department and community.

Bonfield said he had ongoing conversations with Lopez and the two came to an agreement that the chief should retire on Dec. 31.

"There certainly was no one incident, no tipping point," Bonfield said. "It was a combination of the department not making the progress that I had expected to be made over the past year or two. In some cases, there was some progress, but it wasn't fast enough and deliberate enough to meet my expectations and what I think the community's expectations were."

Employee satisfaction surveys within the police department showed a "fairly high level" of unhappiness, according to Bonfield.

"That includes not only Chief Lopez, it includes their dissatisfaction with me and the city council," Bonfield said. "We know we need to do do better and develop strategies to help us improve on that situation."

Lopez, 59, was sworn in as police chief on Sept. 4, 2007. A national search for his replacement will begin in the coming weeks. He has not commented about his retirement.

Several people in the community have been calling for Lopez's removal for months. Most recently, a small group of activists called for his termination after an officer-involved shooting on Angier Avenue. Last month, attorney Alex Charns also called for the chief's removal following the not-guilty verdict of his client, Carlos Riley, who was accused of shooting a police officer.

Monday night, people in Durham had mixed reaction to Lopez's departure, ranging from happy and relived that he is leaving to a belief that his retirement is the wrong move for Durham.

"I feel pretty OK about it because I felt like he wasn't really the type to be a leader of all his people," said resident LaSharon Jones.

There have been several other high-profile cases during Lopez's tenure that caused turmoil between the community and the police department, including the case of 17-year-old Jesus Huerta who fatally shot himself while in police custody in 2013.

"I think how many instances is it going to take in the community before somebody like him steps down like he's doing," said resident Theresa Channer. "I just think it's the best thing."

Last year, Durham's Human Relations Commission found "the existence of racial bias and profiling present in the Durham Police Department practices," according to the commission's report.

Also under Lopez's watch, overall violent crime increased 22 percent in Durham from 2014 to 2015, according to data Lopez shared with city leaders in May. Homicides increased 67 percent, aggravated assaults went up 28 percent and robberies increased 18 percent.

City Councilman Eugene Brown admitted that Lopez stepped into a tough job and believes the first four years went relatively well but he wasn't pleased with results during the second half of Lopez's tenure.

"The reports from the chief were not as positive as we would have liked for them to be and there were definitely areas that needed improvement, not the least of which was community support," Brown said.

Despite the controversy, not everybody agrees with the decision to change leadership in the Durham Police Department. Online, many people came to Lopez's defense.

Debbie Dolan said on Facebook that the news is "very sad because he was a good one [who] really cared about his officers."

Donna Dearing commented online with a message to Lopez saying, "You don't need Durham, sir. Durham needed you. I wish you and your family a happy and healthy retirement."

Bonfield said the decision to let the chief go "in no way should be considered a reflection on the outstanding men and women of the Durham Police Department who are committed to serving and protecting the residents of Durham."

Councilman Don Moffitt released a statement Tuesday, saying he thinks the chief "did an excellent job leading the department for many years."

"It’s a wonderful time for him to retire. It’s an opportunity for the department to look in different directions," Moffitt said. "It’s a great opportunity for the city and the department. I wish the chief well."

28 Comments

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  • Nick McBride Sep 16, 2015
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    I also was born and raised in Durham and you might be viewing it with rose colored glasses. It is much improved from what it once was and is trending upward.

  • Nick McBride Sep 16, 2015
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    I remember what the city was like in the 80s and 90s, it's significantly improved. As for "gangbangers" taking over, that seems to be a skewed perception. As I stated in response to someone else, I live in Durham and don't ever feel unsafe or encounter the "gangbangers" that apparently run the city.

  • Sonja Yagel Sep 16, 2015
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    You may have your city, I was born and raised there and I remember when Durham was a wonderful place to be, years ago. Its kind of like the book Thomas Wolfe wrote "You Can't Go Home Again: because the city I once knew and loved has been destroyed by crime and corruption. God's Speed Chief Lopez, the deck was stacked against you from the start.

  • Forest Hazel Sep 16, 2015
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    Would the last decent person in Durham turn out the lights when you leave? This city has been going down the tubes for years, now it's just picking up speed. The gang-bangers are taking over, and the administration is too afraid of offending anyone to do anything about it. Sorry to see Chief Lopez go, but he was in a lose-lose situation. The next chief will be Black, and things will continue to dissolve; you can take both those predictions to the bank.

  • Ronnie Reams Sep 16, 2015
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    Maybe the new Chief will set up a Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums (CRASH) squad. It is really effective, if you let them do their thing. Some of the new breed of Chiefs do not like it though. Won't solve all the problems in the Bull City, but put a dent in them.

  • Frances Foster Sep 16, 2015
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    Bottom line, Durham has never been happy with a police chief that I can remember. As a long-time resident, I see the problem as being one of police being outgunned, outmanned and not supported by this community. We need a government task force to come in and clean up the streets. This is not the fault of Lopez.

  • Nick McBride Sep 16, 2015
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    What a highly misinformed comment! I drive in, shop in, and live in Durham. My wife and I routinely walk downtown, at night no less, and feel completely safe. There are some areas of town that are not considered safe, but that comes with most cities. Please do not attack my city!

  • Sonja Yagel Sep 16, 2015
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    Bonfield, the mayor, the city council and community blacks who have criticized the police so vehemently, the judges who put criminals back on the street on probation, all of these need to go to make Durham a respectable place again. They are all guilty for the lawlessness and crime which has been going on for years. The ones doing the crimes are on probation instead of being in jail where they belong. Until the black community looks within its self to see the problem nobody can fix it for them. It must come from themselves.

  • Greg Bower Sep 16, 2015
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    Please stay out of Durham. As a Durham citizen, I can tell you we'll all be happier if you do.

  • Ncsu Ninetytwo Sep 16, 2015
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    How can the cops stop the people of Durham from running around and shooting each other? and kicking in each others windows and stealing each others guns, drugs, and medicine?.....In most cases the cops can only show up at the crime scene and figure out who to charge with an offense....Unless the cops are everywhere, all the time?!ha....................................It is the duty of the JUDGES to keep the criminals off the street.

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