Local News

Community has mixed reaction to departure of Durham police chief

Posted September 15, 2015 11:00 a.m. EDT
Updated September 16, 2015 1:42 p.m. EDT

— 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."