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Durham Lawsuit Raises Questions About Police Force

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DURHAM — The incident that prompted a lawsuitagainst the City of Durham happened two-and-a-half-years ago and two weeks ago, the city settled out of court for $295,000.Now, the case is public and it's a case that raises a lot of questionsabout excessive force and the Durham Police Department.

Margaret Dukes and her sister Reta Scarlett were walking home on aJanuary night in 1994 when they were jumped by plain clothes Durham police. Neitherhad had trouble with the law before. Margaret has been a nurse in Durhamfor 23 years. Reta Dukes says the police officers were unduly rough.

After hours in jail without knowing why she had been arrested Margaretwas released. Months later, Margaret brought a suit against the policedepartment. Lawyers interviewed some fifty officers about theiractivities and then-Chief Jackie McNeil on his policies on excessiveforce. The following is an excerpt from that interview.

According to McNeil, a police officer would have to kill someone to beprosecuted for excessive force. Publicly, the city of Durham says thedecision to settle this case is not an admission of guilt, but rather,says Durham City Manager Lamont Ewell, an effort to move on.

But in a private letter to Margaret Dukes, the tone changes. Ewellwrites "the City of Durham now believes that there were insufficientgrounds to order you and Ms. Scarlett to submit to a stop and search. Anyforce used to effect the stop and search would therefore have beenexcessive. The City of Durham apologizes to you"

The depositions also raise questions about Chief McNeil's suddenretirement in June. Some are wondering if this case prompted that move.

Sergeant Michael Supples described telling McNeil about the excessiveforce case just weeks before McNeil's abrupt retirement. He said McNeil told Supples he shouldn't have brought him the report.

McNeil's early retirement cost Durham taxpayers nearly $500,000.Two of the officers involved in this case are still on the force. Threeothers left on paid medical disability. None was punished.

Margaret Dukes and her sister fear what happened to them could happenagain.

Photographer:Rick Armstrong

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