Local News

Durham Lawsuit Raises Questions About Police Force

Posted September 26, 1997 12:00 a.m. EDT

— The incident that prompted a lawsuit against 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 questions about excessive force and the Durham Police Department.

Margaret Dukes and her sister Reta Scarlett were walking home on a January night in 1994 when they were jumped by plain clothes Durham police. Neither had had trouble with the law before. Margaret has been a nurse in Durham for 23 years. Reta Dukes says the police officers were unduly rough.

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

According to McNeil, a police officer would have to kill someone to be prosecuted for excessive force. Publicly, the city of Durham says the decision 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. Ewell writes "the City of Durham now believes that there were insufficient grounds to order you and Ms. Scarlett to submit to a stop and search. Any force used to effect the stop and search would therefore have been excessive. The City of Durham apologizes to you"

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

Sergeant Michael Supples described telling McNeil about the excessive force 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. Three others left on paid medical disability. None was punished.

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

Photographer:Rick Armstrong