Local News

Durham councilman: Officers' arrests embarrassing

Posted February 3, 2010 4:19 p.m. EST
Updated February 4, 2010 6:10 a.m. EST

— A Durham City Council member on Wednesday called continuing negative publicity surrounding the Durham Police Department an embarrassment.

On Tuesday, a Durham officer was arrested in Wake County on breaking and entering and extortion charges. Last week, a former Durham officer was indicted on federal drug and weapons charges.

"There a few people who will use the old rationale, 'Well this represents a few rotten apples in the police barrel,'" Councilman Eugene Brown said. "I don't buy into that because I think the citizens of Durham deserve better."

Wake County deputies arrested Stephen Patrick Commander Jr., 31, of Oxford, on Friday in a November home break-in in Wake Forest. He is also accused of threatening the homeowners.

"We had a Durham, a Durham police officer come here, had a badge on, threatening that we was up here selling drugs and stuff, and we don't even know who this man was," a woman told a Wake County dispatcher in a 911 call released Wednesday.

The homeowner, Harvey Curtis, told WRAL News that Commander came to his home with his badge and gun looking for Curtis' stepson. He said the officer came through the front door without permission and searched his stepson's room, and when he asked to see a warrant or other paperwork, he said Commander told him he didn't need it.

Curtis said Commander later threatened his stepson's safety, saying the 25-year-old "will be dead by the end of the day" if Curtis didn't tell the officer where the stepson was.

Deputies consulted with Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby before filing charges against Commander.

"Based on the evidence they presented me with, I thought that the case should go forward," Willoughby said.

Commander said Wednesday that he is innocent of the charges but declined further comment.

He has been a Durham officer for three years and is assigned to the Uniform Patrol Bureau. Commander has been placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation, Police Chief Jose Lopez said.

Lopez said in a statement issued late Wednesday that he was "deeply disappointed" by the arrests of Commander and former officer Sherrod Peace.

"These arrests are in no way reflective of our officers who work hard and serve our community every day," Lopez said. "I want the community to rest assured that the Durham Police Department is committed to providing the best service possible with professionalism, integrity, pride and dedication to the community."

Both Lopez and Brown said Commander and Peace are innocent until proven guilty, but Brown said the arrests threaten the police department's credibility.

"They wear the badge and they carry the gun, and that puts them in a little different class," he said. "The trust has to be there. The credibility has to be there. The accountability has to be there.”

Lopez said his department's Professional Standards Division and Criminal Investigations Division would investigate the case against Commander.

An internal investigation led to the recent federal indictment against Peace. A grand jury charged him with distributing less than 5 grams of crack cocaine on Dec. 21 and possessing a .45-caliber handgun during the alleged incident.

Peace, 35, who also was assigned to the Uniform Patrol Bureau, resigned from the police department on Dec. 31.

The Attorney General's Office also is weighing possible charges following an investigation into overtime paid to a police department employee who coordinated off-duty jobs for officers.

"I feel certain that the (city) manager will be meeting with the chief about this issue, or I should say more specifically all of these issues that have arisen,” Brown said.