DURHAM, N.C. — When they approved their new annual budget Monday, Durham City Council members took five unfilled jobs from the police department to create a new Community Safety Department.
The new department is an experiment in using civilians, like social workers, to respond to some 911 calls instead of police officers. The city’s elected leaders made the change amid calls around the country to defund police departments after a string of killings by officers.
“The new department will implement pilot projects to explore alternative responses to issues that may not need armed police presence, and then build upon that success,” the city said in a statement.
While the Durham Police Department’s budget stayed about the same, the department lost five open positions, and the city council decided to “freeze” 15 other open jobs for officers.
The budget for the new Community Safety Department includes 15 full-time staff, with two 911 operators, two social workers and two “field responders.”
According to the city manager’s budget: “In its inaugural year, the department will have three primary functions: piloting alternative response models for 911 calls for service, collaborating with community members to identify and test new approaches to public safety and managing and evaluating existing contracts and external partnerships intended to advance public safety.”
The city manager was not available for comment Tuesday. Spectrum News 1 also reached out to the mayor and several city council members for comment.
The move comes as Durham has seen an uptick in shootings around the city, including four killings since Thursday, according to The Associated Press.
The city is also looking for a new police chief. Former Chief C.J. Davis left earlier this year to become the police chief for Memphis, Tennessee.
“You’re taking positions from a police department to create a unit that you have no performance standards, you really don’t know anything about. It’s a test case,” said Larry Smith, a retired deputy chief from the Durham Police Department and spokesman for the Durham County Fraternal Order of Police.
He said the FOP did not oppose the new department but wanted to be involved in the conversations creating it.
“I would think a Safety Department would at least want the input of the police,” he said. “But we didn’t get a whole lot of input in that.”
“If you think this is something good for the city, then fund it. Fund it out of the city, don’t take it from the police department,” Smith said.
The city plans to have the department up and running toward the end of the year, he said, and some city leaders argued it could help reduce the workload for officers.
The FOP, which represents officers, is “taking a wait-and-see approach,” Smith said.
The police department has more than 70 open officer positions, Smith said. Officers got a small raise in the new budget, but salaries at the Durham Police Department aren’t competitive with surrounding cities and counties.
The city looked at a year’s worth of 911 calls and thought about how it could respond differently instead of sending a police officer to every call, according to the city.
“The analysis revealed a significant number of calls related to quality-of-life concerns and low-priority incidents that may require a time-sensitive response, but might be more effectively addressed by trained civilian responders rather than in addition to police officers,” the budget explained.
Durham is one of a few cities around the country experimenting with alternatives to policing and trying new models to “defund” police departments.
The new department’s goals aim to figure out if this new model will work. The staffing will include analysts and research coordinator to help figure out whether this new Community Safety Department can step in and serve communities better than an armed police officer.