DURHAM, N.C. -- Durham Police Department commanders on Tuesday sharpened their response to recent racial-profiling complaints, acknowledging that most of the people the city's cops arrest are black.
But "there's no targeting of the group," as the figures track with what victims and witnesses report when officers begin investigating crimes, Deputy Police Chief Anthony Marsh told the Human Relations Commission.
"We're basically doing what we're supposed to, following the information, following the evidence and arresting those people based on probable cause," Marsh said. "That's our role."
Marsh spoke after handing over to the commission arrest data for each of the department's major patrol districts, in compliance with the panel's requests for information about police practices.
The charts reported that between 2008 and 2012, black made up 80 percent of the people arrested in District 1, which covers east Durham; 69 percent of those arrested in District 2, covering north Durham; 65 percent of those arrested in District 3, in southwest Durham; and 87 percent of those arrested in District 4, south and southeast Durham.
"It's shocking; I can't even pretend it's not," Marsh said.
But when victims and witnesses offered descriptions, they told police to look for someone who was black 80 percent of the time in District 1, 68 percent of the time in District 2, 65 percent of the time in District 3 and 84 percent of the time in District 4.
That "is what it is," Marsh said, arguing that "where you would see bias is if you saw our arrests far in excess of our described offender population."
The Human Relations Commission is investigating the department's practices at the request of the City Council, and is focusing mostly on a series of complaints lodged by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, the Durham NAACP and a group that calls itself Fostering Alternatives to Drug Enforcement, FADE for short.
The Southern Coalition and FADE are working closely together and began by arguing that statistics the city reports to the state indicate police are targeting blacks when they undertake by-permission "consent searches" of vehicles during traffic stops.
Police have not disputed those numbers but last month told the Human Relations Commission that statistical disparities aren't the same thing as discrimination.
FADE issued a response Tuesday that among other things argued that the disparities in this case are wide enough to constitute "an unacceptable reality" and a burden on black motorists.
But its letter went beyond that, escalating the argument to one not just about searches but also about whether police are even-handed in their approach to criminal investigations.
City officials "need to take ownership of the fact that Durham's Police Department consistently generates great racial disparities in arrests than nearly any other" in the state, FADE said. "To accept this as a function of race-neutral policing and criminal offending patterns is to believe that African-Americans in Durham are more criminally inclined than African-Americans elsewhere in North Carolina."
The letter continued, "There is no evidence that blacks residents of Durham are actually committing crime nine times as often as whites, especially when whites outnumber blacks in the city."
FADE favors a de-emphasis of the enforcement of marijuana laws and contends that blacks locally are charged with breaking them far more frequently than whites when national research suggests the two ethnic groups are more or less equally prone to using the illegal drug.
And "a strong argument could be made that this pattern extends to all manner of crimes," its letter said.
The department's critics weren't happy, going in to Tuesday's meeting, that the Human Relations Commission opted to for the second session in a row to spend most of its time talking to police commanders.
But commission Chairman Ricky Hart said each of the three groups will get a chance next month to spend two hours explaining its concerns and recommendations to the panel.