“Things fall apart,” penned the poet W.B. Yeats, describing the aftermath of the First World War.
I thought of his words after Keith Lamont Scott was fatally shot by a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer Sept. 20. Immediately, two discrepant narratives emerged from the police department and members of Scott’s community: he was armed and posed an imminent deadly threat; he was reading a book and waiting for his son’s school bus. In the protests that followed, lines were literally drawn as police in riot gear marched in formation down Trade Street toward protesters. Tear gas and rubber bullets were met with stones and bottles. One person was killed and multiple officers and civilians were injured. A state of emergency was declared.
In the media, commentators formed camps, some insisting that police followed proper procedures while others viewed Scott’s killing as mounting evidence that we are in the midst of an epidemic of racially driven police shootings. When violence erupts in Charlotte, North Carolina’s Queen City, celebrated by U.S. News and World Report as one of the best places to live, we are compelled to acknowledge that our country is confronting not just isolated incidents of inner-city violence, but broader concerns about policing and equal justice under the law, observed historian Heather Ann Thompson. In short, this could happen in any city.
I thought about our community in Chapel Hill, a progressive town by most accounts. Yet, a recent data analysis revealed racial disparities in police-citizen encounters in Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and Orange County; most notably related to traffic stops and searches and arrests for marijuana possession. Not only are black people more likely to be stopped for the same conduct as white people, but once stopped they are searched at a rate about twice that of whites, according to UNC political science professor Frank Baumgartner. And while marijuana use is acknowledged to be equally prevalent between the races, African Americans are arrested for marijuana possession at a grossly disproportionate rate. Even here in blue heaven, we are not immune from racial bias, nor are we insulated against an explosion like the one we witnessed in Charlotte. What actions can we take now to effect different outcomes?
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I’m grateful that members of my community have started the work of addressing these difficult issues. A group of citizens in Orange County has formed a Bias-Free Policing Coalition and presented recommendations to law enforcement and civilian leaders, who have shown a willingness to take action. For instance, both Chapel Hill and Carrboro police departments have begun training officers on the principles of fair and impartial policing, and Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue recently voiced support for a “Resolution to Continue Efforts to Address the Potential for Bias in Policing,” which the Chapel Hill Town Council adopted Oct. 10. Additionally, Judicial District 15B, made up of Orange and Chatham counties, has distinguished itself in the state by forming a Racial Justice Task Force made up of a diverse group of stakeholders, including judges, the public defender, the district attorney, and law enforcement leaders; dedicated to eliminating any racial or ethnic disparities and strengthening public confidence in our criminal justice system.
Improving relations between police and minority communities will require an ongoing dialogue. An important step will occur at a forum titled “Policing, Race, and Community: From Conversations to Solutions” from 7 to 9 Monday, Oct. 24, at the Chapel Hill Town Hall. You are invited to participate in a discussion with local leaders, moderated by Joel Brown, weekend anchor of WTVD. Panelists include Chief Blue, Carrboro Police Chief Walter Horton, Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood, Carrboro Alderwoman Michelle Johnson, Attorney Tye Hunter, community member Terrence Foushee, Director of Empowerment Inc. Delores Bailey, executive director of the Scholars Latino Initiative Ricky Hurtado, and UNC law student Quisha Mallette. I hope you will take part in this timely event.
Alyson A. Grine is a member of the member of the Judicial District 15B Racial Justice Task Force.