A diverse community shared its experiences with racism and fears of more violence involving police during a conversation about justice, humanity and how people can move forward.
“My goal tonight is pretty simple: That you leave with a better feeling, a better disposition than when you first walked in here tonight,” said Debby Stroman, who organized Monday’s event at United Church of Chapel Hill. “I think we do that by listening and learning and hearing from each other.”
Tragedies like those reported around the country could happen in Chapel Hill, even though the odds are low, she said.
The violence has been sad for everyone, Police Chief Chris Blue noted, and it’s hard to understand, after watching some police shooting videos, why nobody was charged. However, it’s encouraging to see so many people show up to talk about the problem, he said.
By the time a police officer considers using force, it’s often too late, he said.
“Where we need to spend our time is in de-escalation training, in seeing each other as a community, not making assumptions about someone because of the car they’re driving, the color of their skin, their dress,” he said.
Frank Baumgartner, a UNC political science professor, offered some statistics from a statewide study that showed it’s rare for police to search a car during a traffic stop. The study found, however, that black people are 98 percent more likely to be searched than white people, particularly if stopped for a broken taillight or expired license tag, he said. Hispanics are a little more than twice as likely to be stopped, at 106 percent, he said.
Baumgartner added similar findings were found when analyzing 36 of 37 studies from other states.
Chapel Hill police are committed to being better, Blue said. They have instituted implicit bias training and written consent before searching cars, they regularly check how officers are performing and spend time getting to know people in the community, he said. They will start a pilot body camera program this fall.
“People don’t go into this work to mistreat folks, and those who do, we get rid of them pretty fast,” he said. “There’s a lot of former Chapel Hill officers who will tell you that.”
Some in the audience wanted to know about the department’s military weaponry – they have an armored car and rifles, Blue said, to use in dangerous situations – how officers cope with stress and trauma, and what drivers should do when stopped by police.
Larry Thomas, of Durham, said he was told while growing up what to do and what not to do during a traffic stop. As a mentor, he constantly has that conversation with other young men, he said, but wants to know who is training police officers to treat those young men like human beings.
“Your experiences are different from mine,” he told the crowd, “and you may not begin to understand my pain until it hits your door, till it happens to your child. Then you’ll understand it. But why do you have to understand it (only) when it hits your own? Believe me, hear me, when I say it happened to me.”
Assistant Police Chief Alonzo James said he also experienced being a black young man in a car when he and three teenage friends were stopped years ago. When his friend asked the officer why, he finally told them, “Because I wanted to,” James said.
That experience and his family’s encouragement to make a difference inspired his career, he said, and when he shares that story with his colleagues, they are understanding and thoughtful. Better connections will improve community relationships, too, he said.
“Part of (implicit bias training) is they talk about the more contact we have with people who are not like us, the better we understand them and the better chance we have of managing and reducing those biases,” James said.
Eugene Farrar, a local activist, urged concerned white allies to fight for young black felons who need help finding work, while the Rev. Robert Campbell, president of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP, pushed them to become members. The Rogers Road Community Center, which serves a diverse group of children, also needs volunteer tutors, Campbell said.
Roscoe Reeve, with the town’s Community Policing Advisory Commission, said the group needs people of color and women to serve as liaisions to the community and weigh in on police policies and strategic plans.
Or it could be as simple as acknowledging someone’s pain, said Chapel Hill resident Ashley Reid, a black woman.
“I had to get up (after seeing one death last week) and still go to work. I came home and saw another man get killed live on a Facebook stream, and I had to get up and go to work again the next day, and I was expected to be smiles and cheery,” she said. “But not one person looked me in the eye and said how are you doing? Are you OK?”