A crowd of more than 100 people, most of them black, sought answers Tuesday from Johnston County police and attorneys.
For two hours in Smithfield, people asked about their rights during an encounter with law enforcement and about police accountability. Some wanted to know about police policies in general. Others simply wanted to know why officers do the things they do.
The forum, held at the Johnston Central Alumni Center, was the first of several planned in Johnston County to spark a dialogue between police and residents.
Many of the questions clearly stemmed from high-profile deaths involving police officers, including the death of Baltimore teen Freddie Gray while in police custody in April.
Marlon Lee, a Smithfield town councilman, organized the forum with his two Men of Distinction leadership groups at Clayton and Smithfield-Selma high schools. Before opening the floor for questions, Lee reminded residents that creating a better community starts with “policing ourselves.”
“How can you become a better you?” Lee asked the crowd. A better “you” leads to a better family, he said. A better family leads to a better community, a better community leads to a better town, and so on.
“This is not Ferguson; we are not in Baltimore,” Lee said, referring also to the officer-involved shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., last year. “But it could have easily been in our own backyard.”
At the forum, residents wrote their questions on note cards, and moderator Tony Nixon, chairman of the East Smithfield Improvement Organization, read them aloud. A few people stood up and asked their questions themselves.
Reading a resident’s question, Nixon asked what laws existed to keep police from overstepping the rights of a citizen. Smithfield Police Chief Michael Scott said he interpreted the question to mean, “What happens when an officer does something illegal?”
“Every police officer is responsible for the same laws as you,” Scott said to the crowd. As the chief of police, Scott said, it’s his job to make sure officers are acting appropriately.
Scott and Smithfield Police Capt. Tommy Choe said the department reviews officer conduct periodically, even without complaints. However, anyone can file a complaint against an officer, and Scott reviews them all. If a complainant is not satisfied with the review, he or she can sue, Scott said.
But to keep the peace, officers at the forum said, it’s best for residents who have a complaint to voice it after an incident, not during it. That way it’s safer for both parties, said Johnston County Sheriff’s Deputy Corey Scarboro.
“Try not to hold court on the side of the road,” Scarboro said. He advised residents to talk to an attorney before filing a complaint.
“Address it at the proper time in the proper way,” he added.
Other police officers on the panel included Selma Police Chief Richard Cooper and N.C. Highway Patrol trooper Derek Mobley. Attorney Antoan Whidbee of Smithfield and Assistant District Attorney Kelly Sandling also answered questions about the legal process.
Responding to several questions about when an officer can search someone’s car, Whidbee said all an officer needs is probable cause. Probable cause, for example, includes the odor of marijuana, which he said is one of the most frequent reasons police search a car.
“The best thing to do is not have weed in your car, not smoke weed and not smell like weed,” Whidbee said.
The forum was one of several Lee plans to hold throughout the county. Other destinations will likely include Clayton, he said.
DeQuan Deans, a senior at Clayton High, attended the forum in Smithfield with fellow members of his Men of Distinction leadership group. He said the group has helped him build character and get involved in planning events like the forum.
“It will help our generation get a better understanding about our rights,” Deans said. “It’s better for us to come together and figure it out together than on our own.”
Dunn: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104