Near the end of a discussion about police and community relations Tuesday morning, fire Chief Matt Poole said he’ll never forget responding to a domestic call in an African-American neighborhood some 20 years ago.
A young boy had gotten injured. The father started to explain the situation to firefighters. A few minutes later a police officer walked in. Poole said at that point he noticed the father’s demeanor change.
“He turned defensive, his attitude changed and I became very aware of it because it hadn’t happened to us,” Poole said. “Over the last 20 years I see it day-in and day-out that it is a cultural thing.”
He said that he didn’t know why that happened.
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Eunice Lewis, a longtime Garner resident, who is black, stood up and said she once called police to her home to address a concern. She said the officer stereotyped a neighbor of hers. Police say that situation happened 20 years ago, but Lewis’ response was intended to explain the historical strain on the relationship between police and black residents.
Garner hasn’t had many problems between the police department and its community. Its police chief, Brandon Zuidema, has made transparency a priority, focusing on holding officers accountable for mistakes, and building healthy relationships with the community.
Tuesday’s panel included the police chief and local leaders in the community, including church and school leaders. The panel discussion was by invitation only, but it was an opportunity for the constituents who were there to reach out to their church congregations to set up future discussions with the police department.
Each panelist answered a series of questions submitted by audience members.
Shoot to kill or injure?
In response to one question about the use of lethal force, Zuidema said it’s not about ‘shoot to injure’ or ‘shoot to kill.’ Rather it’s shoot to stop the threat, he said.
“The most effective way to do that is to aim at the largest portion of the body because keeping in mind of course that the adrenaline dump that is going into that police officer at that time is unimaginable,” he said. “Also keeping in mind that reaction is always going to be slower than action.”
Garner resident Dwight Rodgers said every resident should be respected and give respect. He said citizens have to understand what an officer’s duty is.
“That officer wants to go home to their family,” Rodgers said, “but it comes to a point, sometimes, it could be a mental (health issue) on behalf of the citizen which the officers don’t know. That person could be mentally challenged or anything.
“We got to both understand, the number one thing is respect for a human life.”
How to bridge the gap
Another question asked was whether the community could conduct more forums between police and the community.
Zuidema said the department would continue to reach out to the community. He highlighted its Police Athletic Activities League (PAAL), which targets at-risk youth in Garner middle schools, by creating relationships and trust with youth through sports and other activities. The program aims to encourage those youth to become law enforcement officers some day.
Zuidema acknowledged his department is not reflective of the community it serves in terms of race and gender, something he says he is trying to change.
“What our goal is, is to not just hire minorities and females, because that would mean not necessarily hiring the best candidate,” he said. “We want to hire the best candidate, but you also can’t convince me that the best candidates are all white males. That’s just not logical.”
Amy White, the director of Community of Hope, suggested police connect with children and parents together.
The Rev. Welton Barnes, a former Raleigh police officer, suggested the police department reach out to the churches to recruit candidates and create positive relationships. Some others in the crowd and on the panel agreed that churches were the best avenue to reach those they want to target.
In response to a question about body cameras, Barnes said “if you’re a well-balanced officer, the body camera is your friend. That means you’re going to do what you were trained to do and the camera won’t hurt you.”
The topic of body cameras has been a much debated issue in Garner. Some council members felt they could have a negative impact on officers. However, the Garner Town Council ultimately approved the purchase of 15 body cameras in the 2016-17 fiscal year budget. It plans to roll out the cameras within the next few years.
Neal Padgett, the Garner Chamber President, asked how certain situations by officers could be misdiagnosed as dangerous situations for officers, after camera footage suggests otherwise.
Zuidema said it’s important for officers to have the proper training. His officers are currently training to recognize implicit bias. But he said at the same time, officers have to make split-second decisions.
Other comments from the audience suggested the media and social media was to blame for perpetuating certain situations.
In one of the most poignient comments of the morning, Town Manager Rodney Dickerson said America must get rid of the negative stereotypes that label both African-American males and police as bad.
Dickerson is also black and the father of a young boy, who Dickerson said will be driving years from now.
“We’ve got to stop having preconceived biases when we approach people,” he said. “We have to approach them as humans and give them the benefit of the doubt before we react or do something that is uncalled for.”
That comment seemed to spark constructive conversation between audience members and the panel.