Police officers W.A. Lane, S.T. Henry and B.R. Hull stopped by Barbara Jones’ South Park home to listen to what she thought would make the neighborhood safer.
Jones, a 68-year-old widow, has lived alone in a bungalow for the past three years since her dog Buster died. She told the officers that her late husband, Raymond Jones Jr., used plywood to build a fence in the backyard some 15 years ago, but that the wood had turned spongy and the fence had collapsed. Now people cut through her backyard.
“They come through my yard all the time,” she said. “I don’t have any privacy back there, but I can’t afford to get that fence fixed up.”
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A busted fence in a widow’s backyard isn’t normally the kind of problem police deal with in this historic black neighborhood, where this winter a white police officer shot and killed a 24-year-old black man after a short chase and a scuffle. The officer was cleared by the State Bureau of Investigation.
But after that shooting exposed tensions between residents and police, the Raleigh police department has taken steps to improve what’s known as community policing.
In mid-May, officers who normally patrol the neighborhood solo in their cars started walking the streets as a group, talking with residents and listening to their concerns. The officers assured Jones that they would report the problem with her fence to city officials in the inspections department.
Police spokesman Jim Sughrue said the department decided to try a redeployment of the officers who are already working in South Park after listening to residents.
“We’re continually looking for ways to serve the community better with more effective policing,” Sughrue said. “The people say they want a closer relationship with the department, and we want a closer relationship with them.”
Capt. Justin Matthews, commander of the downtown district that includes South Park, said he wanted the beat officers to work together “to give them more time and more availability to address some of the problems down there, to establish and deepen relationships.
“That’s really the foundation of it,” he said, “really basic beat officer patrolling. Getting out of their cars and engaging the community beyond law enforcement.”
In South Park, the reaction to the new strategy has been mixed. Some residents welcome the officers’ presence after asking for more officers walking in the neighborhood at community meetings.
But more officers working in the neighborhood did little to bolster the confidence of several longtime activists and clergy members who work there. Among other things, they wonder if the beat officers will match the racial makeup of the African-American community.
“Will these officers reflect the community?” asked Akiba Byrd, a spokesman for the Police Accountability Community Task Force, which recently asked the city council to establish a community police oversight board and internship program to help attract a more diversified police force. “Are they from the community? Will they live in the community? Will they take into account the history of the community and the culture that exists there? Or will they just police the community?”
Byrd said the strategy “just sounds like it’s going to be more of the same.”
“They’re too many officers down there now,” he said. “ ... I’d be happy if there were four less.”
The officers who are working in the neighborhood are all white. Matthews said it was more a matter of professionalism than race.
“They are the officers assigned to the area,” he said. “The police department has made great strides in diversity and reflecting the community. These are the officers who ride that beat. These are the officers who engage that community. We hope that’s not an issue.”
About 84 percent of the police department’s sworn officers are white, 10 percent are African American, with Hispanics a little over 4 percent and less than 1 percent Asian, Sughrue said.
The shooting death of Akiel Denkins by police officer D.C. Twiddy on Feb. 29 left many in the community feeling distrustful and wary of the police, especially the officers working in their neighborhood. That distrust was evident the day Denkins was shot when more than a hundred people gathered on Bragg Street just after the shooting. Most lived in the neighborhood, but they were joined by activists, college students and clergy from across the city who had no problem believing an account of the shooting that was spreading via news accounts and social media: Twiddy shot Denkins in the back while he was fleeing arrest for failing to appear in court for a felony drug charge. (The SBI later concluded that Denkins had pulled a gun on Twiddy and that Denkins was shot four times from the front after the two men wrestled.)
A handful of people who showed up on Bragg Street that day faced off with police in front of yellow caution tape and shouted ugly taunts. An urban ambrosia of fried chicken, frying fish and burning green marijuana smoke filled the air. A woman in the parking lot of the C-Food Grill soul food pushed a CD in her car player that repeatedly played the Lil Boosie rap song, “F Da Police.”
In the weeks following the shooting, Denkins’ cousin, Shaun “Baby Loc” Johnson, told the city’s human relations commission that he and his family no longer trusted the police. Johnson said that his young nephew had dreamed of becoming a police officer.
“Now he doesn’t want to be a police officer,” Johnson said. “He saying, ‘Why would I want to be a police officer when the police killed my cousin?’ ”
Three months after the shooting, tension remains in the neighborhood, says Diane Powell, director of Justice Served North Carolina, a statewide nonprofit that mentors young people in county jails. The group holds “Bring Back The Village” meetings each Monday in the community center on East Davie Street and Powell says some residents who have attended asked for neighborhood foot patrols.
Powell also welcomes the initiative, though she is concerned with the officers the department sends to South Park.
“I would like to see more African-American officers back into the community. I’m not racist, but I do have a concern with that,” she said. “Even as we speak, most of the officers riding by on patrol are Caucasian. That’s an issue. It’s disturbing. We would like to see more of us.”
Powell said young people in the community are especially distrustful of the police.
“At the last youth gathering we had at Chavis Park, the officers wanted to engage them,” Powell said. “But as soon as they saw the police officers, they packed up. They said, ‘Naw, Ms. Powell, we love you. But not with them. No way.’ ”
A familiar strategy
Cops walking the beat is not a new strategy for Raleigh police. It was part of an ambitious five-year strategic plan implemented by former police chief Harry Patrick Dolan in early 2009 after 16-year-old Adarius Fowler was killed in a drive-by shooting on Tarboro Road. Retired officers served as mentors and sports coaches, female officers worked with young women and visited with families. Dolan had said he envisioned troubled young people living in tough neighborhoods looking to beat cops as role models instead of sources of hostility.
But residents in neighborhoods like South Park were not ready to see the police as allies there to protect and serve them.
“People wouldn’t even want to be seen talking to the police,” said Robert Wagoner, a former patrol officer who worked in the South Park neighborhood between 2007 and 2014. “If I tried to approach someone to talk with them after a crime was committed, people would scatter in all directions.”
One of Wagoner’s memories when he started working in the community has stuck with him. He had pulled his patrol car to a stop one day and hopped out to talk to a resident. A young man next door was holding a little boy in his arms.
“He was trying to get the little boy to say, ‘F the Police,’ ” Wagoner said. “The guys on the street, they feel it’s our job to be a nuisance and harass people, not protect and serve the community.”
Wagoner thinks the police department should focus on holistic measures in the community to balance enforcement.
“I tried to put myself in a position where I’m reducing the number of arrests instead of hiding in the bushes or behind a house to catch someone committing a crime,” he said. “These things are prevented with good community policing. You’re able to clean up crime because of your relationship with the community.”
Dave Barciz of Raleigh worked in the neighborhood for more than three years as director of federally funded Project 110 Percent. He says that project “helped 600 at-risk and gang embedded individuals overcome educational, legal, criminal, drug, behavior and attitude problems that inhibited stable employment.”
He says it helped reduce gang activity by more than 40 percent over a 42-month period ending in 2012, with the close of the federal funding period.
Barciz insists that if Project 110 Percent was still active and officers had been walking the beat and interacting with South Park residents, Denkins might still be alive.
“It wouldn’t have happened,” he said. “There would have been an officer working in the neighborhood as part of the community-oriented policing program who would have known that kid. ... They would have called a relative or others who would have talked to him and told him he needed to turn himself in.”
Sughrue, the police spokesman, said the department has always had some form of foot patrolling, but that the practice had been tamped down in recent years.
“We were probably not doing them in the numbers we were doing at some points in the past,” he said. “I’m sure there will be times in the future in one area or another where we will use foot patrols again extensively.”
Holding out hope
The South Park neighborhood covers about 30 blocks, but for now officers are focused on walking the streets near where Denkins was shot. They’re out daily talking to residents like Jones. After leaving her house on a recent Wednesday, they walked past a group of residents who were setting up a fruit and vegetable stand to give away free produce to their neighbors. The officers nodded to the group, and headed to Eline Pope’s home, a tree-shaded residence with red-brick paths, and stone angels in the yard.
Hull explained to Pope, 50, that they were visiting residents to find out what they can do to make the neighborhood a safer place. Pope told the officers she was concerned about people who trespassed through her backyard and drivers who speed past her home.
“There’s a lot of speeding through here,” she said.
“That’s easy for us to address,” Hull said. “We’ll enforce the speeding laws. We can also have our guys on motorcycles down here, and there will be officers walking the beat.”
Over the years, Pope has befriended several of the officers who patrol the neighborhood. She said she feels good knowing that officers are getting out of their patrol cars and talking with her neighbors.
“I just want the officers to really have a relationship with the people in the community,” she said. “We all know having an open container in public is against the law, but instead of arrest the officer can ask the person to pour it out. I don’t have to show my authority by throwing the handcuffs on you.”
Matthews, the police captain, described South Park as “a strong community” with a lot of positive elements that are overshadowed by crime. He pointed to the two mini-parks, including one on Lee Street that’s slated for revitalization. He also mentioned the community garden residents created on Mangum Street and the police department’s involvement with the neighborhood’s youngsters as mentors and sports coaches.
Matthews thinks officers walking and talking with residents will enable the department to help them address other concerns like Mrs. Jones’ fence, abandoned homes in the neighborhood, or helping the neighbor who can no longer mow the grass. He said beat officers will pass information along to other city departments, like inspections or parks and recreation, but he noted that sometimes police may be able to encourage a neighbor to help.
And he holds out hope for the residents who view the police as a hostile force in the community.
“We want to make the community safe for everyone,” he said. “We aren’t giving up on anyone in the neighborhood.”