About 150 North Carolina police commanders and state legislators met in Raleigh on Tuesday to discuss law enforcement topics such as body cameras, community policing, officer training, de-escalation techniques, implicit bias and mental illness.
The subjects took on greater urgency during a volatile year in American law enforcement. The widely viewed police shootings of two unarmed men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, were followed by the murders of five police officers in Dallas and three more in Baton Rouge and the rioting this week in Milwaukee, after the police shooting of an armed African-American man.
Davidson Police Chief Jeanne A. Miller cautioned her colleagues and legislators to be mindful of unintended consequences of policies that emerge from legislatures and police departments that end up creating distrust of police in communities that feel targeted by law enforcement. Miller pointed to Ferguson, Mo., where police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teen, two years ago, leading to riots and an ongoing national conversation about race and the use of force by police.
Miller noted that one source of tension between Ferguson residents and police uncovered during a federal Department of Justice investigation was that police targeted African-American motorists for traffic stops to generate revenue.
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“It created a tremendous disparity between law enforcement officers and the community,” said Miller, who participated in a panel discussion that was the centerpiece of the two-hour conference. “It is an issue we need to talk about when we talk about public policy: What are the potential consequences?”
The conference, “Best Practices in Law Enforcement Training,” was hosted by the N.C. League of Municipalities at the behest of members of the N.C. Black Legislative Caucus.
Among those in attendance were Raleigh Police Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown and her counterpart in Garner, Brandon Zuidema, who served as a panelist with Miller, Jon Gregory, director of the Basic Law Enforcement Academy at Wake Tech, and longtime Hoke County Sheriff Hubert Peterkin.
Peterkin said policies mean little or nothing if a sheriff or police chief is not setting a positive example for rank-and-file officers. He said he has a zero-tolerance policy against racism and sexual harassment.
“If I have a white officer who discriminates, I fire them,” he said. “If I have a black officer who discriminates, I fire them. That’s how you make sure it gets done in addition to policies and procedures.”
Zuidema said the distrust of police in some communities is not just a law enforcement issue. But he added that part of the onus on police is to educate people “not just on what we do, but why we do it.” Trust and transparency help ensure that law enforcement agencies across the state avoid what has happened in cities across the country “where the default is to riot.”
The panelists examined whether the 616 hours of training officer candidates receive at basic law enforcement academies is sufficient, particularly when it comes to de-escalating potentially volatile situations, or when an officer encounters someone suffering from mental illness. Gregory, the Wake Tech academy director, said he doesn’t think that’s enough.
“For barber school, you need 1,000 hours of training to cut hair, but a law enforcement officer needs 616 hours,” he said.
Zuidema said the state’s mental health system is broken and that often when someone calls 911 about mental health issues, it is the police who respond. “The biggest mental health facility in most counties is the jail.”
Miller said that a national push to close mental health facilities helped to create the current crisis. “The result is that we do allow people to be publicly crazy,” she said, “but when they break the law 911 gets called.”
Zuidema said one challenge in overcoming bias in the ranks is that fewer and fewer people are willing to become police officers, making it harder to recruit people of color and women. He said the rigors of the job can also turn qualified people away from the profession. He said he tells potential hirees that they must wear a bullet-proof vest, spend most of the day doing nothing and then end up in a high-speed chase or in a scenario where one’s life is on the line.
And now, an officer stopping by a convenience store has to be aware of potential sniper fire. All of that for a starting salary of about $35,000 a year.
“Pardon my French,” Zuidema said, “but who the hell is going to do that?”
Toward the end of the hour-long discussion, Rep. Floyd McKissick, a Democrat from Durham, asked how law enforcement could help educate young people and even older adults who may be wary of police.
Peterkin said his office has started to send school resource officers to driver education classes. The deputies talk to first-time student drivers and tell them what to expect during a traffic stop.
“The average 16- or 17-year-old driver is scared of the police,” Peterkin said, “particularly black kids.”