Local law enforcement agencies are talking about racial bias and working toward better community relations, but it’s not enough, members of a panel said Monday.
“I think it’s really nice how we’re talking, but it’s not reality,” said Delores Bailey, executive director of Empowerment Inc.
“What I need us to understand is that we can’t just be comfortable with saying the heads of our departments are going to make a change. We need to realize and understand there are people out there who are really afraid ... of being stopped, and sometimes for no reason.”
More than 175 people filled the Town Hall council chamber and an adjacent room for the forum – Policing, Race and Community – sponsored by the town’s Justice in Action Committee and the District 15B Racial Justice Task Force.
WTVD weekend anchor Joel Brown moderated the two-hour discussion of how to improve policing, build community relations, and address data that shows more black and Hispanic drivers are stopped and searched than white drivers.
Carrboro Alderwoman Michelle Johnson, a black woman, said she was stopped for a registration sticker recently in Chapel Hill. Her thoughts went to the black men who had been shot, and she froze in reaching for the glovebox, she said. Society is conditioned to think that’s a normal reaction, she said.
“That’s not normal, and I don’t think it’s just about individual response or contact. There is a cultural norm around black people being criminals, to be very clear ... and we’re conditioned in this, all of us,” she said.
Carrboro resident Terrence Foushee said he has “broken into deep sweats just from being pulled over, especially as a high school student.”
Those interactions generated a fear that he’s never been able to shake, Foushee said, despite having been taught by his parents how to interact with police. He tries to share that advice with the young people he meets as a high school teacher and in the community, he said, but he also sees the way they are treated.
“It seems as if sometimes every kid – and most of them are black – has been treated as if they were criminals, as if they were the ones that were bringing about some sort of bad situation,” Foushee said.
Meeting the community on a personal level is the most important step officers can take, panelists said. Attorney Tye Hunter, a member of the Orange County Bias-Free Policing Coalition, noted that can be challenging when officers can’t afford to live in the communities they serve and protect.
Technology also is a hurdle, Carrboro Police Chief Walter Horton said, because officers aren’t getting out of their cars as often. That’s why they are holding more events where officers and the public can talk, he said.
But many people don’t attend community events, UNC law student Quisha Mallette said, and teens may have their mind already made up. She and Foushee suggested officers spend more time with children and helping the communities they police, instead of only showing up when there’s a problem.
He can understand why somebody who hasn’t had good interactions with law enforcement might feel nervous, Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood said.
It’s important for both sides to remember that the other side isn’t always out to get them, he said, and for the community to recognize its role in how officers are perceived. Many times they respond because a citizen has called 911 about something suspicious, he said.
The issue is rooted in America’s wider cultural problem of racial animus and fear, Hunter said.
“I think the critical thing ... is that we have to recognize that we have a problem, and that it’s not a public relations problem and it’s not a perception problem by the communities of color in Orange County,” Hunter said. “We have a problem that communities of color are being policed in a different way and in a worse way than white people are being policed in Orange County, right now, tonight, yesterday, and probably tomorrow and the day after tomorrow.”
Change is happening, law enforcement leaders said, including anti-bias and “verbal judo” training to improve interactions, asking black officers to share their stories with peers, and encouraging the community to bring their complaints to the department.
Audience members suggested more accountability for police, especially by encouraging officers to speak up when they see something wrong. Panelists and citizens also agreed transparency is important. However, there are limits, law enforcement officials noted, especially on personnel and investigation records.
“It’s a situation, if we do get in it, we’ll do our best to be as transparent as possible,” Horton said. “But in those situations, I think everybody needs to be patient, because we all want to do the right thing and get the information out there, but we need to do it correctly.”
Carrboro recently hired a statistician to help track data, and they already review how officers do their job, Horton said. Chapel Hill has been tracking data for a while, Police Chief Chris Blue said, and much is posted online (See the data at chapelhillopendata.org). Carrboro is working to publish its data, Horton said.
The Sheriff’s Office has been working with Frank Baumgartner, who was part of a 2014 study on statewide police bias that found black and Hispanic drivers were being stopped at higher rates than white drivers. Baumgartner is helping them sort through their data to find out what’s happening, Blackwood said.
The numbers support the need for change, Hunter said.
“There is something going on at the low end of these stops that’s making pople who are members of communities of color more appropriate to stop for trivial matters,” he said.
Requiring officers to use written consent to search forms has made a difference, Blue said. There were 18 consent, or voluntary, searches in 2014, he said, but only 13 in 2015. Carrboro also requires written consent to search; the Sheriff’s Office now provides consent forms, but deputies can decide when to use them.
Younger officers also are changing the conversation, Blue said.
“Young people that are going into this work right now, they’ve been thinking about this the last couple of years, they’ve been thinking about in a time that this dialogue has really been raised nationally,” he said.
A video of Monday’s race, policing and community forum is available online at bit.ly/2er5Edf.