Chapel Hill News

Proposed police panel meets resistance at Carrboro forum

Carrboro Police Chief Walter Horton
Carrboro Police Chief Walter Horton Submitted

Facing about 40 residents in a Town Hall meeting this week, the equivalent of his entire department, Carrboro Police Chief Walter Horton said his department is working on confronting bias in its work.

Horton listed several training sessions that officers have attended and discussed plans for more.

The town’s second public forum on community policing focused on disproportionate traffic stops of minorities, enforcement of minor drug offenses and a proposal for a citizen advisory panel to provide oversight and policy design.

A possible oversight panel met some resistance from officers at the forum.

“I am terrified by the idea that a group of people with 40 hours of training sitting in an air-conditioned room could take my job away because of a split-second decision I made,” said Officer David Deshaies.

Horton questioned the need for an added layer of oversight, saying the elected Board of Aldermen already oversees the department.

“What did we ever do that would cause this kind of concern?” he asked.

“If Carrboro residents have a complaint about a police officer, I need for them to tell us,” Horton said. If they are not satisfied, they can go to the aldermen; in his experience, local residents have little reluctance about bringing problems to town leaders, he said.

Horton described the department’s community policing approach, discussing outreach efforts and programs that have improved relationships and prevented tragedy. Carrboro was one of the first police departments in North Carolina to equip officers with Naloxone, a drug that can immediately reverse the effects of an accidental opiate overdose. They have intervened twice to successfully prevent accidental overdose deaths.

On the question of drug use, Horton said the Carrboro police do not place a high priority on simple marijuana possession. “Just tell the young guys to be smart about it,” he said. “Don’t be out smoking a bunch of weed in the car, then run a red light.”

Several residents complimented the police on the preventive work they do in schools as well as their discretion with individuals who need a little help, a little space and just want to be heard.

Frank Harris was an enthusiastic participant in the forum, sometimes requiring a reminder to wait his turn to speak. When he became emotional, Capt. Chris Atack sat down beside him, speaking to him quietly.

As the meeting continued, Harris was called upon to share some information with the group. “I’m a retired police officer from Durham,” he said. “I was at the Carrboro Police Department last week, passed out drunk. (Lt. Doug) Strowd helped me out. He didn’t arrest me. He helped me. Law enforcement gets a bad rap, but these are good guys.”

Although that kind of compassion is an important part of community policing, Horton said he needs help with data analysis and more training for his officers to help avoid critical mistakes in high-pressure situations. Horton said he’d like to add 10 officers to his current 39.

According to the Police Department, Carrboro currently has 1.86 officers per 1,000 residents, the same staffing ratio of officers as Chapel Hill. Hillsborough has 4.17 officers per 1,000 residents.

UNC Professor Frank Baumgartner’s 2014 report analyzing traffic stops and searches in Carrboro over an 11-year period demonstrated that black drivers are stopped at more than twice the rate of white drivers, a ratio that he described at the forum as “one of the worst ratios in North Carolina and getting worse over time.”

“I understand that it makes anyone in a position of authority uncomfortable,” Baumgartner said, “but Carrboro is not the only department dealing with this. It’s a nationwide issue.”

Horton has hired N.C. State Professor Deborah Weisel to review the original data and take a critical look at the Baumgartner report. Weisel is a research assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration. She conducts research on a wide-range of issues of concern to police.

“If we got a problem, we got a problem,” Horton told Bumgartner. “Whether it’s your data or Dr. Weisel’s data. And we’ll do what we can to fix it. That’s the bottom line.”