As thunder rumbled and rain lashed the windows, police and East Smithfield residents came together last week at St. Peter’s Church of Christ.
Representing the town were Mayor Andy Moore, Town Manager Michael Scott, interim police chief R.K. Powell and police Capt. Tommy Choe. The audience included clergy and their parishioners.
The meeting came in the aftermath of national police shootings of young black men and subsequent attacks on police officers.
“We didn’t come to point fingers at nobody,” said Bishop Richard Johnson, pastor of St. Peter’s. “We can’t continue this course. ... There must be a coming together. We need the police department.”
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Councilman Marlon Lee kicked off the discussion, recounting a time he felt profiled by Smithfield because he was wearing a hoodie and matched a rough description of a suspect police were seeking.
But Lee also defended police. “It’s hard to be a police officer,” he said, acknowledging the anxiousness that officers now feel after the attacks on police in Dallas and Baton Rouge, La.
“In Smithfield, you’ve got them (police officers) wanting to be two in a car,” he said, before adding, “All lives matter.”
Lee’s fellow East Smithfield residents wanted to know how the town vets police hires and what training officers receive in diversity and sensitivity. They also wanted to know how to interact safely with police.
Lee has been a vocal critic of Smithfield government, saying the town, in particular, has ignored his community’s parks and recreation needs. But he also said East Smithfield has a duty to police itself.
“It starts with you in your house, your street, your neighborhood,” Lee said. “Let’s be the forefront.”
Powell, the interim police chief, encouraged East Smithfield residents to bring their concerns to his office. “Come see us,” he said. “Our door is open.”
Some questions from the audience were specific. James Gathers, for example, wanted to know if the police department tracks the race of people it arrests and pulls over for traffic stops.
The town manager and police officers said law requires the department to track racial information and report that information to the state.
Andre Nichols wanted to know how the police department vets its hires. He wondered if police departments were hiring military veterans who commit acts of violence against civilians because of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“We have a lot of safeguards,” Powell said, checking off interviews, background checks and psychological evaluations.
Johnson, the St. Peter’s pastor, asked about body camera footage, noting that Gov. Pat McCrory had recently signed legislation that says the footage isn’t a public record.
Powell said Smithfield police officers don’t wear body cameras. Their cruisers, however, do have cameras, he said, and the department keeps that footage in a secure area where it “can’t be doctored.”
Scott, Smithfield’s former police chief, said police camera footage had never been a public record under North Carolina law. But the legislation McCrory signed into law allows people to petition the courts for access to footage.
Crystal Kimpson Roberts, a former spokeswoman for the Johnston County schools, wanted to know what kind of diversity and sensitivity training Smithfield officers receive.
Powell and Choe said officers receive weeks of training each year, including state-mandated training in diversity, ethics, deescalation, domestic violence and mental health.
“Some officers go beyond that,” Choe said, noting that many officers take sensitivity classes that are available online.
Roberts also asked if the culture of Smithfield’s police department would allow an officer concerned about another’s behavior to report that.
“Yes, very much so,” Powell said.
Another attendee wanted to know what happens when a police officer abuses someone who did nothing wrong.
Powell said he didn’t have a good answer for that question, but he said most officers “don’t look to harm anyone.” He encouraged people to reach out to the department if they suspect police misconduct.
Scott said the issue was much broader than white police officers and black civilians. “This is going to keep happening so long as we keep seeing ourselves as separate, different groups,” he said. “We lost lives we shouldn’t have. People died who shouldn’t have.
“I’m a white man. I have no idea ... But we need to reach out to one another to solve community problems as a whole.”
Mayor Moore said that, as a white man, he had not experienced racism, but he also said he was not raised a racist.
“I had so many black friends growing up,” he said. “I am concerned ... Every night I say a prayer for this country ... You can’t trust what the media says. Stop listening to what CNN says and what Fox says. They’re just trying to create division and trying to get their ratings up.”
One attendee wanted to know why America was more troubled by the deaths of police officers than young black men. “What about our brothers?” he asked.
Johnson, the pastor, and Lee, the councilman, encouraged their East Smithfield neighbors to work on preventing black-on-black crime. Others in the audience call on parents to teach their children to respect law enforcement.
The Rev. J.B. Woodhouse encouraged the crowd of about 60 people to see the similarities, not the differences, between themselves and police officers.
“When you cut me, the blood is the same color,” he said. “We have to value each other. We must have love for each other. That’s the beginning of solving some of the issues. God did not create me to be mistreated. God did not create me to mistreat you. We need to show support for this community.”
Johnson, while encouraging East Smithfield residents to cooperate with police and respect law enforcement, said racial profiling is a problem, even in small-town Smithfield.
“There’s wrong on both sides,” he said.
Johnson encouraged clergy to invite police into their churches. “Just listen to each other,” he said. “We need to pull together.
“God made me black – I can’t change it,” Johnson said. “But we’re one community, one blood. If we don’t come together now, don’t worry about ISIS. We’ll do ISIS’s work for them.”
Johnson said he would pray for police officers. “I’ll sleep better knowing you have my back,” he said.
“We have to do this together,” Johnston added. “The land needs healing. It must begin on tonight.”
Abbie Bennett: 919-553-7234, Ext. 101; @AbbieRBennett