Policing Matters in Carrboro (And Other Things That Do)

On Monday, June 29th, at 7 pm at Town Hall, the Town of Carrboro will host the second in a series of facilitated community forums examining Carrboro’s policing strategies and opportunities to reduce racial disparities while ensuring the safety and welfare of everyone in Carrboro.

(The first forum was held on October 6, 2014. You can read Chapelboro’s account here and an account from Alderman Damon Seils, who has been instrumental in organizing the forums, here.)

While inspired and informed by highly-visible struggles in places like Ferguson, Missouri, Carrboro’s conversations are not the result of violent engagement between Carrboro police officers and citizens. We’re lucky to have a highly skilled department, led by Chief Walter Horton (another proud CHHS grad), who is passionate about pursuing justice in the right way: in a best-practice manner that is consistent, that demands integrity from officers, and that is accountable to the community. The CPD strives for transparency, too, utilizing Police2Citizen as one example.

Nonetheless, data has demonstrated that African American and Hispanic drivers are more likely to be stopped by Carrboro police than white drivers, and when they are stopped, they are also far more likely to be searched. The data alone doesn’t tell the full story, but what we know is enough for everyone to take pause, take a closer look, and take action to eliminate racial disparities that could be caused by implicit or explicit bias.

It’s a tough conversation, but what is particularly remarkable is what I perceive as a genuine spirit of partnership between the Police Department, the ACLU, the NAACP, the Orange County’s public defender’s office, and others as the conversations move forward. I’m humbled by the time and hard work each has poured into a robust conversation, some of which has been deeply honest and personal.

Body-Worn Cameras

Police body-worn cameras have received a good deal of attention in Carrboro, and the Town has budgeted more than $90,000 to purchase them in FY 2015-16. The idea was first proposed by Chief Horton, who has found that dashboard mounted cameras have been highly beneficial but also limited in their ability to document a complete police encounter. Chief believes body-worn cameras will ensure greater accountability between the police and citizens, will reduce conflict when their use is announced, and will offer a critical source of “real-time” data that can make a difference between a good case and a bad one, between justice and injustice.

Nationally, however, there is some not-insignificant controversy surrounding the use of these cameras, as many believe the line between police accountability and surveillance is too thin. Herbert Hoover hasn’t been dead all that long, after all. Just ask Edward Snowden. And then there are other problems and questions surrounding the efficacy of cameras.

A report from the Orange County Bias-Free Policing Coalition makes a very compelling case for body-worn cameras and ten additional recommendations to reduce bias in policing across Orange County. As noted in the report, any purchase and use of body-worn cameras must be predicated on a sound policy and well-trained staff. And we have to acknowledge from the start that the cameras are not a panacea of any kind. But when weighing the risks and imperfections against the urgent need to reduce racial disparities, profiling, and other injustices, I feel we have to try them. There will be mistakes and problems.  I’d rather learn from them than to miss the opportunity to provide some relief to families and communities that experience racial bias and oppression so acutely every day.

More to Be Done

Reviewing policing data and procedures alongside their nuances is critical if we are to craft the best solutions to reduce bias and increase justice across our communities. But we also need to better understand and appreciate the risks inherent in a police officer’s job.  We need to respectfully–and more often–acknowledge the care, diligence and sense of duty that each member of Carrboro’s police department invests in their job while quite literally putting their lives on the line every day. Very few of us choose this kind of job. It is where the rubber of public service really hits the road.

That’s why it’s critical that none of us—the Board of Aldermen, activists, the ACLU, others — be self-satisfied with all the focus on police bias. Don’t get me wrong.  It is absolutely an important focus given the enormous implications for communities of color, particularly young men.

But there is some amount of self-righteousness at play when we don’t also publicly recognize that everyone in the room—most especially every one of the white people in the room—plays a role in perpetuating bias, whether institutionally or personally.

It feels good to off-load anger, complicity and shame when there’s an easy target, one that feels powerful and vulnerable all at once, like the police.  In fact, Carrboro’s own Board of Aldermen—including me—demonstrated how easy it is to succumb to that anger and shame during National Police Week in May.  After a well-read proclamation by Mayor Lavelle, we completely flubbed the opportunity to unconditionally thank and honor our police officers for what they do for Carrboro every day. We made other grand statements, but it was all pretty embarrassing in the end, at least for me personally.

My point is that the solution to ensuring racial justice and racial equity in our communities isn’t with the police, it’s with every one of us. We’re the elephant in the room.

At a very basic level, bias in the justice system starts with the homeowner who calls the police because of “suspicious” black male walking in their subdivision. With the principal who finds hoodies and pants buckled at the knees cause enough for school suspension. Or with the investor who refuses to rent an apartment to a woman holding a housing voucher, leaving her on the street instead.

I might be preaching to the choir, but let me for one more minute.

I want to get policing right in Carrboro, but I also want us to focus a lot more attention on the other ways that bias embeds itself—sometimes quite undetected—in our community.

I want the Town of Carrboro to be intentionally inclusive in our economic and environmental decisions and strategies. To be even more welcoming and accommodating to people who use the services of non-profits like Club Nova, IFC, and El Centro. To make our parks and downtown better and safer for teens to hang out. To attract more diverse leadership to our Advisory Boards and elected bodies. And to get behind efforts to reduce educational disparity in our schools. All of these issues will be raised at Town Hall in one way or another in FY 2015-16, and I hope we pursue these conversations as justly and with as much abandon as we have our policing strategies.

I’ll do my part. Thanks, Chief Horton and the Carrboro Police Department, for inspiring some deeper thinking in Carrboro, and in my own seat.