In the wake of the events of Ferguson, Missouri, a national debate has erupted over policing in local communities: are racial minorities unfairly targeted, and if so, what should police departments be doing to address that issue?
On Saturday, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP welcomed Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue, Carrboro Police Chief Walter Horton, and Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood for a two-hour forum on policing here in Orange County, with topics ranging from the role of police in schools to the use of deadly force.
Listen to Aaron Keck’s full story on WCHL.
Listen to Saturday’s forum in its entirety (approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes long). Additional highlights from the forum can be found below.
“The events that we’ve experienced in other parts of the country have made it clear that we have work to do in our own community,” said Diane Robertson, who moderated Saturday’s forum at the Rogers Road Community Center. About 50 people packed the room, including several elected officials.
At issue was the question of “implicit bias” in policing: do police officers unfairly target racial minorities, even without intending to? Blue, Horton and Blackwood all reiterated that their officers don’t intentionally discriminate.
“I think if you show raw data to the officers – which we have – they’ll say, ‘man, I’m surprised by those numbers, it doesn’t feel like it would be skewed,'” Chief Blue said. “I know for folks out there in the community it feels very obvious that it’s skewed, but for those officers, I don’t think there’s intentional effort to skew the data one way or the other.”
Chief Horton agreed. “When I was on patrol, I didn’t look at the race of the person I was stopping, I was looking at the car – if a tag was out, I’d stop the car for a violation – and I’m pretty sure that’s how it is now,” he said.
“We want to do the right thing,” Sheriff Blackwood added. “I don’t think anybody puts the uniform on with an evil heart.”
But even if there’s no intent to discriminate, there are numbers suggesting that minorities in Orange County do get singled out. About 20 percent of the traffic stops in Orange County involve black drivers, even though only 10 percent of the population is black – and when they’re pulled over, black and Latino drivers are also 2-3 times more likely to have their vehicles searched than white drivers are in the same circumstances.
Those numbers indicate a serious issue in our community – even if the cause, or the solution, isn’t as obvious.
Stephanie Perry (in attendance) discusses implicit bias with Sheriff Blackwood, arguing that officers will “congregate” in low-income or majority-black neighborhoods.
Sheriff Blackwood responds to Perry (in the most heated moment of the forum): of vehicles searched in Orange County last year, he says, 23 were driven by black drivers and 20 were driven by white drivers.
Diane Robertson replies to Blackwood: “(That) might seem almost 50/50, but that’s not the population breakdown.”
“We’re scratching our head about some of the same data,” Chief Blue said. “If I could figure out exactly why those disparities are happening, I would take action immediately, but I’m not sure either.”
Chief Blue says the CHPD will bring in trainers this year to help officers recognize and deal with implicit bias.
But all three police chiefs said they were committed to addressing the issue and improving the quality of policing in Orange County – in a variety of different ways. Many of those efforts are already ongoing: Sheriff Blackwood said his department is beginning to reward officers who speak a second language; Chief Blue said the Chapel Hill PD documents and reviews every single use of force by an officer; and Chief Horton spoke of community policing and similar efforts to improve communication between officers and citizens.
Chief Horton discusses the importance of communication.
And all three emphasized the importance of CIT, or Crisis Intervention Training, as an effective tool for training officers to de-escalate tense situations.
Chief Blue discusses the CHPD’s goal with respect to the CIT program.
Sheriff Blackwood describes a recent incident where an officer’s CIT training helped resolve a dangerous situation.
In addition to programs already in effect, Chiefs Blue and Horton both said they were hoping to roll out a body camera program in the next fiscal year.
Chief Blue discusses the benefits (and possible challenges) of body cameras.
And all of those efforts have had some positive effects. For one, Chief Blue says there’s been a steady decrease in the number of times his officers have had to use force.
“Those continue to trend down,” he said Saturday. “We investigate every single complaint we receive, and we require – even if we don’t get a complaint – any time an officer uses force, we document every single (instance). And those numbers are trending down.”
But while that statistic is promising, the larger issue persists. Sheriff Blackwood said it’s important for all of us to highlight our similarities rather than our differences: “I was always taught that when you take our skin off, we’re the same color; there is no difference, we’re human beings first.”
Sheriff Blackwood discusses the process of training for when to use and when not to use deadly force – a question that, for him, hits very close to home.
But moderator Robertson responded that there’s still a gap between that ideal and everyday reality. “We may be all the same on the inside, but we’re not all the same on the outside,” she said, “and I think the concern is that that’s having an effect on how people are being treated.”
And Chief Blue added that that gap generates mistrust, where officers and citizens can begin to suspect each other even when no one is doing anything wrong.
Chief Blue describes a “powerful phone call” he received recently from a resident.
The issues raised at Saturday’s forum will likely take years to address, if not longer. Chief Blue said his department is doing a great deal to tackle the problem – but it’s an ongoing project.
“This implicit bias stuff is tough,” he said. “Over two years ago we began a process of quarterly analysis of every single traffic stop by an officer, (requiring) supervisors to certify to me that they’ve had a conversation about their data…and that’s enabled us to have some important conversations, and I believe it’s laid the foundation for some of this implicit-bias training that we’re going to do…
“However, it’s very hard to know what’s in someone’s heart. We all bring bias into every encounter…so being able to talk about it together is, in my mind, the only way to bring it to a level of consciousness where you can feel bias creeping in and take some action in response.”
And insofar as we in Orange County are not immune from bias – and insofar as we are all human, as Sheriff Blackwood observed – our community is also not immune from the issues that sparked such a national outcry last year.
“This community really isn’t that far from Ferguson,” said Robertson. “That is, I think, why people are here today.”