2nd Carrboro, NC Community Forum On Policing – Personal Recap

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The Second Carrboro, NC Community Forum on Policing was a success. There. That was the easy part. Now, for the messier part. It was a success because a lot of very different views were expressed. People went away frustrated, anxious and despondent because there was next to no meeting of minds. But they were all determined to come back and continue the process. That was the success.

Anyone who wanted a quick fix was thwarted by the complexity of the human condition. That’s life. And that is precisely why we need to undertake this process here in Carrboro. To build a model that improves the relationship between police and the community going forward. Both in Carrboro, and for America.

It is always difficult to concern oneself with designing a process that appears to deal with apocalypse, when the worst-case scenario isn’t knocking at the door. You plan for doom when the sun is shining. That is the nature of good planning. But it is a tad surreal. And so it was last evening.

This is also why it is terribly important for people to turn up and to stick with the process. And there were too many people who have been loud on this subject who were absent last night. Folks, change takes time and hard work. Not the occasional rant on Facebook.

Now to specifics. I’m not going to try to offer minutes of the evening. But rather, a very personal commentary upon the different points of view I heard expressed.

First, I was very encouraged that no less than six police officers attended, and almost all contributed. This is good.

It is my opinion, as expressed last evening, that, once all the initial posturing is over, and that posturing may take several more meetings to find satisfactory expression, once it is sated, on all sides, these forums, if, as I hope, they become the focus of the discussion on policing in Carrboro, then they will turn to meaningful review and design of policing policy.

That review and design will only be meaningful if it is an equal and respectful conversation between police, elected officials from their funding agency (the Board of Aldermen) and concerned citizens. And that conversation will only be meaningful if it includes an articulate police presence.

The Carrboro police, if last night was an indication, are worried. And defensive. Not unlike many good police departments across the nation, they feel offended that the years of training and experience and good policing that they feel they can evidence is not immediately, honestly and fully acknowledged and supported.

Police Chief Walter Horton at one point asked, rather plaintively, if there was anyone who could explain what his department had done so wrong as to warrant such close and critical examination. When it came my turn to speak, I answered: nothing. That isn’t the point.

The point is that we are all one bullet away from a Ferguson. That this process is not just about Carrboro. It is about building a model in a reasonably successful borough, where the relationship between police and policed is reasonably healthy. Such that the model can provide a precedent for those communities around the nation where there is tension between the police and the policed. While improving the relationship in Carrboro itself.

That, whatever the reason, the improving of that relationship is predicated on the view that, over the years, police and community have become separated. That the police have begun to feel that they are an authority unto themselves. And that, even if, for the most part, that works for now, it is not the model upon which policing was originally predicated.

Namely that the police undertake their mission on behalf of society only with the consent of the people. That in many parts of this country, that consent has been withdrawn, for good reason. That even in Carrboro, there are sections within the community who feel their consent tempered. That this requires an analysis and perhaps a reconstruction of the social compact between police and policed. And the first step is to re-iterate the subordination of police to the citizenry. A step which necessarily might grate with many police officers, who have acted without review for so long.

Do we say, tough, suck it up? No. That would be the response of an irresponsible and ungrateful community. We stick to our guns. But with magnanimity to accompany the firmness. And demonstrate understanding that it will take time for the police to learn to trust those civilians who would wish to exercise control over the police.

There were some last evening who wondered why there was this all-fired interest to have civilians become involved in designing police policy? How on earth could civilians possibly know what was involved in proper policing?

My input was this: as a community, we ask certain of our citizens to take on an onerous and dangerous task that I would not choose to undertake. To protect us. To enforce our laws. To maintain the order we demand. They have my respect for the job they do.

But it is a job. They are employees of a government department. Beholden to elected officials. Who are the servants of the public. Who are the bosses of all police officers. The police perform a service on behalf of the people they perform it upon. Those people are entitled to set the rules. And they need no specialized knowledge beyond knowing how they want to be policed. Period.

Why should citizens design the policy for the police department when they seek no interest in doing so for transport departments or the fire service, as one lady anxiously asked last evening? Because those folks do not have the right to put me in handcuffs or to shoot me. That’s why.

Do I want my police to be any less trained? No. Any less dedicated? No. Any the less interested in treating their career as a vocation, not just a wage? Heck no. But. At the end of the day. The police have each chosen to dedicate themselves to a profession which, ultimately, exists only if the public say so.

The public have become concerned. They are quite rightfully trying to find a way to overcome their concern. They are attempting to do so in conjunction with the police. But the police do not have a veto. Excellence in training and years of service will not of themselves serve as remedy, although they are a prerequisite for execution of the remedy. And Coffee Time With Constabulary is not the answer.

Chief Horton expressed concern that this new complex interactive approach to policing will require more personnel and resources. Yes it will. And those who demand the new policing approach are going to have to expect their taxes to rise. Period.

But it will require something much more. It will require a sea change in culture. Among police officers. And among those in the community who are currently expressing concern. For when this conversation has advanced. When there is truly a process where all can participate in designing and monitoring the police approach, then those who have expressed concern will need to step up and become active partners with the police in advocating for full respect for those the community have asked to enforce the law.

I raised this in conversation with two police officers after the meeting. It was nigh on impossible for every single speaker to express all their concerns in several minutes of input. Myself included.

All they likely heard from me was: blah, blah, police on a leash. I wanted to share with them my vision for several years down the road. When police officers, attending in civvies, would sit around a table with citizens and elected officials, and in a relaxed fashion, tweak this or that policy.

Where the police would no longer be required to defend their position. Where civilian members of a process demonstrably responsible for police policy design, performance and review would step up and take the flack for any consequences of police faithfully following policies designed by civilians in the main.

This I said was the pay-off for police of the renewed social compact between police and policed: the community would be comfortable with their police, and the police would be protected by their community.

Not sure those officers saw my vision. Not surprising. Again, this will take years of unraveling of current misconceptions to achieve.

Most probably, those officers did not see the vision as clearly as I do because of the experience of many in the audience last evening maintaining that the primary problem with policing, in Carrboro and elsewhere, is racism.

I do not denigrate their stance. I can not minimize their experience. For it is not mine. It is theirs. Maybe seminar after seminar on implicit bias will help. Maybe rigorous training will make things better. But I have a concern. It is mine. It may provoke an antipathetic reaction. So be it.

We engage police to police. Not to be agents of socio-economic change. I want us to reach a point where there are clear rules of engagement. With all citizens. On an equal basis. I hold the very firm view that, if there are clear rules, laid down by citizens, for interaction with citizens, if those rules are enforced, then ultimately, the color of the other participant becomes moot.

Does this mean that there are not police officers with an unacceptable attitude? No. But with civilians taking the prime role in designing and monitoring, it means that the behavior resulting from that attitude can be reviewed and disciplined. The focus is on the behavior not the attitude.

Does this preclude relying on a police officer’s discretion? No. Just as you can not legislate a person’s feelings or attitude, you can not design a rule for every last second of interaction. You have to rely on a police officer’s discretion ultimately.

When, asked a police officer of me last evening, when do/will the public allow discretion? When we trust you again, came my response. When will that be? When we know you better. Really? Really.

But there is a flip side to this. And it needs to be addressed. There were folks at the forum last evening with reams of data relating to race. I may have used a cuss word in front of a police officer when describing data after the meeting.

We can set up conversation. We can design rules. We can implement review and monitoring. We can increase resources for improved policing up the wazoo. But nothing we do with police can change socio-economic reality. And we can not, absolutely can not ask police officers to demonstrate differing policing approaches to similar situations simply because they perceive a different socio-economic group standing in front of them. Down that path lies chaos.

We can only ask our police officers to follow the rules we have written, without any special favor being shown to anyone. That is how you make policing color-blind.

We can have, and should have, lengthy discussions about income disparity. How whites are richer. And blacks are poorer. How rich whites can do things away from the gaze of police, because they have a large house in five acres of ground. How poorer folks have to undertake the same activity, in full sight of passing police officers, on the balcony of their small apartment, in a low income neighborhood. How this likely leads to a higher reported rate of crime in low income as opposed to high income neighborhoods. How this sucks. How this likely leads to a situation where police, targeting areas of perceived high rates of reported crime, may end up spending more time in areas of low income, which exacerbates the problem of high rates of reported crime and arrest in those low income neighborhoods.

Should there be a discussion about policing in low income neighborhoods? Yes. Should it lead to a change in police tactics? That is a matter for democratic decision, which democratic decision I will not pre-empt. But we can not currently expect our police to exercise that judgment. That’s not fair. And again, it is why we need this process. Civilians enact the policy. In conjunction with the police. So that the police can confirm the policy is enforceable. At which point, it is the community which takes the flack for enforcing the policy, not the police. Subject to that community having the proactive right to monitor and discipline police for misbehavior and breach of the agreed policy. And all community leaders will need to be prepared to support the police in enforcing a policy those community leaders have had a hand in effecting.

And that means those same community leaders, all of us, turning around and making quite clear that everyone in the community obeys the law, everyone in the community respects the manner of enforcement of the law, when the manner of that enforcement has been designed by the community.

No more screaming at police officers in parking lots. If you have a legitimate beef, and there is a legitimate community forum for policing design, calmly bring your beef to the forum. This process is not and can not be an excuse for people to break the law. And it can not be an agent for socio-economic change, or a shield for the inadequacies of socio-economic inequities. Those are matters for a different forum.

Phew. Yes. It was that kind of meeting last night!

We ended the evening with discussion of next steps. I wanted to make sure that we didn’t just disintegrate into never-ending chit-chat. I wanted there to be progress. That requires purpose. I proposed my motion to give context to that purpose. It was non-binding. We were running out of time. Folks were exhausted. But they listened. They heard. And there was a vote of sorts. And it didn’t fail:

“This meeting of concerned Carrboro citizens believes that, henceforth, policing policy in Carrboro should be designed by the elected officials of the Carrboro Board of Aldermen, in conjunction with the Carrboro Police Department, and that such design should take place in an open and transparent manner, involving those concerned Carrboro citizens who wish to participate.”

Which is not to say it passed overwhelmingly. But that it made people think. We will revisit regularly. Meanwhile some people wanted to get more specific, and spoke of a civilian oversight board. I have a problem with that, on two counts.

We are at an early stage. I think we want a conversation to develop into a process, before we discuss specific structure. My motion stands. It had more support than detraction. I will keep it in front of people as an ambition. Let’s see where it goes.

Secondly, existing civilian oversight boards have a specific profile which is not what I think the current situation requires. I do not want a disciplinary board. Or an advisory board. Or a reactive board. I want police, elected officials and citizens to meet regularly, proactively to design what police can and will do. I think that is how you avoid bad interaction. Not by reviewing it afterwards.

Bottom line? It would have been wonderful if, at one meeting, all the various hundreds of individual interactions between police and citizens over the years could have found instant satisfaction in one expression of common interest in one motion. But that isn’t how complex human interaction works.

What we have at the moment is the apparent willingness of citizens (including the police) to sit down with each other, and talk, and explore. It will take time for the very different outlooks and experiences in that gathering to feel that they have fully expressed their concerns, feel that they have been understood, and then feel confident enough to reach out and see someone else’s point of view.

Only at that point will the gatherings evolve into meaningful conversation. And from there, into a stumbling, entwined, messy advance into some sort of coherent consensual process for designing and monitoring policing policy, that offers support to the police, and comfort to those policed.

People. This is going to take time. What it needs more than time is your active participation. I spoke with a couple of Aldermen after the forum. We will be meeting to discuss how to keep things moving along. I am especially concerned, as I mentioned at the forum itself, that these forums are held more regularly, and that they become the focal point for citizen review of policing in Carrboro, for open discussion between police, elected officials and citizens, and ultimately the primary platform for policing design and monitoring. I will be raising all this in those meetings. And I will be letting everyone know about those meetings, because I remain dedicated to keeping this process – all of it – open, transparent and accessible.

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