“What is it about black skin that makes a threat?”
That question from one participant echoed the overwhelming concern of a couple hundred black Charlotte residents at a police panel discussion Wednesday at Little Rock AME Zion Church. People spoke of fear, pain and anger, asking leaders of the police force to respond.
“Not just in Charlotte, but as a nation, we can do better. We have to do better,” said Gloria Joyner-Johnson, president of the church’s lay council. “I don’t want (kids) to live like this – to be afraid to go out ... (not knowing) whether you’re going to come home at night. That’s not a good feeling for us.”
Many at the event said they were afraid.
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“Every time I get pulled over, I know there’s a fear that overcomes me,” one young man said. “I’m not afraid of much, but when I get pulled over, that’s a fear I can’t explain.”
Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Chief Kerr Putney and other law enforcement leaders answered tough questions from citizens who fear for their lives when in the presence of an officer.
“I cannot tell you that 100 percent of my officers always treat people with dignity and respect,” Putney said.
But he said the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police force is trying to develop that trust with the community so that fear doesn’t enter the conversation.
“The preface (of the use of force policy) is maintaining the essence of life,” Putney said. “We’re stressing de-escalation. We don’t want to have to use force.”
He laid out plans for the police force that include training on cultural competence, which will start in August, and also a year-long dive into cultural understanding, programs with local high schools and more panel discussions.
“I wish it was as simple as training,” he said. “If your heart is in the wrong place, I can’t train bias out of you.”
The officers present stressed the important role the community plays in the conversation.
“I’m a policeman. I’m here to protect. I’m a guardian of this community,” said Major Brian Cunningham, who worked the west side of Charlotte when he first started. “We’re hurting as a profession. This is a different time in policing, it really is. This hard conversation needs to happen. … But we cannot do it without you.”
When Putney implored those at the discussion to send a group of young people to see the policies and procedures at the station, hands shot into the air from people volunteering to do so. Within minutes, 29 people wrote their names on a sign-up sheet.
While precautions can be taken, many were still concerned that officers could act out. Although he cannot fire people – the Civil Service Board does that – Putney said that he removes officers from the street who have had altercations and shouldn’t be out in the community.
“If you can’t connect with people who don’t even look like you, who don’t work with you, who are in a different income bracket, you have some internal soul searching to do as well,” he said. “It’s about how we connect with people.”
As a black man himself, Putney said, this is highly emotional for him, too.
“Brother, when I get pulled over, I flash back to when I was 8 wondering why they weren’t investigating the murder of my father,” he said. “The institution for which I work has a history of racist, bigoted action, not conversation.”
But he said that over the next 90 days, police officers, especially those who work the night shift, will be having those conversations.
“We have to come to your community and get to know you personally, proactively, not responding to a call.”
Rachel Stone: 704-358-5334; @RStone1317