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Police, community confront racial bias at discussion

(L-R) CMPD Major Sherie Pearsall, CMS Police Chief Randy Hagler and Kevin Tully, Mecklenburg County Public Defenders office were three of the eight member panel that had a discussion with the public at Mt. Carmel Baptist Church. The Charlotte chapter of Jack and Jill of America held a discussion Saturday about community interactions between minority youth and law enforcement and the justice system.
(L-R) CMPD Major Sherie Pearsall, CMS Police Chief Randy Hagler and Kevin Tully, Mecklenburg County Public Defenders office were three of the eight member panel that had a discussion with the public at Mt. Carmel Baptist Church. The Charlotte chapter of Jack and Jill of America held a discussion Saturday about community interactions between minority youth and law enforcement and the justice system. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Savon Brathwaite said he’s never been stopped, searched or racially-profiled by police.

But what the 15-year-old Hough High freshman has experienced, he told a crowd in Charlotte on Saturday, is “social profiling” – stereotypes that he’ll act or speak a certain way because he’s black.

More than 50 teens, parents and elected officials gathered at Mount Carmel Baptist Church in western Charlotte to discuss the potential for racial bias among law enforcement and educators – and how youth can best handle encounters with police officers – during a forum called “Civil Liberties, Civil Rights and Civil Discourse: A Community Conversation.”

The meeting comes nearly a week after Mecklenburg County District Attorney Andrew Murray declined to file charges against Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Officer Anthony Holzhauer in the shooting death of Janisha Fonville, a mentally ill woman.

And on Friday, Randall Kerrick, a white CMPD officer charged with fatally shooting Jonathan Ferrell in 2013, pleaded not guilty to voluntary manslaughter after his attorneys filed documents claiming he acted in self-defense against the black man. Kerrick is scheduled to stand trial this summer.

Moreover, tensions between the police and public – especially minorities – have reached a boiling point as officer-involved killings in New York, Ferguson, Mo., and most recently, North Charleston, S.C., have made international headlines, sparking protests, rallies and discussions over whether officers are too quick to pull the trigger.

Panelists, including Mecklenburg County Commissioner Chairman Trevor Fuller and Mecklenburg County Public Defender Kevin Tully, didn’t address those issues, but the undercurrent was there.

“If we’re not doing what we’re supposed to do, then we’re being a disservice to ourselves,” said CMPD Major Sherie Pearsall, who manages the department’s internal affairs division. “If I don’t know what my biases are when I go into (a) community, I’m doing more harm than good.”

C. Renee Jarrett, hearing officer at the Mecklenburg County Clerk of Court, called implicit bias the “dirty little secret we don’t want to talk about ... we do treat people differently because of a fear of color.”

“You can’t wait until there’s an issue to start a relationship,” added Randy Hagler, chief of Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools Police. “You’ve got to know me and I’ve got to know you.”

The panel gave audience members tips on how to interact with police, including treating officers with respect, keeping your hands visible at all times when approached by police and reporting to the police if their rights have been violated.

The forum heated up when audience members fired off questions. One came from a mother who asked why police question children without their parents present. A father wondered if officers shirk using force against women.

Tina White, who helped form the first Citizen’s Review Board that looks into complaints against police, told panelists she’s been to countless similar forums in the past but feels they’re useless and don’t spur real change.

“Conversations are great, but nothing’s coming out of the conversation,” she said. “I’ve been in situations with police officers that curse, are rude and look to agitate you. Someone needs to police the police.”

Then, she wondered: “Where’s the diversity at these meetings in Charlotte?”

Most of the attendees Saturday were black. Organizers hoped for a mixed crowd and advertised the event on TV news and social media, said Sonia Ellis-Taylor, president of the Charlotte chapter of Jack and Jill of America Inc., which hosted the program. She said it’s easy for people to shudder when bad things happen, but only a few “show up at the table” to fix it.

James Daniels feels there’s a lot to fix. He’s witnessed officers treat residents disrespectfully and feels CMPD should not investigate its own officers. He asked panelists if they would be prepared to “stand up” against fellow officers complicit in wrongdoing.

“Dialogue is good, but we can have too much dialogue,” he said. “We need accountability.”

McFadden: 704-358-6045; Twitter: @JmcfaddenObsBiz

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