Public Safety

‘Cops & Barbers’ town halls founder takes conversation to Washington

Shaun Corbett, center, a Charlotte barber, helps Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Capt. Tanya Arrington, left, to lead a discussion session with audience members during a Cops and Barbers Town Hall meeting at Arbor Glenn Recreation Center on Sunday, May 3, 2015.
Shaun Corbett, center, a Charlotte barber, helps Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Capt. Tanya Arrington, left, to lead a discussion session with audience members during a Cops and Barbers Town Hall meeting at Arbor Glenn Recreation Center on Sunday, May 3, 2015. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Shaun Corbett didn’t have the look of a law enforcement visionary.

As the Charlotte barber mopped sweat from beneath a baseball cap, his biggest concern was his air conditioner, which had conked out. The temperature was well into the 90s and he was worried the heat would chase away customers.

But his idea to bring community members together with police officers in nonthreatening town hall meetings has resonated in Charlotte and in law-enforcement circles around the country. On Thursday, Corbett will be in Washington talking to President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing about the “Cops & Barbers” town hall meetings.

Cops & Barbers was born in Corbett’s chair at Da Lucky Spot barbershop on North Tryon Street near Sugar Creek Road. At the shop, customers always talk about current events, but the topic of officers using deadly force had dominated conversations for months – especially after the cases sparked riots in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore, Md.

“I sat and I watched them tear down their own community and I thought something could be done about that,” he said. “And having an 18-year-old son who had just got a car, I didn’t know the right way to tell him what to do if he got pulled over by the police. I thought what better way than to get it from the horse’s mouth?”

The town hall meetings are happening as Charlotte and cities across the nation are involved in a discourse about police use of force against minorities. In Charlotte, Randall Kerrick, a white officer accused of killing an unarmed black man in 2013, is on trial for voluntary manslaughter. Proceedings began Monday.

The city is trying to avoid the violence that has arisen in other communities. Police and community members believe the town hall meetings spark productive dialogue instead.

Corbett and other organizers have held a half dozen so far. The sessions are characterized by their frankness. Sometimes people yell, or ask why officers profile young black men. But police have done their part to humanize their officers. Interactions on the streets can be dangerous or even deadly for officers as well, they say. Cooperating with an officer, not getting angry or hostile and obeying commands about keeping hands visible can help everyone go home safely.

At a church recreation center in June, Corbett took the microphone alongside Charlotte-Mecklenberg Police Department Capt. Jim Wright, as they tried to explain the different perspectives of the people involved in the traffic stop.

“We don’t know what they have in their pockets,” said Wright, who heads the Eastway Division. “Maybe they’re fixing to run. Maybe they have a gun. Maybe they have a knife. If their hands are out, we’re safe.”

But Corbett responded: “Why does it take two police cars to stop me on my way home from school?” he asked the crowd. “We’re tired of being picked on. We’re tired of being harassed.”

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