Public Safety

Cops and Barbers tackles its next challenge: Schoolkids

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police haven’t held a Cops and Barbers town hall meeting in more than six months, but organizers say that’s a sign of the program’s evolution, not its death.

The new group organizers are trying to reach? Students in Charlotte high schools.

The town hall meetings across the city sprung up in response to an uncomfortable national conversation about whether police are too quick to use deadly force against minorities. Fatal confrontations between police and blacks in Ferguson, North Charleston, Baltimore and here in Charlotte all contributed to a growing distrust.

So organizers, including Charlotte-Mecklenburg police, held the town hall meetings at recreation centers and school auditoriums in 11 of the department’s police divisions.

The sessions were characterized by their frank, even heated conversations. Attendees had tough words for officers, whom they accused of profiling blacks or being too aggressive with people from poor neighborhoods. Police tried to correct misunderstandings about common police tactics that officers use to keep themselves safe. Not getting angry or hostile and obeying commands about keeping hands visible can help everyone go home safely, they told attendees.

The program was successful. The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing invited organizer Shaun Corbett and others to the White House to discuss the town hall meetings. Corbett says he’s gotten calls from police departments across the country trying to implement similar programs. One of the last town hall meetings were attended by several people running for mayor and other political offices.

“It just turned into something that’s beautiful, and it’s much needed and these other law enforcement agencies are calling us wondering how we’re doing it,” he said. But he also worried that the increased attention diverted from the goal of allowing officers and community members to have frank conversations.

“It’s not a political race. it’s not about the who’s who,” he said. “It’s not all lights, cameras, action. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and now we’re in the marathon phase.”

Corbett, CMPD Chief Kerr Putney and other organizers are going to two Charlotte-Mecklenburg high schools a month, talking to teens about their interactions with police officers. Police are also getting feedback on how they can do a better job.

“We’re putting a lot of officers that might not have any connection to this kind of an urban setting in contact with people in the community who don’t typically talk to them,” Corbett said. “Instead of hey, what’s your name, let me see your ID, it’s ‘What’s up fellas, how are you doing?’ 

That human interaction has extended to other community events Corbett has organized. At a coat drive last year, he invited officers to help. They’re invited to his annual book bag drive in August, too, he said.

“They’ve got on gloves and hair nets, passing out chicken to families,” he said. “It’s not about the the uniform. It’s about adding a human element to it.”