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Chapel Hill residents air views on police

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"Conniving," "disrespectful or uninformed," "terrific" and "responsive to the community": Those were some of the comments aired last week by residents, students and concerned citizens about their views of Chapel Hill police.

It was the last of four community conversations held this month, during which the police department asked the public for suggestions. This meeting, set in the Hargraves Center in the historically African-American Northside neighborhood, was relatively well attended (26 people compared to nine, 11 and eight at the previous meetings). Over two hours, the comments revealed an underlying tension between students and locals and conflicting views of Chapel Hill police.

The police scheduled the meetings, but they left the room during the discussions so people could candidly critique the department. Faith Thompson, who worked as assistant to Chapel Hill Town Manager Roger Stancil when he held the same post in Fayetteville, led the conversations with UNC School of Government colleague Nancy Kiplinger.

"There has been some disconnect between the community and the police department," Thompson said, in framing the discussion, "between getting good information and acting on it."

Residents talked about the police needing cultural sensitivity training, improved outreach to incoming college students and a more consistent protocol on responses to incidents ranging from graffiti to gunshots.

But there were points in the meeting at which the conversation became a competition of victimology, with students claiming the police unfairly enforced alcohol regulations and neighbors of students in rented housing ardently lamenting the noise violations and garbage in the street.

Some residents got upset when a parent of a student talked about "student rights." "What rights do students have that we don't have?" the resident asked.

Even residents who said they "love the students" remarked that through neglect, some are ruining their neighborhoods. They pleaded for a crackdown on trash can enforcement.

Others said the black and Hispanic population is targeted and profiled. They called for an independent group to review these claims.

Views also differed on police presence. Some residents complained that police don't regularly canvass their neighborhoods and asked for more vigilant foot patrols downtown. Others said that squad cars along Rosemary Street can be overbearing, and officers respond in unnecessarily large numbers at certain nightclubs.

"It's from where I sit," Thompson said. "Targeting to you may be increased visibility to me."

André Wesson, chairman of the town's Justice in Action Committee, which will craft a report on the listening sessions for the police to review, says unequal enforcement leads to the community competing against itself, rather than pulling together. The report is due March 3.

Wesson is a longtime customer of Charles Brown, the black barber who was erroneously detained by police on Rosemary Street last summer. That incident led to a renewed push for a citizen police review board. Though initially skeptical, Wesson said he's been impressed with the police department's willingness to listen.

"They are trying from the top down to listen to the community," he said. "We all are accountable, and we all have a role to play."

Assistant Chief Chris Blue says the department will consider the report as it crafts a new strategic plan in the coming months.

As the event wound down, several people snagged some refreshments for the road. Coffee and donuts, of course.

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