Charles Brown clasped his wife's hand as they walked to the podium at Monday night's Chapel Hill Town Council meeting. Until then, others had spoken for the reserved, young businessman. He had stood in the shadows at rallies highlighting his case of mistaken identity. But after an internal police investigation cleared officers of any wrongdoing, Brown stepped forward.
His voice quivering, Brown struggled to speak as he told elected officials what happened to him after he closed his downtown barbershop on June 1.
"When I walk by or I'm driving past there, it goes through my mind, it happens all over again. I was humiliated. I was embarrassed," he said, his wife's arm around him, consoling a soft-spoken man thrust unwillingly into the spotlight. "I just hope we get justice from this incident."
That Monday night in June, shortly before midnight, Brown had worked late at his shop, Precise Cutz & Styles, at 136 E. Rosemary St.,Just blocks away from his shop in front of Breadman's, officers stopped him as he walked toward his Carrboro home. He was bent over a squad car, handcuffed and detained for almost an hour, he says, because officers had confused him with Cumun Fearrington, who was wanted on a charge of failure to appear.
He paused often while speaking to the council, trying to summon the right words. As he concluded, a slow-building round of applause arose from the crowd, and Brown's wife, Truphenia, grasped the mic.
"My husband is a man of good morals," she said, her calm yet assured tone matching the mood. "He is not a liar. He is a good man who walked into a ready-made family of teenagers and an 11-year old son. I was the first person who he talked to after this incident. I heard the humiliation in his voice. It hurt me that I could not console him."
Brown's lawyer, Al McSurely, chairman of the state NAACP's legal redress committee, played a recording of the police traffic from the incident, in which officers run Brown's name through a criminal database, despite having already established him as the wrong man.
This was the NAACP's first chance to be heard before the council—more than two months after Brown filed a citizen complaint with the police department. Chapel Hill Mayor Kevin Foy offered the NAACP the opportunity to speak, after receiving the group's response to the police investigation of the incident. The investigation dismissed Brown's claim that he was taunted and involuntarily detained for nearly an hour.
Foy made clear that the council won't judge how police handled the incident, and that making the investigation public should not be construed as its endorsement of the police department's point of view. He did, however, clearly sympathize with Brown over his ordeal.
"Mr. Brown, I think that you are due an apology," he said. "I don't think that anybody in our town should be treated this way. It's an embarrassment that you had to go through this—that is very clear."
That said, the question remains what will come of the apology. Unfortunately, that can't be answered by local elected leaders alone.
As part of its response to the police investigation, local NAACP President Michelle Cotton Laws called on town and police officials to examine the criminal justice system in Chapel Hill:
- to offer the NAACP a chance to publicly tell Brown's story to the council
- to conduct an independent review of the incident
- to provide an analysis of all arrests and incident reports with respect to race and location over the past five years
- to examine the climate for black-owned businesses
- to give a status update on the creation of a civilian review board.
The last request is the trickiest. For the town to establish such a board, it would need legislative approval to release confidential personnel records to a public body, but the proposal failed to gain traction in the statehouse this summer.
"The opposition was just astonishing," Councilman Ed Harrison said. "It was just something that was dead on arrival basically ... it never got put on an agenda, period."
Failing legislative authority, Councilman Mark Kleinschmidt pointed to discussion groups, a better community-policing model and an advisory board to allow citizens to help shape police department policy.
"I have faith that we are well intentioned," Kleinschmidt said. "We fail when we don't have a place to put this kind of complaint in our system. We need to create that place, even if the legislature isn't going to give us the review committee."
The council unanimously received and referred the petition to town staff for recommendations. Afterward, Cotton Laws said she felt the motion was appropriate, calling it "a move in the right direction."
The Browns were accepting and hopeful, albeit a bit confused by the process. Brown said he was so hurt by the police report that exonerated the officers that he considered moving his business.
"We didn't know if we wanted to continue owning a business in Chapel Hill," he said softly, as Truphinia adjusted the collar of his Carolina jacket. "I felt like we just needed to speak out."
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