"We are not here tonight to validate or invalidate anyone's feelings or truth," Mayor Nancy McFarlane told a crowd of one hundred-plus people at the Anne Gordon Center for Active Adults in north Ralaeigh last Wednesday night. "Remember that tonight is a first step. Your participation tonight is the beginning of a long-term commitment to your community."
Those words marked the opening of the second meeting of Raleigh's Community Conversations Series, which is designed to facilitate a dialogue between residents, police officers, and elected officials about race and police relations. After a year in which two young African-American men—Akiel Denkins and Jaqwan Terry—were shot and killed by Raleigh cops, McFarlane and other officials say it's necessary to understand "different truths."
"It's the opportunity to talk to people they've never talked to before and to hear someone's point of view and different realities," McFarlane told the INDY. "But it's also the ability for people to create some new bonds, and most importantly, to figure out what we want as a city. It can't be just government telling people what to do; it has to be a partnership."
The meetings mirror the Face to Face series that police chief Cassandra Deck-Brown hosted last winter. The findings from those meetings were released in September. In response to questions about accountability, the Raleigh Police Department announced the creation of a Citizens Police Academy, which affords laypeople the opportunity to "experience aspects of training."
In March—shortly after Denkins was killed—the city council also approved a $5.2 million plan to put six hundred body cameras on the street over the next three years. As part of a pilot program, twenty Raleigh cops are now wearing body cams, though a state law that went into effect October 1 gives police chiefs total discretion over who gets to see the footage and requires a court order for footage to be released to the public. That law, critics say, undermines the very transparency the body cams were supposed to provide.
Local activists want the city to go further than either the body cams or this series of meetings: they want the citizens' oversight board they've been seeking to no avail for more than a year.
On Thursday, the ACLU and the Police Accountability Community Taskforce, an activist group, sent a letter to McFarlane calling for the city council to consider this board as part of its 2017 agenda, pointing out that an average of only thirty-four complaints against officers have been made in each of the past five years, and only 31 percent of those have been sustained.
ACLU policy counsel Susanna Birdsong says that there's no way to even know if the officers found to have violated policy were disciplined. "The data we have doesn't provide any detail, and I think that they would say that this is part of the officer's personnel file." In North Carolina, such personnel files are confidential.
"We have real concerns about the Raleigh Police Department's ability to effectively investigate and appropriately discipline officers who engage in excessive use of force and racially biased policing," the ACLU and PACT letter said.
Similar oversight boards have been implemented in more than two hundred other cities around the country, including New York, Seattle, and Kansas City. After Denkins's death, the city reviewed PACT's proposal, but in May said it couldn't grant investigative or subpoena powers to the board without explicit authorization from the General Assembly. So PACT members asked the council to lobby the legislature. The council declined. The activists hope the council will reconsider next year.
Those who met in north Raleigh on Wednesday night have had very different experiences with the police: white grandmothers don't interact with cops the same way young African-American men do, for instance, and it's worth questioning how a meeting in north Raleigh will improve community relations where they most need to be improved—say, in southeast Raleigh.
People there will eventually get their say, the city says. Similar meetings will be held in each of the five council districts, including District C, where Denkins and Terry died. Dates and locations haven't been announced.
Activists don't think this will change anything. "Other than having a facilitator, they did this exact same thing last year," says Akiba Byrd, a PACT member. "As far as I'm concerned, nothing has happened."
That facilitator was Willie Ratchford, the executive director of Charlotte-Mecklenburg's Community Relations Committee. Ratchford led the meetings and tried to ease whatever tension was in the air. Although accountability advocates are skeptical that these meetings will produce results, Ratchford says the deep racial divides exposed by the presidential election have made getting people to talk about these things easier, not harder.
"I've had people say to me that racial discrimination is a thing of the past," Ratchford says. "The election may have caused us to be more mindful of the divide that we have, and so we now know what the issue is and the problem is. We're talking about it together, and we're going to resolve it together."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Bridge the Divide"