by Joe Schwartz
After listening to citizens air complaints and praise the Chapel Hill Police department, the chairman of a town committee called law enforcement administrators “proactive and progressive” and says he’ hopes a civilian review board could be established.
“A lot of the ideas they had started working on already,” Wesson says. “They’re very proactive and progressive, I think.”
For example, the department is seeking more bilingual volunteers after residents raised the language barrier as an issue.
Conversations centered on the need for community ambassadors, citizens who would be in dialogue with their neighbors and the cops on issues beyond daily crime, to help manage the flow of information between officers and residents. Surprisingly, few residents raised the idea of establishing a civilian review board, a body that could serve as a third-party arbiter in cases of police misconduct.
The local call for creating such a board was renewed last year when Charles Brown, a Rosemary Street barber, was mistaken for a suspect, detained and questioned by town police.
So far, police have been largely resistant to a civilian review board. Administrators have questioned what message the board would send to the rank and file officers.
Wesson, a customer and friend of Brown, understands the concern, but says a civilian review board could examine both allegations of wrongdoing and highlights instances of exemplary police performance.
“The general sense is that if it could be constructed in a way that police officers did not feel like they were necessarily under the gun than it would be something that was good for their morale,” he said. “No one wants to feel like a scapegoat. No one wants to feel like they are under the microscope and only being viewed negatively.”
JIA would support a civilian review board, as it would other initiatives to help monitor racial and social justice issues, Wesson says.
The listening sessions and the collaboration between JIA and Chapel Hill police could provide a new path to increased public input on law enforcement, which Wesson calls vital.
“”That’s the most critical aspect of any police department at any time is just seeking out feedback,” he says.
JIA plans to host an event with the police department in September for the public to learn more about changes generated by the listening sessions.
“It wasn’t just a show; it wasn’t just, ‘Let’s do these events and see where it goes,’” Wesson says. “They have really been committed throughout. It’s really about creating a platform that we can build upon. They understand they cannot fully do their job without the support and understanding of the community.”
Justice in Action’s next meeting is 6 p.m. Thursday at Chapel Hill Town Hall.