N.C. police chiefs discuss George Floyd murder, reform in The CoRE panel

Departments are rethinking the role of police, urging more training in areas of racial and implicit bias, and want laws that enforce better training and public transparency

Leaders from five North Carolina police departments said they agreed with verdicts against former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin, that officers need more and better training on bias and race relations, and that their departments are working to reform police operations.

Their remarks came during a wide-ranging panel discussion hosted by The CoRE: Conversations on Race and Equity, coordinated and moderated by Associate Professor of English Prudence Layne. Fayetteville Police Chief Gina Hawkins, Burlington Assistant Police Chief Brian Long, Mebane Police Chief Terry Caldwell, Winston-Salem Assistant Police Chief William Penn, and Greensboro Deputy Police Chief John Thompson participated.

Video of their discussion is available on The CoRE’s Facebook page. Layne began The CoRE series in summer 2020, hosting local and state leaders to discuss policing, education, healthcare and other areas of socioeconomic disparity.

The CoRE flier for "The Verdict" session.The national turmoil over police killings and the trauma caused by the disproportionate use of force against Black and minority residents remains a powder-keg issue. Just this week, officers in Elizabeth City, N.C., were thrust into the national spotlight for the shooting death of Andrew Brown — allegedly killed by a shot to the back of the head during a non-violent interaction.

“In this divided country, there are folks that think law enforcement can do no wrong. There’s another side that thinks we do no right,” Penn said.

At the same time, the increased scrutiny of police is creating better officers.

“The circumstances around our nation are making it easier to recruit the type of officers we want,” Caldwell said. “The young men and women I’ve talked to in last year and a half still want to be police to protect and serve for what it really means. I think we’re starting to lose the people (attracted to police work for benefits and job security).”

“People who want to serve are still out there,” Hawkins said. “You have to come with a servant’s heart. You have to be empathetic and understand that we’re held to a higher standard. It’s the most honorable job and I’m still proud of it.”

George Floyd’s murder and Derek Chauvin’s trial

From the first airings of witness recordings of George Floyd’s murder beneath Chauvin’s knee, each said they were aghast, both at Chauvin’s cruelty and the negligence of other officers present who allowed it.

“If I was in that city as a regular citizen, I probably would have gone to jail that day,” Hawkins said. “I couldn’t stand by and let that happen.”

Hawkins — who served on the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Use of Force Data Collection Task Force in 2016, responsible for establishing a nationwide system for reporting police use-of-force incidents — said officers are trained to intervene even when officers outrank them. She expects her officers to arrest her if she were to commit a crime.

“The video evidence was overwhelming, and I think it was since day one,” Long said. “The burden of proof against an officer shouldn’t be any different than for anyone else. I hope we’re on the path to that.”

Because there were bystanders and even a firefighter who called 911 and attempted to intervene at the scene, Penn is concerned that mistrust of police may cause future bystanders to involve themselves in police interactions and escalate situations.

“People felt helpless, guilty for not jumping in. We need to think about what may occur moving forward when citizens see something that doesn’t look like (correct police conduct),” Penn said.

Caldwell echoed those fears and urged bystanders not to physically engage with police.

“I can’t think of a time when it would be wise for any non-law enforcement officer to intervene at least physically to stop an officer’s actions,” Caldwell said. “Witnesses should continue to vocalize: We are reporting this. Don’t stop calling 911 and making officers aware that you are calling 911. It’s a slippery slope if we even bat around the idea of citizens get involved … How much worse could things have gotten if any of those witnesses (at the scene of Floyd’s murder) had even put a hand on his shoulder and asked him to stop?”

The ‘blue wall of silence’

The so-called “blue wall of silence” — officers unwilling to speak out or report wrongdoing by other officers — exists across the country, but it operates differently by region, state and jurisdiction, Thompson said.

“Seeing (Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo) and other officers take the stand to present evidence against Chauvin, to say that what he did was wrong, that it wasn’t part of their training, I felt a little like the chief was representing me as a law enforcement officer,” Thompson said. “I think that gave law enforcement a bit of a voice to say that what happened was wrong.”

Chiefs present Monday said they train and expect their officers to intervene against their colleagues to uphold laws, safety and public trust. Even though policies for intervening or reporting officer misconduct have existed in the past, they think internal police culture is turning against looking the other way at a fellow officer’s misconduct.

“It is a weight we should bear and be willing to take on,” Thompson said. “We should be the ones at the forefront.”

Accountability and transparency

Communities need to know and understand how their police departments operate, how officers are trained, and how they are held accountable when they violate proper procedures, officers said.

“Accountability happens when you address the small complaints, like about an officer’s disrespect or attitude,” Hawkins said. “You don’t all of a sudden one day turn up to holding you knee on someone’s neck for 9 minutes. It’s a gradual indifference and abuse of power that gets created. You hold them accountable in the early steps of the way with corrective training (and discipline).”

Several said North Carolina state laws that prohibit the release of body camera footage without a Superior Court judge’s order and personnel records including disciplinary outcomes of internal investigations erode public trust.

“It’s very frustrating for the executive officers to say that an administrative investigation is going on, and it ends there. The public never knows what happens,” Penn said. “The lack of transparency in the law has a lot to do with the lack of trust.”

“There are 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the nation,” Hawkins said. “The laws about what information is public and what’s restricted should be consistent across the nation. We’re getting criticism because of what’s happening in Minnesota and New York. It should be more transparent.”

Training and reforms

All said police need better, more consistent training in implicit bias, race relations and de-escalation.

“We train for driving and firearms every year as part of the job. Our equity and bias training and de-escalation training needs to be approached with the same mentality and enthusiasm as driving and firearms,” Penn said. “It’s a bigger part of the job than firearms and driving.”

Each officer detailed internal policies changing within their departments, including increased use of de-escalation techniques, partnership with crisis counselors and community agencies, and even shifting the kinds of calls officers respond to.

“Police shouldn’t go anywhere you don’t need a gun,” Thompson said. “If you don’t need a gun there, we need to rethink our response. Police need to step back from some areas.”

But local departments need legislative requirements and funding to enable widespread reform, they said.

“The changes aren’t happening quickly enough,” Long said. “We need legislation (to accelerate reform). If a barber needs 1,600 hours of training and a police officer only requires 700 hours, … there’s something wrong. Yes, it will take longer to get an officer in the field, but the outcome is better.”