Panel helps build relationships between residents, police

The “Know Your Rights” panel discusses citizen concerns about law enforcement during Saturday’s event held at Hargraves Community Center on 216 N. Roberson St. in Chapel Hill. Moderated by Dr. Rodney Coleman (left), the panel consisted of (left to right) Capt. Chris Atack of the Carrboro Police Department, Orange County Public Defender James Williams, Patrolman Nathan Downs of the Chapel Hill Police Department and Orange County District Court Judge Jay Bryan.
The “Know Your Rights” panel discusses citizen concerns about law enforcement during Saturday’s event held at Hargraves Community Center on 216 N. Roberson St. in Chapel Hill. Moderated by Dr. Rodney Coleman (left), the panel consisted of (left to right) Capt. Chris Atack of the Carrboro Police Department, Orange County Public Defender James Williams, Officer Nathan Downs of the Chapel Hill Police Department and Orange County District Court Judge Jay Bryan.

Lorie Clark’s vision became a reality Saturday, Feb. 28, at Hargraves Community Center as the “Know Your Rights” panel discussion opened dialogue between law enforcement and residents of Chapel Hill and Carrboro.

Clark, a Chapel Hill native, said she feared many young people weren’t aware of their rights when approached by or interacting with police.

“We want youth to be aware of their rights,” she said. “A lot of times things happen or escalate just because they don’t know what to do.”

Therefore, Clark enlisted the aid of family friends to organize an event that would appeal to young people. Darrell Keyes, who moved to the area from Portland, Ore. in the summer of 2014 to take a position at UNC-Chapel Hill, was one of these organizers. Keyes said Clark shared her vision during a Kwanzaa celebration in December.

“She approached us with what her idea of what the event would be,” Keyes said. “We decided to bring our ideas together and planned it over these last two months.”

Chassity Bobbitt, another event organizer and a December graduate of UNC-CH, said recent events nationwide had led the friends to discuss increasing their impact on the community.

“We were having a conversation about wanting to become more involved in the community,” Bobbitt said. “Then, it shifted to the recent news and incidents between primarily African-American males and police officers. We just thought we should do something with the community to raise awareness and help inform citizens of their rights.”

More than 30 residents attended Saturday’s discussion, including Carrboro police Chief Walter Horton and Chapel Hill police Chief Chris Blue.

The event opened with a panel featuring Carrboro police Capt. Chris Atack, Orange County Public Defender James Williams, Chapel Hill Police Officer Nathan Downs and Orange County District Judge Jay Bryan.

Rev. Rodney Coleman of First Baptist Church of Chapel Hill served as the moderator for Saturday’s panel. His questions included the reasoning behind the disproportionate amount of minority drivers pulled over in local traffic stops, discrepancies in sentencing for similar offenses and when officers are taught to draw or use weapons.

The forum was then opened up to the audience for further questions, which prompted community members to ask what tangible steps local law enforcement had taken in recent months to ensure local policing remained fair and used appropriate force.

Horton said his department recently spent $26,000 to ensure each officer had his or her own Taser instead of sharing, and that they were now exploring the purchase of video simulators to train officers in situations involving split-second decisions of whether or not to use deadly force.

Saturday’s discussion concluded with the panel and audience being broken into small groups to act out various scenarios involving law enforcement. These scenarios included what to do when pulled over, when officers have probable cause to search a person or car and how to file a complaint if a resident feels he or she been wronged.

In an interview following the discussion, Atack stressed the importance of building relationships with residents.

“Relationships are the core of government service in general,” Atack said. “Especially in law enforcement, you need to know the community you serve and you need to have an open dialogue with them.”

Atack acknowledged that building these relationships can be challenging, but said events like Saturday’s “courageous conversation” can knock down the walls that some residents feel separate them from law enforcement.

Miriam Thompson, a Chapel Hill resident who attended Saturday’s discussion, said she was excited to see residents of all ages participate.

“This was an important discussion to have,” Thompson said. “Seeing some young people and some parents ask some very strategic questions of the police was great. I think they (Atack and Downs) really tried to answer them, too.”

Thompson added that she hoped the two departments’ commitment to fair policing could be consistently upheld in the future.

Encouraged by Saturday’s turnout, which both Clark and Bobbitt said surpassed expectations, the group is looking to organize more community discussions on a quarterly basis in the future.

“We want to turn it into a series of events,” Bobbitt said. “Obviously this one was focused on knowing your rights, but we want to have different topics for each event.”

Keyes said the group is targeting June or July for its next event.

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Author of the article

Brian is a UNC-CH senior journalism major from High Point serving as a writer-photographer with the Carrboro Commons.