University police: “Community relations a two-way street”

University police departments from Cullowhee to Wilmington came together Wednesday evening, Feb. 22, for a town hall meeting aimed at improving officer-student relations.

(L-r) WCU Sgt. Robbie Carter, senior Mateius Brown and Lt. Jerry Adams discuss police-community relations during a town hall meeting Feb. 22. Photo by Caleb Peek.

The meeting, hosted by the North Carolina Central University School of Law via conference software, invited officers and students from all 17 UNC System schools to discuss evolving issues in law enforcement. It was the second event of its kind, following a September 2016 town hall aired at six UNC schools.

At WCU, four out of a possible 45 seats were filled. Only one was a student.

A panel containing leadership from Chapel Hill, Winston-Salem and a handful of other police departments facilitated the discussion, which ranged from informative to, at times, contentious.

As the floor opened for public comment, the conversation quickly turned to immigration and the protections in place for undocumented students. While some schools had only top-ranking police officials participating in the meeting, others, like North Carolina Central and UNC-Asheville, featured crowds that were largely minority students. And they wanted answers.

“I’d like to know what your departments are doing to make sure that immigrant students feel protected at school,” an African-American UNCA student told the panel.

After a long pause by the panel rife with uneasy glances, UNCA decided to take maters into its own hands.

“We’ve got to ensure our students that we’re not going to act outside the scope of our duties,” a UNCA public safety official responded to his own constituent. “…Our intentions at this point are not to determine your immigration status. It’s to make sure you have what you need as a student.”

The UNC system has yet to release a statement on how it plans to cope with increased federal efforts to deport those without documentation. But while some campuses are actively addressing immigration concerns, others have yet to experience fallout from the government crackdown. At these schools, police departments are preparing for the coming storm.

“Immigration hasn’t been an issue on campus as of yet,” said a representative of Fayetteville State University. “But from what I’m hearing across the state, we just want to get a sense of how to deal with such matters on campus.”

The conference room in the Camp Building connected university police departments from Cullowhee to Wilmington on Wednesday.

In addition to immigration, topics of discussion included more predictable items, such as implicit biases present in random “stop and frisk” searches and the concept of appropriate compliance, even though an individual may disagree with an officer’s actions. But police say that building trust with a community is a two-way street: it requires effort not only from the public, but from the department as well.

“I know in our community, we’re working very hard to have quality of interactions instead of quantity of interactions,” said Chris Blue, Chapel Hill chief of police. “What we’re trying to do is identify where there are the most disparities in interaction outcomes. Disparities are not necessarily quality interactions.”

At Western Carolina, law enforcement advocated for officers to “get beyond the badge,” which means showing the public that police are people, too. A primary way of reaching out to the community comes through police programs, particularly safety presentations for Greek organizations. WCUPD says that students respond well to the programs: police events bring out around 5,000 students annually, Lt. Jerry Adams estimated.

“We really like giving those programs,” said Adams. “They’re the main way that we build trust between us and the student body, and it also opens up the dialogue that’s necessary for building further trust.”

“Our main goal is not to give someone a criminal record,” Adams continued. “Sure, we have a responsibility to enforce the laws, but none of us want to single anyone out.”

WCU’s Sgt. Robbie Carter said that he tries to be as fair as possible when interacting with the community.  

“People that get a ticket from me earned it. I never stop somebody with the intent to write them a ticket just because,” Carter said. 

Senior Mateius Brown was the only Western Carolina student in attendance for the town hall. He says that interactions with police are going to happen, but he’s adamant that knowing the police in your community can make the difference between a smooth interaction and a tragic one.

“It makes you feel better when you know your officers,” Brown said. “I’m never afraid to speak with them, because I know they’re there to protect me. They’re people just like me. So far I think Western and their officers are doing a great job. Western has recruited some great positive attitudes.”

A future meeting of similar nature is expected later this year. Date and location is yet to be determined.