Meeting addresses tension between cops, citizens

Gary D. Robertson - Associated Press

RALEIGH — Accountability, communication and trust between police and citizens are the ingredients to reduce the chances for police shootings that escalate into community violence, North Carolina law enforcement officials said Tuesday.

Speaking at a meeting about police training practices, two police chiefs, a sheriff and a training program director described challenges and successes around building healthy relationships with those they are called to protect.

The event follows a call this summer by black North Carolina legislators to address potential training weaknesses proactively in light of fatal police shootings of black suspects in other states.

The shootings — and surrounding unrest — from Ferguson, Missouri, to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, have also hurt the image of police departments in some circles, making it difficult to attract candidates to serve.

“This is an honorable profession,” Davidson Police Chief Jeanne Miller said, but “we can be better.”

Speakers expressed support for teaching officers procedures and strategies designed to calm high-pressure encounters with suspects or to minimize effects of ethnic or racial biases. But training must be accompanied with strong agency leadership that makes clear there is zero tolerance for discrimination, Hoke County Sheriff Hubert Peterkin said.

“You can have all the policies and procedures in the world, but everything starts at the top,” Peterkin told some 150 people at the event organized by the North Carolina League of Municipalities. “For us, it’s all about accountability. I want to hold my officers accountable and I want to hold the community when they’re not in line.”

Peterkin agreed with Garner Police Chief Brandon Zuidema about the need to teach young officers more about how to de-escalate situations without making them hesitant to perform their job — and act with deadly force if absolutely required.

Some young police recruits are more accustomed to communicating with smartphones than with words and body language, one police trainer said.

“That’s a hurdle in the training that we’re trying to overcome,” said Jonathan Gregory, director of the law enforcement training at Wake Technical Community College. “How do we get these young kids to actually use their mouths and their brains to communicate clear instructions on what they want?”

North Carolina police recruits receive at least 616 hours of basic training. The curriculum is developed by special commissions. Veteran officers also cover training topics annually.

The law enforcement chiefs said growing trust with the public takes time and effort. Miller said her officers in Davidson are expected to be on foot patrol for two hours per shift, which increases their profile and rapport with residents.

Rep. Ed Hanes, D-Forsyth, a member of the Legislative Black Caucus who along with Sen. Joel Ford, D-Mecklenburg called for the meeting, said he next expects to huddle with police and community leaders around the state to develop a package of legislative reforms involving police.

Republican support likely will be needed for its ultimate passage. The next legislature convenes in January.

“It was a great start to what we hope to get done,” Hanes said after Tuesday’s event.

Gary D. Robertson

Associated Press

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