LUMBERTON — Local law enforcement offices say that while they are being extra careful following the murders of eight police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, they feel embraced by most people in Robeson County.
“I was raised to respect the police, not really fear them but respect them, and you see a lot of that leaving now,” said Lumberton police Lt. Joe Cain. “Not as much here. Our community is a little different. I can’t tell you how many times the phone rings in a day with people calling saying we appreciate y’all.”
About 30 officers felt the love Wednesday night at a service for law enforcement held at Pembroke’s Mt. Olive Pentecostal Holiness Church. A crowd of about 75 people joined hands and surrounded officers from several local agencies to pray for their protection during a service that took the theme “blessed are the peacemakers.”
“We want you to go home safe at night to your families,” Pastor Steven Jacobs said. “We want a safer community … We want to live in a place where everyone is important and everyone is respected.”
For many local officers, the past few weeks have been a difficult time to wear the badge. A gunman who killed five officers in Dallas on July 9 said he wanted to kill police — particularly white officers — after the shootings of two black men in Baton Rouge and Minnesota. The shooter who killed three officers in Baton Rouge a week ago today was similarly motivated.
“It just makes me sad, all the hatred going on now,” said Pembroke police Officer Ryan Locklear, a member of the Pentecostal congregation.
Local officers say the actions of a few lawmen shouldn’t color perceptions of all officers nationwide.
“Every case is different, every situation is different but you’re asking a person that in a tenth of a second he’s got to make a decision that’s with him the rest of his life or his family’s life,” said Cain, who has been in law enforcement for 20 years.
Regardless of who pulled the trigger, recent shootings have brought to the forefront dangers officers always knew were a possibility in their line of work.
“It’s just scary to actually come to work,” Locklear said.
After hearing about the officers killed in Dallas, Locklear was shaken.
“I prayed about it, I cried about it,” he said.
Red Springs Officer Vernon Strickland said he has tried to stay away from online news coverage of the shootings — he’s tired of the readers’ comments. But he says it’s rare that he hears such remarks in Robeson County.
“We’ve got a good rapport with our community, even with the guys we arrest we treat them like a person,” he said.
Local departments are reminding officers to be more watchful and to not respond to calls alone whenever possible. Lumberton police received a memo Thursday urging vigilance.
“We do tell the guys to be a little more careful, be a little more vigilant,” said Cain. “ … I’ve always had the same routine. The one thing I always do is I tell my family I love them and I’ll see them at the end of my shift.”
In the wake of the shootings, local police departments have received phone calls, food and cards from residents who want to show their support. Jacobs, who once aspired to be a Highway Patrol trooper, decided to organize Wednesday’s prayer after hearing Pembroke Police Chief Grant Florita calmly telling his officers to be courteous, be professional and rely on their training during a recent briefing on a bomb threat in the town.
Community policing has laid the foundation for a positive relationship between residents and police in Robeson County, where high crime rates and a history of corruption could be kindling for the type of heated encounters dividing other communities. Although some non-fatal shootings have occurred since, the last time a Lumberton officer fatally shot a civilian was in 2010.
The most recent lawmen killed in Robeson County was Lumberton Officer Jeremiah Goodson, whose death brought together law enforcement and residents who knew Goodson from his work in public housing and in local schools. Before his 2012 death, the county had not seen an officer killed in the line of duty since 1999.
“Our officers have long been going to neighborhoods, knocking on doors and asking ‘what can we do?’” said Red Springs Police Chief Ronnie Patterson. “I truly believe in our community we have worked with so many residents that when they’re in crisis, they trust us.”
Red Springs police Sgt. J.C. Hunt said it makes his job a little easier that “everybody knows everybody” in the tight-knit town.
“That’s what we’re aiming for, is to be a part of the community,” he said. “ … It gets us one-on-one with them individually, so they’re not afraid to say ‘this is what’s going on in the community.’”
In Lumberton, officers are required to get out of their cars at least 30 minutes a day, walk around and engage residents.
“For the majority of the time our officers are assigned to a permanent beat so they learn the residents, they learn the business people, they learn the regulars, the ones that are more prone to recommit,” Cain said.
Robeson County law enforcement is also largely representative of the diversity of the county as a whole. The Lumberton Police Department employees 15 black officers, 45 white officers and 25 American Indian officers. The Robeson County Sheriff’s Office has 17 black employees, 62 white employees and 50 American Indian employees. According to 2015 census estimates, Robeson County’s population is 39 percent American Indian, 32 percent white and 24 percent black.
“In our area we’re kind of fortunate where we have a diverse community with a racial mix we’ve lived with all our lives and if you look at it, we have a diverse mix of police chiefs in this county,” said Lumberton City Councilman Burnis Wilkins, who worked three decades in law enforcement and now teaches continuing education courses for officers.
Cain traces the camaraderie between local police and the community to the region’s agricultural roots and tradition of helping one another. Hunt says he and his coworkers simply try to treat everyone they interact with as if they were family.
At Wednesday’s prayer service, Jacobs and the Rev. Vee Oxendine called on officers to lead by example, lead with integrity and not “let violations slide,” even within their own departments.
“I’m here tonight because all lives matter,” he said.
Sarah Willets can be reached at 910-816-1974 or on Twitter @Sarah_Willets.