The Winston-Salem Police Department uses measures such as community policing to prevent the kind of social unrest that happened last week in Charlotte, a police official said Wednesday at a panel discussion at Wake Forest University.
“We get out and talk to people,” said Catrina Thompson, an assistant police chief in the department. “As a law enforcement agency, we have to develop trust. The Winston-Salem Police Department cannot do this job alone. We must have strong relationships in the community.”
Thompson participated in a forum at the WFU School of Law in the wake of the shooting death of Keith Lamont Scott, a 43-year-old black man in Charlotte on Sept. 20 and the protests that followed that incident. About 200 people, WFU law students, police officers and city residents, attended the event.
Five nights of protests in downtown Charlotte followed the police shooting of Scott, who police say was armed and refused to follow police commands.
Last Saturday, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney released video footage related to Scott’s death. Putney initially delayed releasing the footage, saying that it might have a negative effect on the investigation. Scott’s family saw the footage last week and asked that it be released to the public immediately.
In Winston-Salem, police officers often talk with residents about their perceptions and complaints about officers, Thompson said. Police know the city’s neighborhoods and local schools, and they have developed strong relationships with community organizations such as the Ministers Conference of Winston-Salem and Vicinity, she said.
“We are not the police and the community,” Thompson said. “We are the community.”
Panelist Ronald Neal, a WFU religion professor, said the protests in Charlotte happened because many people face economic and educational inequities there, and they don’t feel like they are part of America’s social fabric. In addition, the city’s racial etiquette, established in Charlotte and other southern cities by their political, social and economic leaders, broke down after Scott was killed, he said.
“What did they do?” Neal asked of the protesters. “They tore the place down.”
The protests occurred in Charlotte because the city’s social organizations and networks organized the demonstrations well, said Hana Brown, WFU sociology professor and a panelist. The protesters perceived a lack of social justice in the state’s largest city, she said.
“Social justice organizations can bring out people to the street in the face of tear gas and the potential for bodily harm,” Brown said.
In Charlotte and other American cities, some police officers might perceive young black men as dangerous and criminals, said Derek Hicks, a WFU divinity professor and a panelist. Even if black men dress and act respectfully in society, “it doesn’t necessarily guarantee safety” for them, he said.
Despite the factors that led to the protests, the demonstrators had a constitutional right to protest and the city of Charlotte had a legal right to impose a curfew, said Shannon Gilreath, a WFU law professor and a panelist.
Ronald Wright, a WFU law professor and panelist, said when police use deadly force against someone they consider a threat to themselves or others, then their actions are justified. However, if there is an atmosphere of distrust between police, prosecutors and city residents before an incident such as the one that happened in Charlotte, then those factors can lead to protests and unrest, he said.
Kami Chavis, moderator and the director of the criminal justice program at the WFU law school, said she is concerned about the lack of transparency in the aftermath of Scott’s death in Charlotte. She is opposed to the state law that will prevent most police body camera and dashboard footage from being made public. That law goes into effect on Saturday.
“It builds distrust,” Chavis said of the law. “It’s not appropriate that footage will not be released indefinitely.”
British McLean, a third-year law student from Pembroke Pines, Fla., said that panel discussion was helpful.
“It opened a dialogue, so people could express their frustrations about the situation,” McLean said.