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Rebuilding Trust: Law Enforcement Leaders, Legislators Talk Modern Issues with Police and Public 

By Ben Brown, NCLM Advocacy Communication Associate

This is an honorable profession.”

At a special forum of local-level law enforcement leaders
contemplating the array of modern challenges in policing, Davidson Police Chief Jeanne Miller said it firmly. And then again, so no one was forgetting.

“This is an honorable profession,” she repeated, driving her fingertip into a tabletop as a packed conference room of police peers and policymakers – including a row of General Assembly members – nodded along.

The refrain was meant to set the context around which many problems orbit these days. Due to officer-involved shootings and other individual incidents, often video-recorded and replayed on TV and computer screens across the country, the public eye has been brightly focused on law enforcement agencies over the past few years.

For League members, legislators and officers across North Carolina, the time has come to re-start the conversation on police interaction with the public, best-practices and how to create lasting trust.

“We have bad doctors. We have bad lawyers. We have bad politicians,” Chief Miller said. “We can be better. And I would like to see more of this kind of conversation.”

The chief was one of four panelists at a League-organized event on Aug. 16 in Raleigh held at the request of the N.C. Legislative Black Caucus.

“Seeing all of you here today, we know that local law enforcement agencies across the state are open to and welcome discussion about how to strengthen trust between law enforcement and the community that they serve,” said
Legislative Black Caucus Chairman Rep. Garland Pierce of Wagram. “So it’s important to have this type of dialogue, but also to see if we can arrive at some tangible proposals that we might take back to the legislature, to our districts, and those whom we are sworn to serve.”

Moderated by League 2nd Vice President and Mayor Pro Tem of Jacksonville Michael Lazzara, the questions were tough and the answers frank, starting with a focus on police training and department certification.

Chief Miller said the current system of training and updating is strong in terms of uniformity, but it’s not nimble. It can take a long time to integrate new, important concepts, like introducing verbal de-escalation training at the basic law enforcement training (BLET) level.

Another panelist, Hoke County Sheriff Hubert Peterkin, said he appreciates the array of training opportunities available, including the League’s risk-reduction training, and he’d like to see it all evolve in step with modern policing challenges.

Garner Police Chief Brandon Zuidema agreed it’s important to expand or modernize training, but he said that summons the question of whether and what to shave from the current slate. “We’re at 616 (training hours per officer) at Wake Tech BLET,” he said. “We know they’re talking about wanting fair and impartial policing ... we’re wanting other things added into it. But either what do we give up, or at what point can we find a balance there?”

Jon Gregory, Wake Tech’s BLET director and a panelist at the forum, said he thinks it’s important to add more training hours to police work.

“When you actually put an individual into a training environment, you are actually seeing the way they will react,” Gregory said. “The more we will be able to put a student into a situation, we as an instructor or an evaluator can determine whether or not what type of remediation training needs to take place.”

There’s more to consider, too, Chief Miller said. Although plans to expand in-service training are well-intentioned, they can pose challenges to small police departments with limited human resources. Around 75 to 80 percent of law enforcement agencies have 25 or fewer full-time employees, she said, “and that puts a real burden on an agency when it’s trying to get its people trained in.”

Remarks like this may necessitate new thinking and exploration on methods and efficiencies with officer training. But, in the meantime, it’s important that
departments seize on what’s currently available, said Sheriff Peterkin.

“It’s probably some of the best money my county commissioners have ever spent on my county when it comes down to national accreditation,” the sheriff said. “But I know that everybody can’t do it. So when you see the League and when you see the Sheriffs’ Association doing things and putting things in place to, in addition, ensure that you’re doing the right thing ... you’ve really got a plus.”

Panelists through the roughly two-hour program touched on challenges with funding and other resources before arriving at greater society’s most discussed law-enforcement issue – recent, tragic encounters with civilians.

“What can actually be changed with public policy?” Mayor Pro Tem Lazzara asked the panelists.

Chief Miller, citing a report from the U.S. Department of Justice, said she found it interesting that around the time of the internationally reported shooting in Ferguson, Mo., that town’s department and all others in the St. Louis region had emphasized traffic enforcement for revenue. She added that the traffic issues they were cracking down on could be relatively simple, like out-of-date inspections.

While needed revenue might have been the goal of the flexed enforcement, potential unintended consequences could include more tension between the public and police. “It is an issue that I think that we need to talk about when we start to talk about public policy,” Chief Miller said. “We need to be looking at consequences ... and what does that mean for us.”

Sheriff Peterkin said there needs to be more emphasis on leaders leading. “Right now, for us, it’s all about accountability,” he said. “....if you as a leader do not set the example that you are going to be kind, or you are going to follow the rules and regulations and policies and procedures, if you don’t set that example, then your deputies are not going to do it, the police officers are not going to do it, in the field.”

Reiterating those points, Chief Zuidema said law enforcement agencies must be transparent and do a better job letting the public know not just what they are doing, but why. Still, he noted that, in an age of diminished personal communication skills, that this is not “a law-enforcement-only issue.” “We have to build that trust back, or continue to build on what we have with our communities,” he said.

Chief Zuidema said the applicant pool for sworn officers is often low for minorities and females. An expanded, diverse applicant pool could bring about a lot of change, he suggested. One solution is working harder to spread positive stories from the police beat, the chief continued. There are numerous stories of goodwill and heroism that get lost between the bold headlines of tragedy.

The discussion also examined “community policing,” a philosophy that typically includes more neighborhood focus and spirit, with foot patrols and smiles to reverse any feeling of intimidation in sensitive communities.

“Community policing is – in some places – it’s a catch phrase,” Chief Zuidema said. “But in some places it’s exactly what we need to do. And it’s just that simple. It’s interact with your community, whether you’re doing that with coffee with a cop or doing that through a police athletic activities league, or just holding community forums. But there’s a lot that we can do, again, to share our message.... So I think if we continue to look at that sort of thing, we can be effective.”

Chief Miller echoed that. “I think that where we can, we need to get out of the cruisers. ... we need to get out of the car.”

A number of state officials and legislators attended the forum to hear the law enforcement perspective. Sen. Floyd McKissick of Durham said he thinks improvement needs to be on a “two-way street,” where the public too can improve its understanding and relationship with police. He suggested that a little bit of public education – even in just knowing how to best interact with officers during
routine traffic stops – could go a long way.

Rep. Jean Farmer-Butterfield of Wilson posed a practical question: “What can legislators do? What do you need from us?”

For one, said Chief Zuidema, legislators can continue to attend forums like this one. That would give better context to the law enforcement community’s requests for funding and resources.

Sheriff Peterkin said he appreciated lawmakers’ willingness to listen and maintain open-door policies, and hoped legislators’ would trust their perspective.

Mayor Pro Tem Lazzara said it’s got to be tough being in a profession that is constantly eyed by the public and media. “I don’t think many professions have that
responsibility,” he said. “And I just ... want to tell you that you are appreciated.”