‘Bringing the situation to light’: Locals discuss police reform in Chatham

Posted 11/26/20

PITTSBORO — Earlier this year, a routine traffic stop along Jack Bennett Road led Roy Barnes to speak out about the need for police reform in Chatham County.

That’s because Barnes, who’s …

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‘Bringing the situation to light’: Locals discuss police reform in Chatham

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PITTSBORO — Earlier this year, a routine traffic stop along Jack Bennett Road led Roy Barnes to speak out about the need for police reform in Chatham County.

That’s because Barnes, who’s lived in Pittsboro for 40 years, is a Black man, and his negative experiences with police in the past made the traffic stop feel like anything but routine. For starters, he had no idea why he was being pulled over and didn’t feel safe doing so until he’d reached a gas station where he could interact with the officer in public. On the way to the gas station, he was so worried he called his wife and asked her to meet him there.

In the end, he discovered he was pulled over for driving left of the yellow line — something he says he’s pretty sure didn’t happen — and didn’t receive a ticket for it. Following the incident, Barnes decided to reach out to Chatham County Sheriff Mike Roberson to voice his concerns.

“I just wanted to have a conversation about policing, and it’s been deep in me ever since I’ve been a kid from Pittsburgh,” Barnes said, referencing the time his mother hit him across the mouth when he started to ask a police officer a question as a young boy. And even though policing is widely thought to be better in Chatham than in surrounding counties, Barnes believes changes can and should be made.

“I would say policing is a problem everywhere,” he explained. “As a Black man, I want to stop being afraid my whole life.”

In the end, Barnes did get to speak with Roberson — a conversation in which he said he finally felt heard. He talked with Roberson about his negative experience with the officer who stopped him, as well as his fear of police as a Black man.

During their conversation, Barnes shared that he’d like to see police officers held accountable “just like everyone else,” not just fired or transferred. Ultimately, after weeks of waiting to speak with someone, he just wanted the sheriff to listen to his concerns.

“And that’s what the sheriff did,” Barnes said. “He took me from my attitude being 100 to my attitude being 10 just by letting me talk. I told him that he actually changed the narrative of how I feel, and he did. Whether it’s next week, or 10 years from now if he’s still sheriff, if a situation occurred, I think he will take steps toward rectifying that.”

But Barnes doesn’t think that Chatham having a good sheriff completely negates his and other people’s negative experiences with police.

“I want my story to be told because I want people to be encouraged that if you feel like you’ve been mistreated by the police, most likely you have,” he said. “And it’s OK to say something about it. Because until we start bringing the situation to light, nobody’s ever going to want to make a change or make a reform.”

‘I don’t want people to be scared of us’

In Chatham, Roberson said he is constantly working toward better outcomes from law enforcement interactions.

Roberson grew up in a Black community in Chatham County and has emphasized diversity in his hiring practices since taking office. While he thinks there are always ways his department can improve, he thinks his officers are good at what they do.

Still, he acknowledged that people’s past negative experiences with police officers — as well as media coverage depicting police actions “that are blatantly and obviously wrong” — can and do legitimately impact how people view law enforcement.

“If you listen to (Mr. Barnes’) story, he’ll talk about how it made him feel,” Roberson said. “I think those are all valid concerns about how people feel, or when they’re put in situations that may feel one way where someone else might feel a different way. What we did with Mr. Barnes, though, we invited him in to look at the video footage, and when we looked at the video footage it sort of told a different story.”

Roberson said the video footage could not be released; Barnes stuck to his claim that he didn’t think he was doing anything wrong when he was pulled.

One way that Roberson said the department strives for accountability and transparency of its officers is through body cameras — each employee has and wears one, though there is not yet one in every police car, he said, due to the prohibitive cost of installation. The department hosts racial equity training for its officers, has an anonymous complaint process that it prioritizes checking, he said, and reviews every use of force, even if there are no complaints associated with the incident.

One of the most important parts of reform and justice in Roberson’s eyes is building relationships in the community before a crisis — something he does through community events and dinners throughout the year. While he believes the onus is on his department to take these first steps, he thinks the community needs to be actively involved in the process as well.

“I don’t want the Sheriff’s Office to be a bad place,” Roberson said. “I don’t want people to be scared of us. But it needs to be a community reform, too. Because the community can’t expect the police to fix all your problems, and the police shouldn’t be a separate thing than the community.”

In July, the Racial Justice Task Force of the 18th Judicial District hosted a virtual community conversation about Chatham’s criminal justice system. During that meeting, Roberson and N.C. Rep. Robert Reives II were among a group of speakers who spoke about racial justice from their perspectives.

“If you want to see how law enforcement should operate, look here,” Reives said of Chatham and Roberson’s office during his remarks.

Roberson spoke about diversity statistics within the department, noting the department was “way ahead” of many other places but still has a lot of work to do to fully represent the community. He specifically said the department was doing most poorly when it came to hiring and retaining Black men.

“We are certainly not perfect, but I will tell you that we aim to learn and we know yesterday’s ways are not OK for today,” Roberson said at the time.

Karen Howard, the chairperson of the Chatham County Board of Commissioners and one of the scheduled speakers at July’s event, said she had a strong commitment to using her role as a commissioner to listen to experts regarding ways to better support Chatham’s communities of color.

“Everything that I do and say is going to be framed by the context that I’m also the mother of five Black sons,” Howard said. “It can’t be that my sons are safe because we have the sheriff that we have at this moment. It has to be that we have collectively changed policy, changed thinking, changed expectations.”

‘The pain is real and it hurts’

Many community activists in Chatham agree that more can and should be done to address policing in Chatham.

Monica Jarnagin, who works with the Chatham Takes Action — a local antiracist organizing group formed after the decision to remove the Confederate monument in downtown Pittsboro — said she is not a reformist. In a perfect world, she said, “policing as we know it would not exist.”

“We would move the wildly disproportionate law enforcement funding to mental health care, truly affordable housing, education, community and cultural centers, libraries, and we would make sure our neighbors have food, shelter, and support around substance abuse,” she said, adding that police reform has been a “failing project” for decades.

Still, she said it’s important to address that fact that people are still impacted by the current system, so paying attention to what happens in our courtrooms, creating bail funds and organizing to end qualified immunity for law enforcement officers is still important. In Chatham, Jarnagin said people can “demand accountability” for the county’s degree of cooperation with ICE, as well as investigating conditions of the Chatham County jail.

“We know that racial bias in criminal justice and policing is a systemic issue,” she said. “This isn’t up for debate; it’s fact. Systemic issues don’t skip a county because the sheriff is a nice guy. Is it better here than in Alamance County? Sure. But comparing Chatham to surrounding counties is pointless if these inequities exist here, which they do.”

While protesting against Confederate supporters, starting in 2019, Jarnagin said she became concerned with the way the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office and Pittsboro Police Department treated sometimes-armed Confederate protesters as compared to how they treated counter-protestors, who she said were denied their gathering rights. She also raised concerns with Roberson encouraging ‘bad cops’ to leave his department, questioning where those officers go next. Roberson told the News + Record that he views public trust as being essential to the work his department does, and will therefore fire anyone who lies to him.

“Allowing a known violent, racist or unprincipled officer to serve in the next county over is not noble and is not in the best interest of our neighbors,” Jarnagin said. “This is not so much an indictment on Sheriff Roberson as a person — it’s an indictment on a poisonous system, and thinking our county is immune to that poison requires us to ignore facts.”

For Barnes, his experience earlier in the year reminded him that as a Black man, his experiences with racism will always impact his perspective and his sense of safety. And while he said he doesn’t agree with getting rid of law enforcement, he knows something needs to change.

“With all that’s going on, this has made my fears and apprehensions bigger, because I feel like everything that happens to Black men hurts me,” he said. “I think that’s what society doesn’t realize, is that the pain is real and it hurts.”

He quietly added: “I think this is kind of where I am untrusting, and I know I need to try and let some of that go. But it’s hard to do it right now in the state that our world and America is in right now.”

Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at hannah@chathamnr.com.


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