He wasn't jimmying any locks or ramming through any doors, and he didn't have any suspicious luggage. Charles Brown was just walking home, being black on Rosemary Street on a Monday night in June when Chapel Hill police mistook him for the wrong man, handcuffed him and detained him for an hour.
Brown has cut hair in Chapel Hill for seven years, and in May he bought his own shop, Precise Cutz & Styles, which is tacked onto the back of the Bank of America Building on Rosemary Street. On that summer night, he worked late fixing his barber chairs, which wouldn't lock into place, closed shop around 11:30 p.m. and headed west on Rosemary to his then-fiancée's home in Carrboro. He made it a few blocks, when in front of Breadman's he was confronted by officers looking for "Mr. Fearrington."
"I want to know if they really were looking for 'Mr. Fearrington.' I don't think so," Brown said in his barber shop Monday, between giving customers a close cut and a mohawk. "I think they were just looking to harass me, and have something come out of harassing me, drugs or something."
Brown, 36, later learned from Chapel Hill Police Chief Brian Curran, who apologized in person and provided a CD recording of radio traffic from the stop, that officers were looking for Cumun Fearrington, a man 20 pounds heavier, 2 inches taller and 11 years younger. Brown held up a picture of Fearrington in his shop, pointing out that the wanted man's eyebrows are much thicker and his skin darker than Brown's.
Curran told the Indy that Fearrington was wanted out of Carrboro for "failure to appear for something" and that he wasn't sure if Fearrington had been apprehended. Carrboro police records show that Fearrington was issued a trespass warning in April but was not wanted by the department. The Orange County Clerk's office has documents showing that Fearrington appeared in court June 8 on a charge of possession with intent to manufacture, sell and distribute marijuana. He lives on Sunset Drive in Chapel Hill, a half mile from where Brown was stopped June 1.
Brown's lawyer, Al McSurely, a well-known civil rights attorney who helped re-establish a Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP, said officers didn't show his client respect and violated his Fourth Amendment rights when they ran his name through a criminal records database—after confirming Brown wasn't Cumun Fearrington.
"You can't stop somebody because they fit the description of someone else—even if he didn't—and say, 'As long as I've got him [I'll run him through the database],'" McSurely said. "He should have been freed immediately."
Now McSurely and other local NAACP leaders are pointing to Brown's case as evidence that the town needs a civilian review board for the Chapel Hill police—and as an example of the lack of racial equality.
Michelle Cotton Laws, president of the local NAACP chapter, referenced Brown's case Friday at a rally honoring area civil rights leaders in a rousing, often damning speech in front of the U.S. Post Office on Franklin Street.
"We're going to keep on fighting and standing for peace and justice until black men don't have to be afraid to leave their businesses around the corner or places of work at night and fear that they will be harassed or unjustly interrogated or apprehended by police officers who unabashedly and unashamedly abuse and misuse their power," she said, applause echoing as her voice rose and fell melodically.
She said in an interview later that Brown's record is "impeccable," adding that he's one of only a few black downtown business owners.
Laws is calling for a public apology from Curran and doesn't want the chief to "protect bad apples."
"If there was such a thing as a perfect civil rights case to deal with police harassment, I think this case is it," she said. "I think that most people, if they are honest, even law enforcement, will say this was a misuse of police authority."
In August, Laws sent a letter to Curran, Chapel Hill Town Manager Roger Stancil and the mayor and town council asking for a meeting to address the issues leading to Brown's detainment. The town council is on summer break and won't meet until Sept. 14.
Curran said he's assigned Capt. Jeff Clark to pursue an internal investigation. There's no deadline for its completion.
"I know that there are those that are making public statements about this particular case, but we cannot," Curran said. "I'd urge the public not to rush to judgment."
Brown said he plans to speak with Clark later this week.
"I just want some justice to come out of it so it won't happen to anyone else," he said. "It's not about black, it doesn't matter who they stop. Wrong is wrong."
McSurely said Brown has a strong case, but added he would forgo a lawsuit in favor of the town's agreement to establish a civilian review board.
"If there was a civilian police review board, they could take up not only this specific cause but the policy angle," he said, adding that he regularly hears racial profiling claims along Rosemary Street and in the historically black Northside neighborhood.
"There needs to be a much better on-the-ground getting-to-know-you kind of police work. Nobody walks in the black community. They should've known that Mr. Brown had bought that barbershop and was working late at night. If you'd had cops on the beat, they would have known that."
McSurely was one of a handful of local activists who this summer called for a civilian review board. To establish the board, the town would need approval from the N.C. General Assembly, because private personnel records would become public.
Durham has a civilian review board; Raleigh does not.
Curran has publicly opposed such a board, saying that a proper review process is in place.
"It sends a really horrible message to rank-and-file officers here, that we don't trust them," Curran said.
Christian Johnson stopped by Brown's shop Monday for his regular trim. "He's been cutting my hair since I've been down here. He's a fair dude, hardworking man like myself," he said. "You know what they say, 'No disrespect, all black men look alike.'"
Johnson moved to Chapel Hill from Washington, D.C., six months ago, and said he already has reasons not to trust local police. Johnson said he was pulled over by Chapel Hill police in June because his car didn't have an inspection sticker. Police hauled him to Hillsborough, where the Orange County Jail is, for fingerprinting when he matched the description of a breaking-and-entering suspect. He was released hours later.
Curran contends that it's not only black people who allege discrimination. "It is not unusual on a traffic stop for people to say, 'You only stopped me because I'm ... and then just fill in the blank," he said. "The fraternity guys think we hate them too."
McSurely said the fraternity members are treated with more respect than the black community. However, a friendly get-together over beers, á la the Henry Louis Gates case, is not going to solve the problem, McSurely said.
"Some people have said, 'Why don't you invite the cop and Charles and have Michelle and give them a beer and take a picture of it," McSurely said. "I don't think that's really going to change the policy of the police department."