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Thursday, March 10, 2016

Community Activists Ask Raleigh's Human Relations Commission for Police Oversight Board

Posted by on Thu, Mar 10, 2016 at 8:10 PM

click to enlarge PHOTO BY PAUL BLEST
  • Photo by Paul Blest

Dozens of residents turned out for the City of Raleigh's Human Relations Commission meeting Thursday, to ask commission members to look into a community oversight board that would investigate citizen complaints against police officers.

Many of the residents, clad in black T-shirts and holding signs calling for justice, are members of a coalition of community leaders and groups, as well as nonprofits, known as the Police Accountability Community Taskforce (PACT). They hope the commission will make a recommendation to the City Council to look into authorizing a board composed of appointed citizens, with subpoena, investigative and disciplinary power, to review citizens' complaints. 

The presentation comes days after the officer-involved killing of southeast Raleigh resident Akiel Denkins.

Akiba Byrd, a PACT representative, told the commission that Denkins' killing brings a new urgency to the need for police accountability in Raleigh, especially in black and brown communities. 

"If you are black and walking, or black and driving, or black and just hanging out in the community, you are 270 times more likely to be stopped and searched, and you're ten times less likely to have contraband, or to actually have committed a crime," Byrd says. "What that means is our communities are over-policed."

PACT member Alex Walker, a southeast Raleigh native who now owns a small business in the community, cited some of the reasons why black and brown people are often stopped, and harassed, by police.

"On a day-to-day basis, we are ticketed for jay-walking when there aren't any sidewalks, getting stopped for walking down the streets in your own neighborhood and asked where you're going, the so-called "smell of marijuana being used as an excuse to search your car," Walker said. He said he has personally been stopped and searched for no reason. "Does that sound like policing in your neighborhoods," he asked the commissioners. 

Shirley Tang, a PACT member and founder of a group for parents and teachers that deals with school discipline issues, says unfair police profiling extends to students in school, and said that in Wake County schools, black students are 1.7 times more likely to be arrested at school than white students. She asks why "people we pay for to serve and protect us end up hurting us instead?"

Byrd says Raleigh officials have acted like the problem of police harassment doesn't affect Raleigh communities, that "it's not something they want to deal with." He said police chief Cassandra Deck-Brown has taken the position that the city has an adequate internal affairs system to deal with grievances against police officers, but that, between 2012 and 2015, an average of 40 complaints were made against police officers per year, while each year, very few—less than ten—were followed-up on. 

Commission member Gail Clements-McDonald asked Byrd if PACT had looked at citizen review boards in other areas of the country. Byrd said while many U.S. cities have them, New Jersey has just implemented a citizen review board system where members of the board have subpoena, investigative and disciplinary power.

"That's what will be most effective for our community," he says, though he acknowledges that  the "ins-and-outs" of such a board in Raleigh, or statewide, will need to be worked out. But he said Raleigh can start addressing police harassment now. 

"We need to address the little things," he said, "because the little things lead to big things, and it is consistent, it's a pattern. It's a system, we have to break the system. Any little thing that is brought to us, we are going to address it fully...If there is ever a time to step up, the time is now."

Commission chairman Michael Leach assured the crowd that he will review the information presented and take it to the City Council. "I will personally be involved in this process as long as I sit in this position," he said.

The crowd clapped, cheered, snapped fingers. It's a start, and for now, people seem satisfied with that answer. 

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