Chatham’s law enforcement community reacts to Chauvin’s murder conviction

Posted 4/28/21

In the wake of Chauvin’s historic trial, many police officers have voiced their approval, or rejection, of the outcome. A day after the trial concluded, Andrew Brown Jr., a Black man, was shot five times by police in Elizabeth City. He died from a “kill shot to the back of the head,” according to attorneys for Brown’s family.

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Chatham’s law enforcement community reacts to Chauvin’s murder conviction

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Posted

An anonymous jury of his peers — six white and six people of color — convicted former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin last week of murdering George Floyd, a Black man whose death sparked a resurgent civil rights movement almost one year ago.

The much-anticipated verdict was historic in at least one sense: it was the first time ever in Minnesota history that a white officer was deemed guilty of murder for killing a Black man on the job. The conviction is similarly unprecedented in other states.

In the wake of Chauvin’s historic trial, many police officers have voiced their approval, or rejection, of the outcome. A day after the trial concluded, Andrew Brown Jr., a Black man, was shot five times by police in Elizabeth City. He died from a “kill shot to the back of the head,” according to attorneys for Brown’s family.

Coupled with Chauvin’s guilty verdict, the incident has sparked widespread rancor; many, including some police officers, say law enforcement must change in response to calls for reform and increased accountability.

To see what Chathamites can expect of their police officers amid the nationwide reckoning, the News + Record interviewed local law enforcement leaders. These are their responses.

Chatham County Sheriff’s Office

“My reaction is I think it’s important for all officers to intervene when they see something inappropriate,” said Chatham County Sheriff Mike Roberson. “Whether that’s inappropriate use of force or an officer doing something wrong.”

Chauvin’s trial emphasized the critical role empathy plays in an officer’s duty to serve the people, Roberson said; he values the quality above impressive education, advanced tactical skill and even experience in some cases.

“We do not hire Superman or Superwoman,” he said. “... We’re looking for human beings that have serving hearts, you know, they want to help others. We hire a lot of waitresses and waiters and send them to law enforcement school. We hire a lot of certified nurses. I have everything from GEDs to Master’s degrees that are on the front line. But what they have in common is compassion.”

While all police officers have an obligation to prevent and report abuses of power among their peers, Roberson said a well-functioning department should root out bad officers before they have opportunities to hurt the public.

“You know the things you’re seeing on TV, some of tho.se are just so far from common sense — it’s just shocking sometimes what you’re seeing,” he said. “We can’t wait until that point to start making corrective action. It’s got to be earlier.”

To preemptively quell indiscretion, Roberson has adopted an internal policy of frequent body camera footage review.

“We actually regularly review them for policy violations,” he said. “So we don’t wait until there’s a use of force complaint. We’re always looking for policy violations, even smaller things. And sometimes that means it’s a training thing, not necessarily a discipline thing. It could just be, ‘Hey, I noticed you were doing this,’ and we’ll try to retrain them. What I’m saying is we don’t wait until it’s really, really bad.”

Roberson said a staff which reflects the county’s diverse demographics will also help to promote better police-resident relationships. His office boasts “two or three times as many women on staff than normal police departments,” he said. But hiring people of color has proved difficult.

“I would agree I’m having issues hiring male and female minorities,” Roberson said. “... I’m having the most difficulty hiring Hispanic and Black males. There are not enough applying to hire them at that rate. There’s a lot of pressure from their family, from friends, to not be in this line of work, and so we’re dealing with that a little bit.”

When asked for his thoughts on the social media movement to “defund the police,” Roberson responded that he supports what he thinks the slogan stands for, but not literal budget cuts in police departments.

“I’ve heard the term, but I’ve not heard a definition of what it means,” he said. “If you mean defund the Sheriff’s Office, I think that’s a bad idea. If you mean defund bad cops, then I understand what you mean.”

The phrase is catchy, Roberson said, and well-intentioned, but too vague and obscure.

“I think the big thing that is being said in this is that people want change, and that’s how serious they want change,” he said. “... We can tend to paint with a big brush on that, but I think that ‘defund the police’ is sort of a direction — making sure things change — more than the actual vocabulary of what those words mean by definition.”

While the “defund the police” phrase has only proliferated in the last year, some activists have for decades decried “overpolicing” and called for literal budget cuts or total abolition of police departments.

Roberson is proud of how Sheriff’s Office staff have behaved in the last year in response to protests and uneasiness among residents, he said. But he knows there exists an entrenched angst whenever some Chathamites interact with police — a distrust that will not quickly fade.

“I want to say that in Chatham County we recognize that the fear is very real,” he said, “and we’ve taken several steps and are trying to improve transparency and accountability for all of our staff. That’s deputy, detention, investigators — everyone.”

Siler City Police Department

Siler City Police Chief Mike Wagner declined to comment directly on the Chauvin trial, but said he takes seriously resident concerns within his department’s jurisdiction.

Siler City has the greatest concentration of minority groups in Chatham County. Almost half the town’s residents — 47.1% — are Latino, as the News + Record previously reported. Another 18.7% are Black, meaning two-thirds of the town’s population is made up of minorities.

“We put out a plan of evolution, of our department making change, long before it was requested,” Wagner said of department policies to avoid use of force and reflect a diverse citizenry. “So we were well ahead of the curve.”

He has also “met with the leaders of the NAACP for Orange and Chatham County,” he said. “And I’ve met with the NAACP members here in West Chatham to talk about the direction of this place.”

In the last year, his department has had only 12 incidents involving use of force, Wagner said. “That’s a stat that is pretty impeccable for the whole year, and for a department that is extremely short staffed.”

In recent budget meetings for the Town of Siler City, Wagner has requested significant extra funding to support enhanced training and hire more officers. The “defund the police” movement works contrary to police improvement, he said.

“It’s just irresponsible, and the state legislative board to build our state statutes and laws is not even considering such a thing,” he said.

Pittsboro Police Department

“I’m happy with the verdict,” said Pittsboro Chief of Police Shorty Johnson of Chauvin’s murder conviction. “I looked at it, and I think a lot of law enforcement officers looked at it, and did know that what Chauvin did was wrong, and we were glad to see the outcome.”

Of note in Chauvin’s trial was that other officers, including his former chief, testified against him. They broke what has been called the “blue wall of silence” — an unspoken agreement among law enforcement officers not to implicate each other for their on-the-job conduct.

“There’s always been that talk that officers will look after each other, but I think the profession is changing,” Johnson said. “We’re changing, and good officers are definitely standing up now. They want to do the right thing, and if that’s pointing out something that a bad officer is doing, then they’re going to do it.”

But claims that officers testifying against each other sets a new precedent misrepresents what has always been the police code of ethics, Johnson said.

“I don’t think it’s a new idea like some people have tried to portray it,” he said. “Good officers have always stood up for what’s right and will continue to do the right thing. I think it has more to do with society seeing this play out on a larger scale because of the magnitude of the cases we have witnessed in the last few years.”

Johnson said it’s a positive thing that police departments have been “more scrutinized” in the last year. “That’s definitely made us as police officers step back and take a look at ourselves and say, ‘What are we doing right and what are we doing wrong?’”

A “wrong” his department identified was an absence of official policy regulating police behavior under difficult circumstances.

“We have added, along with many other departments across the country, a policy on a duty to intervene if an officer sees another officer doing something unethical or breaking one of our policies and/or procedures,” he said. “That duty has always been there, but I think it’s better that it’s on paper. This reinforces our stance on doing the right thing and our commitment to making our town and community a great place to live.”

The adjustment — and others — didn’t come in the wake of Chauvin’s murder conviction, though. Immediately following George Floyd’s death last year, Pittsboro evaluated its internal policies and rules.

“When the George Floyd incident happened, we at the police department started looking at our use of force policies,” Johnson said. “... We banned chokeholds, except in a life or death situation. And, in general, as far as use of force, we’ve looked at that.”

As for the “defund the police” movement, Johnson, like Roberson, thinks the objective is sound, but the method faulty.

“I disagree with that,” he said. “... People think we need to be better trained like with de-escalation techniques and tactics, and implicit bias training and things like that. Unfortunately, if we have money taken from us, that could take training from us. Then I don’t have the resources or the money to send my people to different classes or different training to make them better.”

Some arguments behind police defunding call for money to be rerouted to other specialists, such as mental health experts, who can navigate tense, and potentially dangerous situations without resorting to use of force. Johnson supports the essence of such logic.

“Mental health reform, that’s always been kind of close to me,” he said, “and we definitely know that the country as a whole needs to focus on mental health reform and putting money aside, or putting money towards it.”

But that sort of education must still fall within the police department, he says, because no matter what, it’s police who will be first on the scene when a crisis arises.

“Whatever our funding, we still got to answer calls,” Johnson said. “We still got to be there when somebody needs the police.”

Reporter D. Lars Dolder can be reached at dldolder@chathamnr.com and on Twitter @dldolder.

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Burney Waring

Seems like we should have the police follow a kind of golden rule. If it isn't OK for a citizen to speed for no reason, lie to police, point a gun at un-armed people, stop people and search them, spy on them, confiscate valuable property, withhold information, beat people, break their arms, suffocate them, shoot them, or otherwise kill people pre-emptively, then can we change the laws so that the police can't do such things to citizens either? And, if they do such things, they should go to court like any other citizen and make their case. Qualified immunity, asset forfeiture, secret courts, and other elitist rules for police who should be the biggest champions of justice make the public distrustful and frightened and consequently make the job of the police impossible in the long run.

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