CoastLine: Police Force — Finding the Balance Between Safe Communities and Citizens' Rights

Jun 5, 2015

This broadcast of CoastLine originally aired on September 3, 2014.

The shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri sparked questions nationwide over the use of excessive force.

But concerns have been brewing in the Cape Fear region over tensions between police and community residents for months. 

It was the shooting of an unarmed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri that launched a nationwide debate over police tactics.  Brown, who was African-American, was killed August 9th by white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.   Just weeks earlier, an unarmed Eric Garner died on Staten Island after being put in a choke-hold by police for allegedly selling cigarettes illegally. 

But questions around the use of force by police had already been marinating in the Cape Fear region.  The shooting of three suspects last fall following the robbery of a Wilmington Pizza Hut, the shooting of a woman earlier this year who was reportedly suicidal, and the shooting and killing of Brandon Smith also last Octoberafter a car chase and foot pursuitlaunched local protests and public outcry. 

At the August 19th Wilmington City Council meeting, Council Member Earl Sheridan asked the City Manager in conjunction with the police department to answer questions about community relations training for police, the kinds of tactical weapons that the department has along with policies on their use, whether police wear cameras on their uniforms – and the degree of diversity on the police force.  Chief Ralph Evangelous was scheduled to appear before Council last night with a report, but a family emergency has taken him out of town.  

In-studio guests:  Wilmington Deputy Police Chief Mitch Cunningham

           Deborah Dicks Maxwell, President of the New Hanover County NAACP  

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Since last fall, the SBI and the District Attorney have investigated a handful of officer-involved fatal shootings.  So far, the official probes have determined no wrongdoing on the part of officers, but it’s taken a toll on relations with the communityparticularly the African-American community.  Deborah Dicks Maxwell is President of the New Hanover County NAACP.

"We used to have a saying: ‘DWB’ (Driving While Black) for our young brothers who, like my cousin, a doctor, who drives a luxury car will be stopped.  Unfortunately in the light of Ferguson and other incidents around this country, for our brothers it’s ‘LWB’.  We’re concerned about them just Living While Black in this country."

Wilmington Deputy Police Chief Mitch Cunningham says the force is working to increase its minority representation.  Other potential solutions, such as cameras that are attached to a police officer’s uniform, are in the works.

"We have approximately 40 of these cameras.  We’ve been testing them, learning how to use them, learning which devices work best.  As you probably know, they come in a lot of different varieties.  They either attach to the body or there are actually devices that will go on glasses, on hats that you can wear.  So we’re in a testing phase.  But we foresee wider-spread use than what we have right now."

Police Chief Ralph Evangelous is expected to deliver his report to City Council on further community initiatives at the next regular meeting.