Local community tackles issues surrounding Ferguson

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Sun-Times Media

At approximately 12:01 p.m. on Aug. 9, 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson.

Even now as the United States, including Greensboro, reacts to Brown’s death and decides what it means for the country, the sounds of those six gunshots reverberate.

Wilson is under investigation, but at present, the details of the encounter remain dubious.

Eyewitness accounts have provided conflicting information, and no conclusive proof has emerged as to whether Brown provoked the officer physically or submitted with his hands in the air.

Regardless of what really happened, the effects of Brown’s death on the nation are undeniable. Hundreds of protestors gathered on the streets of Ferguson claiming that the officer’s behavior was a result of prejudice against Brown as a black male.

Now the protests have died down, but the conversations sparked nationwide about police brutality, profiling and accountability have not.

Guilford College held a panel on community and police accountability on Sept. 5 in the community center. The panelists covered the events in Ferguson and the importance of police accountability in Greensboro.

At the panel, James Shields, director of the Bonner Center for Community Service, related his first encounter with a police officer when he was a teenager. He was pulled over, and the police officer reached for his gun despite the fact Shields had done nothing wrong.

“(I began to understand) what it means to be a black man in America,” said Shields. “To actually have it happen to me … (I really felt) as if my life was in danger.”

Barbara Lawrence, associate professor of justice and policy studies, spoke on the panel from her experience as a former police officer, explaining the rules of engagement. According to Lawrence, officers are trained in protocols to de-escalate situations, but problems persist.

“One of the problems that we see consistently across the country … is consistent patterns of blatant racial profiling that have a serious impact on communities of color,” said Lawrence. “At some point, we have to find better ways to find police officers more accountable.”

Will Pizio, associate professor of justice and policy studies, disagreed with the panelists about the extent of police misconduct.

“Police brutality, contrary to popular opinion, is a very rare occurrence,” said Pizio. “Is it a problem? Yes. Are there policies in place to prevent that excessive force? Absolutely. Body cameras, dash cams, recording devices, civilian review, internal affairs, all those types of things …. Police accountability is probably at its best right now.”

Pizio claims that profiling is rare as well.

“If you deny that racial profiling occurs, then you’re living in a hole somewhere. But most of the cops out there are law-abiding. They’re honest. They’re trying to do the right thing.”

However, Pizio did comment that the police can always do better.

“The police in Greensboro have had problems regarding accountability for years,” said Pizio. However, the outgoing police chief, Ken Miller, has made progress by listening to concerns and making internal efforts for accountability. For instance, supervisors are now held accountable for the misconduct of the officers.

Greensboro residents, both within the police department and outside it, are making efforts to improve police accountability.

Two of the speakers from Friday’s panel serve on an interim citizens’ police review committee: David Allen, a community organizer at Beloved Community Center, and Lawrence.

Lawrence expects that the committee, once established permanently, will make a difference in police accountability in Greensboro.

“Folks in the community will be able to have an unbiased look at some of these complaints,” said Lawrence.

However, she commented that this cannot occur unless the police cooperate with the committee.

No matter to what extent police are abusing their power, all sides seem to agree that improvement is needed.

As Allen pointed out, major change starts when people work on issues locally, which is more successful than leaving Greensboro to protest in Ferguson.

As panelist Lorenzo Meachum explained, though Greensboro is victim to “white, patriarchal domination”  — like the rest of the country — Guilford has the possibility to bring change.