Residents protest new police training facility, call for citizens review board

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Black Lives Matter protesters stand in solidarity at Tuesday's Wilmington City Council meeting. Photo by Hannah Leyva.
Black Lives Matter protesters stand in solidarity at Tuesday’s Wilmington City Council meeting. Photo by Hannah Leyva.

A group of people – including members of the Black Lives Matter movement – came to City Hall Tuesday night to protest the proposed new Wilmington Police Department training facility near their neighborhood.

During their meeting, city council formally approved the purchase of 46 acres from the Wilmington Housing Authority. The land, sold to the city for just over $1 million, is located between Maides Park and the Creekwood neighborhood in the northern part of the city. It lies on two tracts, split by Hurst Drive. Plans for the police training facility include classroom, office and storage space as well as a driving simulator and indoor firing range.

When the city first announced their plans last month, both Mayor Bill Saffo and Chief Ralph Evangelous emphasized the need for a more modern shooting range closer to WPD headquarters at 615 Bess St.

“The facility will reduce travel times for our officers, who currently have to drive out to River Road to use the out-of-date and inadequate firing range there,” Saffo said then of the proposed 100-yard indoor range.

“We have to be out of our existing range by February 1,” Evangelous said, elaborating on the impetus behind the decision. “Outdoor ranges in an urban environment are a thing of the past. An indoor range will reduce noise pollution, air pollution, as well as pollution overall.”

While community members who were present at last month’s press conference were in support of the city’s plans, those who came out on Tuesday night were not, saying it highlighted the disconnect between law enforcement and the residents they’re meant to serve.

“We’re not against the Wilmington Police Department … but we don’t want this here,” local Ryan Lucas said before city council.

In his speech, Lucas said residents of neighborhoods adjacent to the proposed facility, many of whom are black, were not informed of the plan. The area, he acknowledged, has problems with violent crime, but he said distrust of the police is also widespread due to past incidents.

“We do want to work with police officers that are around us, but a lot of officers aren’t right,” Lucas said. “Yes, all lives matter, but it seems the only lives being affected [negatively by police] are black lives … It’s not that we’re afraid to die, but when you’re black, it’s like you’re already dead.”

Georgia Davis, who attended the meeting to show solidarity but did not speak before council, also voiced concerns.

“It’s traumatizing for the kids to have that nearby,” she said after the meeting. “How do you know whether it’s police training or an actual shooting that you have to duck from? They’re already afraid of the police, and now they’re going to be putting in this facility where police will be trained to shoot people. Why would they do that? It doesn’t make any sense.”

Her niece, Whitney Hansley, agreed.

“We know not all police are bad, whether black or white or whatever,” Hansley said. “It just seems like they, all of them [police and city officials], don’t seem to care how we feel.”

Davis and Hansley, along with several others, wore shirts saying “Black Lives Matter” to the meeting. Davis’ brother, Brandon Smith, who she said was a hardworking man devoted to his wife and kids (including a leukemia-stricken son), was killed by law enforcement in October 2013. Though he was unarmed (he was found to be holding a cell phone), his killing was deemed justified by District Attorney Ben David. At the time, Smith was wanted in connection with the non-fatal shooting of a sheriff’s deputy in Creekwood.

Sonya Patrick, an organizer of the local Black Lives Matter movement and a member of the New Hanover County chapter of the North Carolina Black Leadership Caucus, said the disconnect between the police officers goes beyond them putting a training facility in an area where citizens are afraid those tactics will be used against them.

“This is why we’re asking for a citizen review board,”said Patrick, who helped organize a peaceful protest in 2014 against the use of force in the death of Brandon Smith and others killed by local law enforcement. “We need an independent group to look at these incidents [involving use of force] that happen in our community.”

According to Patrick and other advocates such as Cameron Parker, the ability to bring such a board to fruition, as well as propose other citizen-led ordinances to the city, was being hindered by the North Carolina state legislature’s recent passage of House Bill 1083. The Wilmington-specific law changed the number of signatures required to present a proposed ordinance to city council from 25 percent of the number of people who actually voted in the last municipal election to 25 percent of the total number of registered voters at the time of the last municipal election.

“Mutual trust and respect are needed for effective policing … having the police conduct their own investigations only adds to the mistrust in the community,” Parker said before city officials and an audience that included Chief Evangelous and several WPD officers. “The citizens review board will serve as a conduit between the community and the police … HB 1083 makes petitioning for things like this harder than it needs to be.”

In response to the comments, Saffo noted that a bill that would have allowed citizen review boards throughout the state, House Bill 193, was presented to the legislature in March 2015 but did not pass.

“The state will not allow it,” said Saffo while acknowledging that something needed to be done to “bridge the gap” between residents and law enforcement. “I can pledge to you as your mayor – and I believe I can speak for everyone up here – we want to make certain we have trust between the community and the police department.”

Saffo and Councilman Earl Sheridan pointed to the recently announced creation of a joint city-county community advisory relations committee as a step in the right direction.

“I understand and appreciate and share your concern and frustration and anger. This situation that has existed – black lives have often been devalued in our society and devalued here, and we need to do what we can to change this situation,” said Sheridan, who helped spearhead the creation of the committee and is the only African-American on the six-person council . “I see this as an important way of trying to address the legitimate concerns that have been expressed here this evening. Nobody wins when there is distrust and friction between the police and the community.”

Saffo and Sheridan encouraged those in attendance to apply to be on the committee, but Davis, Cameron and others said it would not be enough.

“That won’t help us get what we want, which is justice and accountability,” Davis said. “We need more than a committee.”

Lucas, the first person to speak before city council, asked the governing board to “look deeply into your community” to see what the real needs are for the high-crime area near the proposed facility and Wilmington as a whole.

“Maybe we need other things in our community – a swimming pool or more libraries or something,” said Lucas, who mentioned he had a petition signed by people against the project but did not have enough signatures. “Not a police training facility for shooting guns.”

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