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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

WPD museum gets greenlight: Issues remain less about the project, more about funding source

WPD Chief Donny Williams explains to city council Tuesday evening his reasoning for wanting to utilize $40,000 in N.C. Drug Tax funds to build a law enforcement museum.

WILMINGTON — Council members were in agreement at Tuesday’s meeting that an agenda item they didn’t expect to be controversial has created a larger concern in the community over a state law that is not well understood.

Discussion lasted a half hour with the consensus being: A place to display WPD artifacts and engage the community in law enforcement history is a welcomed idea; however, using the N.C. Drug Tax funds might not be the way to establish it. Yet, Wilmington City Council’s apprehensions weren’t so paramount that the item didn’t pass.

READ MORE: ‘A relic from the War on Drugs’: Advocacy groups call out use of N.C. Drug Tax, proposed to fund WPD Law Enforcement Museum

They voted 6-1 — Luke Waddell dissenting — to allow the Wilmington Police Department to utilize $40,000 in NC Drug Tax money for establishing a law enforcement museum at police headquarters, 615 Bess St.

“This has been a pain for me,” council member Kevin Spears said at the meeting. “I’ve racked my brain for weeks and, today, I got a few new gray hairs from it. The issue is not with WPD; the issue is with the state legislature and how the drug tax money is used.”

Local nonprofits sent a letter to council members last month — when the item was first scheduled to be heard but was delayed — calling for better use of the drug tax funds. Second Chance Alliance coordinator Daquan Peters led the charge saying the NC Drug Tax was “draconian” and a “relic from the war on drugs,” disproportionately impacting historically marginalized populations.

The tax — bringing in $25.3 million statewide over the last three years — charges buyers of illegal substances varying amounts, depending on how much of a drug or alcoholic item is obtained and its associated cost. For instance, marijuana is taxed at $3.50 per gram when at least 42.5 grams are purchased; low-street value drugs (such as cocaine) sold by weight are taxed at $50 per gram, at a minimum of 7 grams; and mash will run $1.28 per gallon, with no minimum.

Though anyone unauthorized for possession of the illicit items is supposed to buy a stamp, attach it to the item and pay the N.C. Department of Revenue for the tax, most individuals end up owing it after they are charged with a drug-related crime.

When WPD makes a narcotics arrest, law requires the department to report the amount to the state, Chief Donny Williams explained at the council’s agenda briefing meeting Tuesday. Since January 2020, the department has filed 440 forms recording drug seizures from arrests.

The state then begins a civil process with the individual to obtain the funds. Back taxes and interest are often due at a 40% penalty, and a person’s wages can be garnished and possessions seized to pay off the amount.

Of the money recovered, 25% is retained by the state and 75% goes back to the local agency that was involved in the investigation. Over the last three years, NCDOR reported the drug taxes returned $299,458 to WPD ($364,018 was allocated to the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office).

Williams told council Tuesday evening, there is roughly $140,000 in NC Drug Tax money available for WPD right now. WPD Lt. Irving said “other than the museum, there are no plans at this time” for using additional money from the pot.

Peters — who also spoke out at Tuesday’s council meeting — called for the money to be used toward community investment programs over a law enforcement museum. He cited housing subsidies, entrepreneurial initiatives for formerly jailed individuals, substance treatment programs and scholarships for students with incarcerated parents as potential options.

Williams explained the money from the drug tax has guidelines for use within the law enforcement agency itself and can’t be funneled into broad use by the city’s general fund. 

Council member Luke Waddell told Port City Daily earlier Tuesday, he would like to see the funds “injected” into the community in some way that fits within the statute’s constraints, though at the time he didn’t know what that might be.

During the council meeting, Waddell suggested using it for merit bonuses for WPD officers who have gone “above and beyond” on community engagement work.

Williams responded that would likely make a controversial issue even worse.

“I think that would cause tension with the community that we’re seizing your drug money and then spending it on ourselves. You think your heads are hurting now, they would really be potentially hurting.”

He added he has purposely avoided purchasing items such as equipment, weapons or drones with the funds, to be “sensitive of the needs of the community.”

“I’m going to cut right to the chase,” Rivenbark said. “If anyone has heartburn over the way this money comes in and goes out, they’re argument is with the state, not Wilmington Police Department.”

Laura Holland, North Carolina Justice Center’s director of the Fair Chance Criminal Justice Project — who also signed Peters’ letter opposing the use of drug tax funds — told Port City Daily anything can be justified as a “law enforcement purpose.”

She said a few of WPD’s past uses of the money “piqued the interest” of staff at NC Justice Center, including the creation of an athletic league, The Hoops, and the Port City Super Girls Academy, a program geared toward teens aged 12 to 18 for exploring career paths and learning about financial literacy and violence prevention.

“There’s always the ability to be creative,” Holland said. “It seems based on history, there have been things in the past that can be pulled from and mirrored.”

Wiilliams added that since 2020, WPD has used NC Drug Tax funds to expand its Police Activities League — engaging officers with youth through sports — purchased chainsaws to be used during hurricanes to assist city crew with damage, bought video equipment for producing public service announcements, and secured a rehab trailer for officers to “rest and recover in” when working concert events downtown. 

Another vehicle purchased with the funds has likely been spotted in the area, the chief added.

“If you’ve been out to any community events and seen our big community engagement trailer we serve ice cream and popcorn out of — that was purchased with NC Drug Tax funds,” he said.

The WPD wants to use money this year to establish a law enforcement museum to display police artifacts dating back to the 1800s, with permanent and rotating exhibits to match historic milestones. Williams said his main goal is to increase community engagement and invite the public to visit police headquarters for a reason other than filling out an accident report, submitting a tip or complaint or being charged with a crime.

“I understand you’re trying to build a culture there,” Mayor Bill Saffo said to Williams, “for people coming in to understand the history of the department, which I’m for.”

Williams explained his staff has been working for four months on a strategy to improve community relations, and this is one way that rose to the top as a priority. He hopes to see school groups tour the police headquarters and open up the “blue room” — a conference room in the building used for media press conferences — for public meetings.

“We want people to have access to engage and see how the city works and how the government works,” Williams told council members.

Spears said the word “museum” might not be the best choice and suggested “artifact display,” to which council member Clifford Barnett agreed.

Barnett ultimately supported Williams’ vision and used a Bible verse to express his thoughts on the controversial topic: “Don’t let your good be evil spoken of.”

“When you do good stuff, sometimes it’s a good thing but then people twist it and it makes your good look like it’s evil,” he explained. “That’s the dilemma I’m having with this project.”

Williams said WPD will be one of the first in the state to have an in-house museum, based on his staff’s research, which includes a staff historian. He specified one other was located at Raleigh’s training facility but not in the department headquarters.

Waddell told PCD the museum item “came on quickly” and he’d personally like for council to “dig a little deeper” into the need. Though he called the museum “a noble initiative,” he preferred it go through next year’s budgetary process. 

Mayor pro tem Margaret Haynes said she trusts Williams to use any money that funnels back into his department any way he sees fit and fully supported a WPD museum.

“It seems to me, it’s somewhat outside our budgetary process and more yours,” she said. “During our budget process, we may want to add to something like that and shift money around, but I am here to say I support it. Good decision.”

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