Amid national outcries to defund police departments, Chapel Hill residents voiced over two hours worth of concerns about the Chapel Hill Police Department’s portion of the proposed town budget at the June 10 Town Council meeting.
N.C. Sen. Valerie Foushee, D-Chatham, Orange, spoke at the beginning of the meeting. She said the recent murders of Black Americans like George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor are emblematic of a larger, long-lasting problem.
“Today marks two weeks since America witnessed the barbaric murder of George Floyd, five weeks since the video of Ahmaud Arbery’s killing went viral, three months since the death of Breonna Taylor, 5 1/2 years since the slaying of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, six years since the killing of Eric Garner, and over eight years since the slaughter of Trayvon Martin,” Foushee said, pausing to collect herself. “Those are a handful of the many lives lost. The list seems infinite.”
The proposed 2020-2021 town budget would allocate about 21 percent of the general funds budget funds, or $13.95 million, to the Chapel Hill Police Department.
A week before the meeting, Mayor Pam Hemminger released a statement that included a list of things public safety officials, such as police officers, have to do in order to become an officer.
“To that end, over the past 10 years, Chapel Hill has instituted and regularly reviewed progressive policies, forged partnerships and invested in community-based programs that help us treat everyone one with respect and dignity,” Hemminger said in the statement. “These efforts have yielded positive results and we know that our Town must continue to improve.”
However, residents both inside and outside of the meeting voiced concerns about providing additional funding to the Chapel Hill Police Department.
In an interview conducted prior to the meeting, A Collins, a UNC student, said the police department should be defunded all together.
“That money can go towards closing the gap between white and Black students in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City school district,” Collins said. “We have the second largest gap in the nation. While many of the white students are very successful and going to Ivy Leagues, the Black students are left behind by their teachers and administration.”
At the meeting, Chapel Hill Chief of Police Chris Blue gave a presentation about the various initiatives CHPD has been using to help alleviate the racial disparities within the department’s policing.
“We will continue to have important conversations in our communities,” Blue said. “The issues being discussed about policing are not new, and we know that.”
In the Council and mayor's June 3 statement, Hemminger mentioned 8 Can't Wait, a campaign dedicated to reducing force used by police. In the statement Hemminger said she believes the Chapel Hill Police Department’s policies reflect the goals of the 8 Can't Wait campaign.
“While we are confident that Chapel Hill Police Department’s operational policies reflect the philosophies that are found in the #8cantwait project, the Department is looking at its policy manual to see if there are opportunities to make the language more explicitly aligned with the recommendations,” she said.
Blue referenced the 8 Can't Wait campaign in his meeting presentation, and said the formation of policies and reform in his department stem from feedback from Chapel Hill community members.
He said some ideas represented in this initiative, like not using chokeholds or strangle holds, are already generally favored by Chapel Hill police officers.
“We believe our policies largely capture these recommendations and that our training and organizational culture do too” Blue said. “But we’ve also realized there’s an opportunity to more closely and clearly align our policy language with these recommendations.”
After Blue’s presentation, there were over two hours of public comments demanding the defunding or disbandment of the CHPD. Residents called for the Town’s leaders to embrace a chance for systemic change.
“I felt safe growing up here, but it wasn’t because of the police,” Leah Abrams, a Chapel Hill resident, said. “Defund the police. Protect Black lives.”
UNC students were among the residents who commented at the meeting. One UNC student, Bailey Ingham, said the Town Council and Blue should examine officers' ability to protect all community members.
“It’s your duty to protect and serve everyone, and if you’re unable to do that, you shouldn’t be on the force,” Ingham said.
One thing community members suggested was to take some of the funding originally intended for the CHPD and put it into other initiatives, such as public housing or public education.
“I think it is important to move funding from police into other initiatives,” Michael Conroy, a graduate student in the UNC Department of Statistics, said.
Some residents suggested the council disband CHPD all together. Margaret Nemitz, a graduate research assistant in the Gillings School of Global Public Health, said Chapel Hill should follow in the footsteps of other cities that have elected to disband their police forces.
“If Minneapolis can disband their police department, so can we,” she said.
Former council member Nancy Oates said she is not in favor of disbanding the police and is grateful for officers who have done their job right. She said she hopes "good policing" will extend to the entire force.
“It’s clear to me that good policing needs to go beyond individual officers,” she said.
Oates was not the only community leader to voice her thoughts.
Delores Bailey, executive director of EmPOWERment, Inc., said she had worked with CHPD before to start initiatives in her own community. She said this meeting gives her hope for positive change going forward.
“I am confident after today’s meeting, there will be changes made,” Bailey said.
Regardless of the outcome of these budget meetings, Foushee said it is time for people in Chapel Hill and beyond to confront systemic racism and work towards systemic change.
“These have been difficult days for many in our community, as we deal with the ongoing devastation in the face of COVID-19, and the raw exposure of racism that continues to undermine our society,” Foushee said. “Let us make no mistake: the two tragedies are inextricably linked, and the time has come to face the ugly truth of these salient viruses in America and their far-reaching effects.”
The Town Council is set to formally adopt its 2020-2021 fiscal year budget on June 24.
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.