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Wednesday October 5th

Chapel Hill policing advisory committee talks racial equity, policing alternatives

Two Chapel Hill police officers walk east on Franklin Street on Sunday, June 7, 2020.
Buy Photos Two Chapel Hill police officers walk east on Franklin Street on Sunday, June 7, 2020.

At its July 14 virtual meeting, Chapel Hill's Community Policing Advisory Committee heard two presentations about clinically based policing alternatives and discussed its role in light of a recent Chapel Hill Town Council resolution to work toward racial equity. 

Committee member Paris Miller said she hopes the group’s upcoming roundtable with council members and community stakeholders, which is tentatively planned for early August, will provide some clarity on the role of CPAC in light of a Town resolution passed in late June. The resolution aimed to "ensure the safety of Black and brown lives" through improved public safety measures, such as banning the use of chokeholds within the Chapel Hill Police Department and eliminating regulatory traffic stops. 

“That’s going to be part of the discussion, in terms of what CPAC looks like moving forward, and how we can advise the Town Council on how we want to move forward and what our charge is, and possibly have some review of that and get some community input," Miller said.

Tai Huynh, the Town Council’s liaison to CPAC, said the committee's role should change as the community changes, and the committee should have a part in redefining that role.

“We as a Town Council would like to have CPAC as a part of that process, of kind of clarifying CPAC’s role and that charge,” Huynh said. 

Presented proposal

At the meeting, Caitlin Fenhagen, the criminal justice resource director for Orange County, presented a proposal meant to “reduce interaction with the criminal justice system altogether” for 25 to 30 individuals in Orange County who Fenhagen said are “revolving in and out of our criminal justice system” with largely low-level offenses.

“They are literally coming in and coming out, then they’re missing court, and the cycle starts all over again,” Fenhagen said. “Or, alternatively, they’re coming into our jail and in order to get out of jail and resolve their case, they’re accepting a plea and getting yet another conviction on their record.“

Under this proposal, two peer support specialists with lived experience of homelessness, drug abuse or mental health would be embedded in the community to help connect individuals with housing and other resources. The proposal also includes an additional clinical social worker position to manage cases diverted from law enforcement. 

Fenhagen said the proposal was reorganized with “new urgency” following waves of activism and outrage in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.

Council members Huynh and Allen Buansi, who has previously served as liaison to the committee, both expressed support for this proposal. 

CHPD Crisis Unit

At the meeting, Assistant Police Chief Jabe Hunter outlined the role of Chapel Hill Police Department's Crisis Unit,  a small team of clinical social workers that provide 24-hour co-response to calls related to mental health, substance abuse, domestic violence and similar concerns. 

“We’ve moved over the past year and a half, two years, to more of an in-field response, crisis-in-the-moment model, versus something that’s more of a caseload-driven, ongoing service providing (model),” Hunter said. “They really are focusing on being that bridge in the moment, getting someone on the right path, helping them make that connection then moving onto the next crisis.”

This means that social workers are accompanying police officers into the field more often, he said.

Hunter said the crisis team, which was first established in 1973, will often coordinate with officers and other agencies to follow up on cases, and might make “crisis response plans” for frequent offenders with triggers and deescalation techniques unique to the individual.  

Since last year, phone contacts handled by the response team increased from 106 to 219 instances in the month of June, and field response and walk-ins have increased from 58 to 93 instances, according to Hunter's presentation. He said officers regularly reach out to the crisis response team for case follow-up. 

"Just about every day, when I come in, there’s an email from an officer saying, ‘Hey, I went on a call last night, I dealt with this, here’s the report number, you may want to take a look at that,’” Hunter said. 

Hunter also discussed changes to Chapel Hill Police Department’s policy in light of the council’s recent resolution, including edits to the use of force, traffic stops and low-level misdemeanor policy. He said these updates will soon be available on the department's website.


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