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Numbers show over-policing in historically Black areas, and history tells more

A police car parked on Franklin Street flashes its lights on Saturday, Aug. 29, 2020.
Buy Photos A police car parked on Franklin Street flashes its lights on Saturday, Aug. 29, 2020.

Surrounding the edges of downtown Chapel Hill from the north and west, respectively, Northside and Pine Knolls communities have housed a large portion of Chapel Hill’s Black population since the areas were formed as labor enclaves during the Jim Crow era. 

Both neighborhoods have experienced disproportionate policing in the past decade.

Data from the past 10 years reveal a discrepancy in arrests made by race in each zip code in Chapel Hill, while today's residents have experienced a complicated relationship between the Town’s historically Black neighborhoods and crime.

A history in numbers 

Northside resident Delores Bailey said she used to see a few trends in the community during the late '90s — loitering, drugs and prostitution.

“Most crime happened in Northside, I believe, because that was the area least policed at that time,” Bailey said.

Bailey has lived on North Graham Street since 1975. In 2002, she was invited to become a community organizer with EmPOWERment, Inc., a local organization whose mission is to help individuals determine their destiny by focusing on affordable housing, grassroots economic development and community building. 

Today, Bailey is the executive director of EmPOWERment. 

She said she has watched the Northside crime rate change over the years.

Data collected by the Chapel Hill Police Department from the past 10 years show that the share of arrests of Black Chapel Hill residents was almost equal to that of white residents — with arrestees being 45.6 percent Black and 45.7 percent white, respectively. But while Black residents make up just under 10 percent of the Town’s population, white residents make up almost 73 percent.

Chris Blue has been police chief of the Chapel Hill Police Department since 2010, and he worked with the Town for 13 years before moving to the role of chief. 

Blue said that today, law enforcement looks at data differently than in the past 10 and 20 years.

“There is no question that there are a lot of factors that play into disparities in enforcement outcomes,” Blue said. “Those are not just issues that Chapel Hill is thinking about and concerned about; those are issues that I hope every community is concerned about.”

As a profession, the rate of policing is higher when it comes to people of color, he said. But gentrification has changed the meaning of this data slightly. Blue said that in the past several years, more young white people have been arrested in the historically Black areas.

“If you look at the trend data in the past six years,” he said, “the people who were charged certainly support that notion that those neighborhoods are turning over in a way that certainly suggests gentrification is underway.”

Bailey can attest.

She said when EmPOWERment began in 1996, both Black neighborhoods were falling into disrepair.

One attempt to stabilize the neighborhoods, she said, came in the form of gentrification.

'I just knew we had to leave'

Bailey said she had to leave her home as a high schooler when her community was gentrified. She said over 70 families were uprooted from homes on Barbee Chapel Road when it was turned into an overflow zone for Jordan Lake, today’s Meadowmont. 

“I didn’t understand then what gentrification was,” Bailey said, “I just knew we had to leave, and we did.”

That was when she moved to Northside. She witnessed gentrification again, when investors began buying houses in the neighborhood and turning them into rental units for students.

A Town of Chapel Hill webpage about Northside explains more.

“The neighborhood contains single-family residential houses that sell for prices below the average cost for housing in Chapel Hill and Carrboro," the webpage says. "Because students are interested in living in these neighborhoods, landlords have been able to rent their properties for more than a family can typically afford.”

The site says that the African American population of Northside declined significantly in the past decades, with almost 1,200 Black residents 40 years ago compared to just 690 Black residents in 2010.

Longtime Northside residents might remember police substations in their neighborhood. Both Blue and Bailey recall police officers walking and biking through Northside during that time.

One of the houses was later flipped to a transitional home for people leaving public housing and looking for their own place. Bailey said the fact that there were fewer police officers present was an indication that the neighborhood didn’t need protection anymore.

Blue said police involvement in the community today involves more than just responding to crime.

“Our presence is not necessarily intended to make more arrests or write more tickets,” Blue said, “but rather to be accessible, be available, to try to build relationships and to encourage safe behaviors.”

One part of that was community events involving both law enforcement and residents. 

The Good Neighbor Initiative is a partnership between Chapel Hill, Carrboro and community organizations that started in 2004, with the Chapel Hill Police Department putting on a door-to-door walk through neighborhoods where students and long-term residents live.

Over time, the initiative has grown to include partners including EmPOWERment and the Marian Cheek Jackson Center. 

A break in trust 

Chapel Hill is not immune to the national trends related to disproportionate policing by race.

The group Emancipate N.C. advocates for criminal justice, community education and an end to structural racism. Kerwin Pittman, a social justice activist based in the Triangle, helps with organizing events and press conferences, among other things.

Pittman talked about the example of disproportionate rates of marijuana enforcement by race. He said the over-policing in certain communities seems to come from the police specifically targeting individuals, and that leads to a breakdown.

“What happens in the Black communities is it creates a severe distrust between law enforcement and the community,” Pittman said.

Pittman harbored distrust himself after his first encounter with law enforcement. He said he was walking in his neighborhood in southeast Raleigh when officers stopped and searched him. Even though he told the officers he didn’t have anything on him, he said they “roughed” him up.

He was 13 years old, he said. 

“Especially now looking back on it as an adult,” Pittman said, “you would think a little kid wouldn’t be harassed, but I was.”

That lack of trust between the community and law enforcement is why Bailey began monthly neighborhood watch meetings in Northside when she started as a community organizer. The police department would provide reports on crime from the previous month.

Even so, Bailey said she has seen discrepancies in how the police interact with Black residents versus white residents.

Along with anecdotes of friends being stopped by police without cause, she pointed to unequal enforcement of noise and parking complaints, depending on whether a Black or white neighbor called it in to police.

Blue said he had not heard about instances like that, but that they are legitimate points that illustrate a “neighborhood in transition.” He said this is one reason why relationships between the police department and the community are important.

He said the police department is "not always going to get it exactly right” but tries hard to avoid giving anyone the impression that officers police with a double standard. 

But in Northside, Bailey said sometimes incidents happen, because the neighborhood is a minority population and the police force is almost all white.

“I’ve seen the positive side of the police department and the negative side of the police department,” Bailey said. 

@elizltmoore | @DTHCityState

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