A woman near the front of the large hall at the Barber Park Events Center rises to address the new police chief.
“I want to know: Are y’all going to walk the beat like you used to?” she asks.
Maria Hicks-Few, the city of Greensboro’s chief equity and inclusion officer, reiterates the question.
“Just to be clear, she said, ‘Are y’all gonna walk the beat like you used to?’” Hicks-Few says.
It’s roughly the third time the question has come up in the past hour.
Brian James, who was sworn in as the city’s 23rd police chief, on Jan. 31, politely acknowledges the call, and then gently lets her down.
“The dilemma — like I told you before — it’s not the same Greensboro that it used to be,” he says. “So, to say I’ll have officers out walking the beat in every neighborhood, honestly I can’t promise you that.”
There’s a nostalgic tinge in many of the questions from this crowd assembled on Tuesday evening for the first of eight community meetings with the new chief. The turnout — about 50 residents, not counting a handful of uniformed officers and at-large Councilwoman Marikay Abuzuaiter — skews African American, middle class and retired. Mostly, they want a more visible police presence in their neighborhoods to counteract an array of nuisances and, in some cases, serious violence. Some of them complain that young people are not as respectful as they once were, and that neighbors have become, well, less neighborly.
James, who grew up in Greensboro, notes that the city has grown, and he says the number of officers has not increased commensurately, making it difficult to maintain the visibility to which some older residents are accustomed. He might also have added that the low-density, suburban development pattern that has prevailed over the past 75 years has created a dependency on cars that undermines community policing.
Earlier in the forum, another woman has told the chief that she stands in yard and watches police cars race past.
“How do we get the police to slow down and say hi?” she asks.
While making the caveat that the officers might have been on their way to respond to a call, James acknowledges some validity to the woman’s concern.
“But I would like the officers when they have the opportunity to park the car on the curb and maybe get out and speak to people,” the chief says, “because I think it helps us a lot and makes you feel like maybe you can talk to us.”
The chief also reminds residents that community visibility and responsiveness are tradeoffs.
“First and foremost, we’ve got to answer the calls,” he says. “When somebody calls 911, you want somebody there in a reasonable amount of time. Because that might be the worst day of your life, and you want us to be there to help with whatever the situation is. So, I’ve got to figure out: How can I make sure I have enough people to answer those calls quickly, but then also have enough people to go out in the communities and build a relationship?”
An elderly Dudley Heights resident complains about groups of Dudley High School students “roaming” the neighborhood and breaking into houses. She wants to know if the police can stop them.
Short of observing someone doing something illegal, James cautions that it’s a bad idea for officers to just stop young people for walking down the street.
“It really puts us in a bad way because someone could be walking down the street for a legitimate purpose,” he says. “I’m just trying to be as up front as I can. I can’t approach someone just because they’ve got a backpack and they’re walking down the street during school hours.”
He adds that the highest racial disparities in police stops tend to occur in the areas with the highest crime levels, creating a tricky balancing act for a department that is trying to provide both effective and fair policing.
Or, maybe there’s another explanation for the disparity.
A young man raises his hand, and tells the chief he’s a student at NC A&T University, but he lives near UNCG. He says he sees a heavy police presence around A&T, but not so much around UNCG.
“Sometimes they are shouting, and sometimes they are not wearing enough clothes,” the student says of his neighbors. “Sometimes they’re running up and down the street. Generally being relatively disruptive, but at 1, 2 and 3 in the morning.”
At first, there seems to be some confusion about which neighborhood the student is describing.
“Yes, I’m saying there is more aggressive and heavier police presence by where I go to school, which is A&T, but not where I live, which is by UNCG,” he says. “And I would like to know why.”
This is a narrative the chief does not seem eager to validate, and he hedges by saying he will need more information, while suggesting the student talk one-on-one with one of his officers to drill down to the specifics.
“I just can’t give you an answer on the spot, because when you say there are more police, I have to know what more means,” James says. “Or more aggressive policing — you have to describe to me what aggressive is to you, okay?”
Future community meetings:
- Thursday, 6:30 p.m.: Lindley Recreation Center, 2907 Springwood Drive
- Feb. 20, 6:30 p.m.: Brown Recreation Center, 302 E. Vandalia St.
- Feb. 25, 6:30 p.m.: Glenn McNairy Branch Library, 4860 Lake Jeanette Road
- Feb. 27, 6:30 p.m.: Leonard Recreation Center, 6324 Ballinger Road
- March 5, 6:30 p.m.: Central Library, 219 N. Church St.
- March 10, 6:30 p.m.: Peeler Recreation Center, 1300 Sykes Ave.
- March 12, 6:30 p.m.: Griffin Recreation Center, 5301 Hilltop Road