The city’s public safety meeting covered a report about allegations of racism within the Winston-Salem Fire Department, reallocation of police funds and alternative police response strategies.

Consulting group says WSFD ‘not racist organization’ but racism occurs

The Winston-Salem Fire Department, in and of itself, is not a racist organization. That’s what consultants with WPR Consulting told Winston-Salem city officials during a public safety committee meeting on Monday evening. The presentation was given by Anthony Wade and Willie Ratchford, who led the independent consulting firm out of Charlotte.

According to a meeting document, the city contracted with WPR Consulting in August 2020, weeks after multiple news outlets, including Triad City Beat, had published allegations of racism within the fire department by multiple current and former Black firefighters who have been organizing under the name Omnibus. Among the allegations put forth by Omnibus: nooses tied during trainings, frequent use of the N-word and racially charged social media posts.

In their report, the consultants addressed members of the public safety committee, which includes councilmember James Taylor Jr. who serves as the chair and councilmembers John Larson, Barbara Hanes Burke and Kevin Mundy. In addition to refuting claims that the entire department is racist, Wade and Ratchford stated that none of the more than 100 personnel interviewed for the climate assessment shared a view held by members of Omnibus: that Chief Trey Mayo is racist. However, they did state that “there are individuals who are employed by the department who are viewed as racists” and that “racism and discrimination occurs in the department.”

For the assessment, the firm conducted interviews with individuals with Omnibus, Hate Out of Winston, the Winston-Salem Urban League, the NAACP and others. They reviewed social media posts by WSFD employees and also researched the history of the department.

Thomas Penn, a Winston-Salem firefighter and a member of Omnibus, told TCB he was happy to see that much of WPR’s report substantiated claims that have been made by his group for months.

“Our main concern is that they have discovered that there is racism in the department,” Penn said. “And that these incidents have not been properly investigated.”

Penn said almost all of the recommendations made by WPR matched the demands that Omnibus put out as well. However, one glaring omission from WPR’s recommendations was the immediate termination of Chief Mayo and other members of the command staff.

“If you don’t clean this wound out before you put the dressing on, it just festers,” Penn said.

One recommendation from WPR’s presentation supported by Burke was the implementation of a diversity, equity and inclusion strategic plan for the entire city. Penn also said that Omnibus included the need for a DEI plan in its demands.

“I believe that we need a citywide DEI office,” Burke said. “I believe that we need this infrastructure even if it means restructuring one of the offices we currently have.”

WPR also recommended that the city hire four educators for the fire department who would lead community engagement initiatives and DEI actions, as well as a discipline audit of the department as a whole. One of the items also recommended revisiting and strengthening the department’s social media policy. Assistant City Manager Damon Dequenne responded that fire department policy had been recently updated to mirror that of the police department.

“It provides for more accountability, and ensures that there is no direct connection to their profession and what they’re posting and representing the city,” Dequenne said.

Penn said that while he’s happy to see that WPR’s findings mostly match what Omnibus has been saying for months, he also wants to see specific captains fired.

“We have to take it day by day,” Penn said. “We don’t know what these individuals will do. We must stay focused and be prepared to be active. We must be proactive rather than reactive.”

Reallocating police funds and alternative police strategies

During the latter half of the meeting, activist and academic Brittany Battle and others with the Forsyth County Police Accountability and Reallocation Coalition outlined their demands to the committee. These included a reallocation of funds from the police department’s budget to community services, a civilian police-oversight board and a mental-health crisis intervention unit.

For the reallocation portion, members of the coalition asked for a 10 percent shift of funds from the police department’s $78 million budget for community programs such as SOAR, which works to help formerly incarcerated individuals successfully re-enter society, and Youth Build which works with individuals who have not completed high school.

“This is a realistic shifting of priorities from a system that punished people of color for their very existence while condoning white violence on a daily basis,” said Aly Jones, a member of the coalition. “This is a change away from funding systems that are reactionary to systems that are preventative.”

Jones pointed to the previous meeting item in which members of the police department, including Assistant Chief Wilson Weaver II, talked about the department’s gun-crime reduction unit. The purpose of the unit, Weaver and others said, is to reduce gun crime incidents and have a separate team which responds to investigate gun crimes.

“It is wonderful to get guns off the street but it’s better to avoid the shootings to begin with,” Jones said. “The police do not stop crime; they show up after crimes have been committed. We are seeking initiatives that prevent the bulk of crime to begin with.”

A large portion of the presentation by the coalition focused on the need for a mental-health crisis intervention unit which they hope would be modeled after Cahoots, an initiative out of Eugene, Ore. The city had also prepared a presentation about alternative police strategies for mental-health crises. The city presentation differentiated between three different types of responses that can be taken for mental-health incidents. Currently, the city employs the law enforcement-only option, in which officers receive crisis-intervention training and are deployed to the scene. A co-response method, which has been used by the Greensboro Police Department since last year, allows for police officers and mental-health experts to arrive at a scene together or for officers to request assistance from experts once on the scene. The third option, which is the one the coalition wants, is the alternative response model, in which experts would be the first and only ones on the scene for a mental-health crisis and would have the option to call for law enforcement backup should they need it.

According to statistics outlined in both the city’s presentation as well as the coalition’s, law enforcement officers were called in less than 1 percent of Cahoots calls in 2019 in Eugene. Both presentations also noted that the CAHOOTS program, which is funded by the city, has saved Eugene about $8.5 million annually since it was implemented in 2014.

The activists with the coalition voiced support for a similar program in Winston-Salem.

“The data shows us that in mental-health calls, just the presence of a police officer has resulted in the escalation of an incident,” Battle said. “The research that we have about programs that already exists… demonstrate that police officer backup are not needed in a vast majority of these calls. That the mental-health worker is able to de-escalate the incident without there being any violence.”

Larson, a Democrat representing the South Ward, expressed skepticism about how the program would work and also questioned where the funds needed for the group’s demands would be shifted from.

“I’m not entirely sure what is being proposed to be cut to warrant that reallocation of money,” Larson said. “What functions are currently being performed by the police that you are willing to diminish within our current environment?… Until we devise a system to do that, I’m reluctant to simply say we’re going to take money away from the police and throw it toward a program that may involve county support as well.”

While neither the activists nor Scott Tesh, the city official giving the report about alternative policing, provided specifics how funds could be diverted, Battle reasserted that other municipalities have been able to do what their coalition is asking for.

“We need to be creative about where that money can come from,” Battle said. “Cities across the country with much higher crime rates, much larger populations than us have been doing this, as well as cities that are smaller than us. This is not a radical proposition; this is something that is being done across the country.”

Larson and Mundy, a Democrat who represents the Southwest Ward, expressed further skepticism about the reallocation of funds from the police department.

“I’m less concerned about policing the police,” Larson said. “I’m not sure they’re broken. What I do think is we have a number of social issues that need attention….”

Mundy, who advocated for a DEI office earlier in the meeting accused the coalition of activists of painting law enforcement with a “broad brush.”

“I think there is a lot of anger over the way people have been treated across the United States and I can assure you, I share that anger, but what I don’t want us to do as a council, what I don’t want to do as a community is demonize our men and women in blue who work so hard to be fair, to serve and protect on a daily basis when they face the odds of being killed every day when they go to work,” Mundy said. “I think there has been a large lack of respect for the work that they do. That doesn’t mean we can’t make changes… but at the same time I want to commend our local law enforcement for the job that they do every day.”

Battle was quick to reply, stating that the system of policing disproportionately affects marginalized communities.

“Data shows us that policing is a dangerous institution for Black, Brown and queer people,” Battle said. “I definitely recognize that people’s lives are on the line when they go to work and we should also recognize that Black, Brown and queer people’s lives are on the line when they engage with law enforcement across the country, including in the city of Winston-Salem.”

Taylor, in an effort to wrap up the meeting, said that he hopes to continue talking about these issues during the meeting in February and will invite Battle and others back to reach a resolution about reallocation of funds and more discussion of the Cahoots model.

The next public safety meeting will take place virtually on Feb. 8 at 6 p.m.

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