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CoastLine: Building Bridges Between Law Enforcement and Communities

Ildar Sagdejev / Wikimedia Commons
Night-time traffic stop on Gregson St in Durham, North Carolina.

The U.S. Department of Justice has visited Wilmington in response to at least two violent incidents between members of law enforcement and the community.  During those visits, DOJ officials evaluated local law enforcement practices and policies.  That scrutiny is occurring all across the United States, as it seems new cell phone videos showing excessive use of force by police – with people of color usually on the receiving end – seem to pop up with astonishing frequency. 

There are initiatives to improve relationships between members of the community and law enforcement in the Cape Fear region.  The University of North Carolina – Wilmington is facilitating some under-the-radar conversations that we hear more about in this edition of CoastLine. 

The City of Wilmington and New Hanover County have launched a new project: officials are creating a joint committee intended to facilitate dialogue and proactively offer policy recommendations.  It's dubbed the Community Relations Advisory Committee.  While the formation of this group is underway, we’re checking in with representatives from local government, law enforcement, and the community itself.


Bill Saffo, Mayor, City of Wilmington, NC

Frankie Roberts, Executive Director, Leading Into New Communities (LINC)

Ed McMahon, New Hanover County Sheriff

At the end of the live show, which aired Wednesday, August 3, 2016, we came across an email that we did not get a chance to read on the air.  This question, posed from a member of the white community to people in communities of color, is one worth asking and attempting to answer.

Please post your response to Cathy's question on this page, find us on Facebook and post there, or send an email to coastline@whqr.org and we will post for you.   

From Cathy: 

"As a white person, I completely acknowledge my white privilege that I’ve had in my 57 years. That said, I don’t have many black friends and rarely see black faces in the stores I shop in or the restaurants I patronize. I have no real connection to the black community. What can white people do who now have a small window into what it is like to grow up black in America? Join the NAACP? Please tell us because we hear you."


RLH: Mayor Bill Saffo, the U.S. Department of Justice came to Wilmington in response to at least two separate incidents. One involving a canine unit when a dog was released into a car after the suspect had been stopped, the other involving the fatal shooting of a suspect who, days before, had shot and injured an officer. What were the DOJ’s findings and what kinds of recommendations came out of those investigations?

Mayor Bill Saffo: DOJ wanted to review the policies and procedures of the Wilmington Police Department. They also wanted to have some extensive conversations with people within the community that had significant concerns. In fact, there was a meeting on Castle Street that I attended with Sheriff McMahon and Police Chief Evangelous, as well as Ben David, our DA, and our city manager, of course Frankie was also there. It got a little spirited, but to have a discussion as to how the community felt about police actions and policies. A DOJ representative was there. We had a subsequent meeting at City Hall with several representatives from the community, NAACP members.

One of the commitments that we made as the City of Wilmington was we wanted to reestablish what was the old Human Relations Committee into this new Community Commission, to give us an opportunity to have dialogue with the community, as well as reviewing all of our policies within the Wilmington Police Department. More transparency into our system. One of the commitments we made was—in fact, before the body cameras were even talked about—was to outfit all of our police officers with body cams. I felt, personally, in 2003 when I was elected to the city council, we were in the process of outfitting all of our automobiles, all of the police cars with cameras, and I felt that that had cut down a lot on the mistrust and information that was being disseminated out there about people being stopped unlawfully. If somebody is stopped, there is now evidence, you know, why did that police officer stop you, so we can go right to the tape, sit down with the chief, sit down with the officer and review it to determine whether what they were doing was right or wrong. So, our commitment was to continue with the transparency, get more body cameras out there on all of our officers. To date, I think we have 140 of them that have been fitted with the body cameras.

RLH: And how many officers?

Mayor Bill Saffo: We have 300 officers that will eventually be fitted.

RLH: So about halfway there.

Mayor Bill Saffo: Yeah, it’s about $899 dollars a camera. The camera is not so much the cost, it’s all the information that is downloaded into that system. It’s tremendous. And then of course there are some privacy issues that we have to contend with in the state of North Carolina as to how that information is disseminated when a citizen or someone in the community wants to see it. We’re going through that process. We’re doing additional training with our officers, and we’re having community conversations, with the University of North Carolina at Wilmington being the spearhead of these community meetings. We contracted out with them to have twenty in all, and we finished ten so far.

RLH: I want to hear from you, Frankie Roberts, about those conversations because you are participating in those and you actually kind of invented the model for that, didn’t you?

Frankie Roberts: Yes, myself and one of the captains of the police department.

RLH: You informally started this. Tell us about that. How did it get started?  

Frankie Roberts: Well, our youth development program works with African American males, ages 16 to 24. As a part of working with the young men, one of the ongoing areas of concerns and improvement is how we interact with law enforcement. So, myself and Captain Williams, we had invited him by, he has brought a few officers by, and then we had this idea, “Let’s do this every week.”

RLH: And Captain Donny Williams grew up in Creekwood.

Frankie Roberts: That’s correct.

RLH: So he understands the dynamics in the inner city.

Frankie Roberts: Exactly.

RLH: So he has this unique view as both a member of law enforcement and a member of the community.

Frankie Roberts: So him and I, and our coordinator, we started every other week with officers having a roundtable, keeping at the forefront, the objective was to sit down and get to know each other personally, where the uniform wasn’t a factor as much and where who I was in the community as a young man wasn’t as much a factor, but that we can sit there and talk to each other about our aspirations, our goals, and our dreams, and it worked really well.

RLH: And now this is a formalized arrangement, as Bill Saffo was just telling us about. So we’re halfway through these structured community conversations. Press aren’t allowed to come to these. What are some of the surprising revelations that have come out of these, when members of law enforcement, members of the community come together without badges, without colors—you know, just people. What are they learning about one another?

Mayor Bill Saffo: From the meetings I have attended and the things that I have listened to, there is a significant mistrust. And I think that when people, human beings, can sit down across from each other and understand who each other are and where they’re coming from, it breaks down that mistrust. From my perspective, that’s what we have to constantly work at because police officers are public servants. They are serving the public, who are the citizens. And citizens have got to have trust in their police department. They do, I believe, an outstanding job. They field over 189,000 calls for service in this community. We get it right a lot of the time, but you know, when something does go wrong, we’ve got to be able to address it and be able to have a conversation with the community and explain what happened. And if we are wrong, and if the police have done something wrong, we need to correct it and fix it and discipline the people who have violated that trust. But on the other side of the equation, the community also has to understand where the officer is coming from, when they’re stopping somebody in the middle of the night, the dangerous situations they’re putting themselves in front of every single day to protect us and care for us. They also have a job to do and how they do it is very important to all of us. Being able to bridge that gap and have that conversation is extremely important.

RLH: Where does that mistrust come from? Frankie Roberts, if I grow up in this community as a white kid or a person of color, am I going to have a different experience with law enforcement officers?

Frankie Roberts: Absolutely.

RLH: And what will the difference be?

Frankie Roberts: You can’t teach what you don’t know, and you can’t lead where you don’t go. It’s all a matter of perspective. Our history, and we do live in a community where there’s a big gap between the haves and the have-nots—unfortunately, and I think we’re positioning ourselves under good leadership to minimize that gap—but I think as a black youth, to be viewed as a businessman, as an entrepreneur, and the media sometimes portrays African American males as a criminal, as a thug, and not as a business man, so we have been socialized to think, when we see a young white male between the ages of 16 and 24, we don’t have that image of being a criminal or the image of being a thug. We have an image of a businessman. So we are socializing people now, when I see a young black male in the same age group, is to be able to think a business man, a working person, an entrepreneur. Those subtle paradigms, we have to change, and we have to be intentional about it. That’s why I made sure, even raising my youngest son who is now 21-years-old, I put him in soccer from the time he was three-years-old until he became a soccer referee at sixteen. He always asks, “Why do I have to play soccer with all these white people?” And I said, “Because I need, in this community, for you to be able to understand middle class culture.”

RLH: Sheriff McMahon, as a member of law enforcement, and you know your own force is under increasing scrutiny as are forces all across the country because of our growing awareness of issues around communities of color and how law enforcement has interacted with them, and of course we’re not demonizing all law enforcement officers, but there have been issues there. What have you learned just in the last couple of years about practices and maybe how some of those practices should be modified?

Sheriff Ed McMahon: Well, it’s interesting, and if you look at— There’s, ballpark, a million officers in this country who have thousands of interactions with their communities every day. So, if you look at it in light of that, it’s a small number, and I think that they’re made very big. But overall, if you look at an agency, what is that agency doing? The bottom line is about their relationships with their community.

Earlier on, you were talking about trust. It has been amazing to me as I dive deeper into this, the perceptions. My perception is going to be my reality and yours is going to be yours, and sometimes we’re both wrong on our perceptions. If I look at here locally, if I look at us in New Hanover County, and you look at, first of all, what are we doing right? We’ve recently become nationally accredited. The Police Department has been nationally accredited and gone through their first reevaluation and passed that. So we’re holding ourselves to nationally-accepted best practices. I think that’s important for everybody to know. Do we make mistakes? Absolutely. Do we have poor judgment once in a while? Absolutely.

And I think recently, we did a public service announcement. I meet with all the police chiefs every month in the county, and we talk about national issues but we really talk about what’s going on here in New Hanover County and how can we improve, what can we do better, what are we doing well. We came up with a public service announcement, and it was: Listen, explain. Comply, complain.

RLH: What does that mean?

Sheriff Ed McMahon: We, as the sheriffs and police chiefs, we went to our officers, and we said, when you stop someone, when you have an encounter with someone, listen to them and explain why you’re out with them. That will put everybody at ease. No long conversations, just listen to what they’re saying and explain.

The next part was to our citizens: Comply and then you can complain later. We all have Internal Affairs units. We all have processes you can go through. The majority of the time, 99% of the time, the officer wants to have his interaction with you and then he wants to clear. So if it’s going to be a ticket, whatever it’s going to be, let’s go ahead and get through the process because when those encounters go bad, they go really bad.

RLH: Right.

RLH: You’re talking about when an officer has violated protocol?

Sheriff Ed McMahon: So we want the community to say, hey listen, officer, you listen and explain. Citizen, just comply and then you can complain later. We all have things set up, nationally best processes where we have Internal Affairs. If you look at the past, just with the Sheriff’s Office, I’ve had deputies where, when something goes wrong and it’s not an internal policy, I call the state. I call the SBI.

RLH: You’re talking about when an officer has violated protocol?

Sheriff Ed McMahon: If we get a complaint about an officer, we look at it first, our Internal Affairs. And we look to see if there are any policy violations, Sheriff’s Office policy protocol procedures, and then we deal with that internally. If we start to look and think, wait a minute, this could be criminal, we immediately contact our DA Ben David, and then together, we ask the State Bureau of Investigation to come in and investigate it, totally separate from us. And we’ve had deputies that have been arrested, so we’ve shown where, we’re not going to tolerate misbehavior. If it’s a policy, we’re going to deal with it quickly. Now, there are personnel laws that tie our hands a little bit, that’s where the trust comes in, but know that we do care. The bottom line is that it is about trust and building relationships in the community.

Steve (caller): Things like Internal Affairs departments, SBI investigations, or even a citizen’s review board could be described as efforts to make things better, to improve existing situations. Community policing, it seems to me, is somewhat different. It’s more of a transformative change, a transformation to a different way of being. I know we talk a lot about community policing in this town. My question for both the mayor and the sheriff is, what are the challenges that you see— To back up, attitude change on both the part of the community and police is at the heart of community policing.

RLH: In other words, what do we all need to learn?

Steve (caller): Yes, what we need to learn, but what are the specific challenges that the Wilmington Police and the Sheriff’s Department face with attitudinal shift towards the community at large, particularly in regard to patrol officers.  

Sheriff Ed McMahon: I think what we’ve been— In the past, we trained our officers, our deputies, you go in, you just go right on in, you take care of things, and you move on. Well, that’s not the best case. We’ve kind of stepped back, and we want our officers, our deputies to be involved, like Frankie said earlier, just on a normal, day-to-day basis. You’re going through the neighborhood, you stop, see some children, see some teenagers, “Hey, how are you doing? What’s going on?” Get to know them a little bit. So you’re building a relationship.

RLH: So you’re getting to know the people who live in that particular community.

Sheriff Ed McMahon: Get to know them, and then, if there is a problem, we’re telling the officers, let’s try to deescalate things. Let’s not just run in there and just hands-on. Let’s stop. We in the Sheriff’s Office implemented some special de-escalation training to the deputies this year and the police chief, all of us have talked about this before any of this happened. We want the officers to slow down a little bit, don’t rush into it, let’s talk about it a little bit, maybe wait for your back up. You don’t have to go hands on right away.

RLH: You don’t have to physically take over the situation.

Sheriff Ed McMahon: Right, there may be a time when you do, but lots of times, let’s deescalate it. And that’s what’s so good about a female officer. She automatically does that. But as we know, it’s a white male dominated— That’s just what law enforcement is. So we’re all working to get more blacks and more females, so I think we’re learning from that, let’s not just rush in. Let’s talk about it and try to reason and calm things down, but a lot of it is that trust that you have to have.

RLH: Do you think, Sheriff McMahon and Mayor Saffo, that the history of segregation here in this community has caused you to be more sensitive to this? It just seems like this community might be a little more progressive along these lines or might have responded earlier than some other communities that are just now starting to wake up and say, “Hm, we have a problem.”

Mayor Bill Saffo: I believe it has, and I believe we were trying to get out in front of this thing. I know that when we hired Police Chief Evangelous, one of the things that we hired him for was the community policing piece that we thought was critically important to this community. In regards to racial issues that we’ve had in Wilmington for many years, I think every community in the country has had those issues also, but I will say this, Rachel, as the Mayor of this city, we are more diverse than we have ever been in its history. As long as I’ve lived here, I’ve seen the community grow, prosper, do very well. But we’re also more segregated as a community than we’ve ever been also. And what I mean by that, from socioeconomic conditions, people that live maybe in Landfall and people that live on 8th Street don’t look through the same prism. They have the same concerns. They want a safe neighborhood. They want their kids to grow up in a safe environment. They want them to be successful. But they look at each other sometimes differently. Sometimes that is a perception issue that is created because people don’t hang around each other.

RLH: Why is there a larger chasm than there has been in the past?

Mayor Bill Saffo: I just think it’s the whole country. We are segregating ourselves. I mean, I can go into any house, I can look at the TV, I can tell you what they’re watching, and if they’re watching CNN or if they’re watching FOX, I can tell you how they’re going to vote. I can tell you what they’re thinking about different aspects of things. And when I listen to them, they’re coming at it from their perception, where they grew up, what they were taught, or what they think. And I think it’s important to have this dialogue and conversation because as a mayor, I have the opportunity to go through all parts of this community and speak to all kinds of people. We’ve got great people all over, and they want the same exact thing. That’s one of the things that makes me scratch my head when I go home at night. Everybody wants the same thing. They want a great environment to live in. They want to be able to find a good paying job. They want a safe environment for their kids to grow up. Everybody wants the same thing. But I think we look at it from different points of view, and I think that when we have an opportunity as a community to sit down with each other, across the table from each other or wherever that may be, it breaks down a lot of that stereotyping that has been embedded in some of us for years. Hey look, I grew up here, I understand, I’ve heard things over the years, perceptions of different groups of people.

RLH: You come at this from a really interesting point of view because you were born and raised in Wilmington, you were telling us off the air earlier that you went to school during desegregation. And you’re a white man who’s always had a fairly privileged life. So you could just turn your head, look the other way. Why does this matter to you?

Mayor Bill Saffo: Because I think it is so important as a community and a country that we have to understand that we’ve got different groups of people that make up America with different values, different religions, and I think it’s important that we talk to one another. You know, I was telling you earlier, I grew up at Wrightsville Beach, went to Wrightsville Beach Elementary School in the 1960s, all white classes. Desegregation came in, they took us and they bussed us down to 5th Avenue, which was an interesting social experiment to say the least. There was a lot of fussing and fighting going on because we didn’t really know each other, but within two weeks, it had calmed down. I made some of the greatest friends, and I got shipped all over every school probably I feel like in the entire county, so I got to meet so many people. We’re all the same. And what I think is important is when people can come together and talk to each other, it breaks down a lot of that stuff, so that’s what I hope we can do with this new commission that we have. I want it to be proactive. know it’s a small part in this big microcosm of life, but I think it helps if we can have these discussions. Because it’s not just about race. It’s about LGBT issues. It’s about policing issues. It’s about a lot of different things that we deal with in the community.

RLH: Have you ever had a frightening encounter yourself with law enforcement?

Mayor Bill Saffo: I have. This was interesting. Several years ago, right about when I was elected in 2003, I was building a metal building, and a contractor that I was dealing with said, “I built that same building at Dutch Square Industrial Park.” So he said, “Go by and take a look at this building.” So it was late one evening, I went by and took a look at it. I was driving around the back of it to take a look at the structure of the building and whatnot. And as I was turning the corner and coming away, all of a sudden a black Camaro comes at me at a very high rate of speed and has no markings on it. Guy jumps out of the car. He’s got jeans and a black sweatshirt on. He pulls a gun and point it right at me and says, “Put your hands on the steering wheel.” I thought, “For the love of god, I’m being robbed here.” So, I was shocked, and I put my hands on the steering wheel. You can imagine my heart rate was going through the ceiling. And it was an undercover sheriff’s deputy.

RLH: Has Sheriff McMahon heard this story before?

Mayor Bill Saffo: I don’t think the sheriff has ever heard this. It was before Sheriff McMahon was the sheriff. But there was a rash of break-ins at Dutch Square, and the sheriff’s department was doing the right thing, they were patrolling the area to make sure nobody was going to do any more break-ins. He put the gun on me, and I froze. I did exactly what he said. I always said to myself later, if I would have moved to the right to try to get my driver’s license, would he have thought that I was going for a gun and shot me.

So, I got that perspective firsthand, and it frightened me. But also, he had a job to do. I did exactly what he said, it was no problem. He came to my car window, said, “Who are you?” I showed him my license, and everything was cool. I called the Sheriff at the time later and explained to him how much it scared me, but there’s a perfect example where the movement on my behalf in the wrong way would have been a tragedy. So, I can understand in milliseconds how these decisions are made by officers in the street that don’t know what’s going on on the other side, that may think that their lives are in danger.

Laird (caller): I just wanted to share an experience I’ve had twice with the Sheriff’s Department. I live in the county. It was a neighborhood domestic dispute. It could have gone either way, but it escalated. It was two different sets of sheriffs that came both times. I was amazed at how calm, professional, and helpful they were. Actually, one of them came back to my house, sat with my ten-year-old son, talked to him, calmed him down. I was literally in tears the second time, how nice and respectful and calm they were. I just wanted to share that.

Sheriff Ed McMahon: Love to hear that kind of story. I like to hear that rather than the mayor’s story.

Mayor Bill Saffo: Well, I was fine after the fact.

RLH: That is such an interesting illustration because in your story, Mayor Saffo, just one false move and it could have been an entirely different kind of story.

Mayor Bill Saffo: But I also listened to what the officer at the time told me. He obviously identified himself very quickly afterwards. There again, when an officer is approaching you and is telling you something, do exactly what he tells you to do. That’s the moral from my perspective. I didn’t want to make a wrong move that he thought that I was going for something that obviously could have turned out to be tragic.

Melissa (emailer): While I believe that outfitting police forces with body cams can be helpful, I don't believe it's a complete solution to the violence and racism people of color are experiencing with law enforcement officers. In some circumstances, body cams might be able to provide a clearer picture of these kinds of violent incidents; however, they also add to our already growing surveillance culture. How can we ensure that these body cams aren't used to wrongfully survey poor neighborhoods and neighborhoods largely populated by people of color?

Sheriff Ed McMahon: That is a great question and one that we have been discussing ourselves as we role out into all the body cameras. I think that our legislators have put out a law on what we need to follow. The good thing about that law is that we are all on the same page now. If you are on the video, then you can come and request to see it and look at it. So we’re going through that now. On October 1st, we can’t release those videos unless you have a court order to do it. It’s very private right now. There are no copies that go around. It’s all downloaded into a main data frame source. Eventually it goes off of the officer’s camera. I think it’s something we have to work together on and just be respectful of— You know, I had calls since we started saying, “The house wasn’t as clean as I thought it would be,” or, “My family was in there. I’d rather not have them on film.” So, great question, and we’re going to be very careful, and I think the new law has helped with that. 

Sterling (caller): I think that we need to be honest about what’s happening in this country. It’s so often said that it’s a small minority of policemen and it’s played down. The fact is, there’s a black person being killed in this country almost every day. Statistically, almost every day. No one can say this is a small problem or a few people. It’s a big problem. A lot of black folks feel that this is somewhat hypocritical, what’s happening now. This has been going on in America for centuries, for a long time, and all of a sudden, a few policemen get shot, and I don’t mean to sound negative about it, but now it’s a big problem. Now people are realizing that it’s a problem. It’s always been a problem. And that’s why people feel it’s hypocritical. Because people have known about this, police departments have known about this problem for upon decades upon decades upon decades, and it’s never been dealt with because it’s been hidden. The cameras all of a sudden reveal the truth that’s been going on in America for an awful long time. This wouldn’t have even happened if some black people didn’t take pictures of the murder of black men and women all over this country. It’s a huge problem.

RLH: Sterling, you raise an interesting point about when this started to take over our national dialogue because of course we had Ferguson, Missouri, and there was outrage over the grand jury decision in that case, with a white officer shooting a black man in Ferguson. Since then, we’ve seen cell phone video, and of course there was the Facebook post recently when a woman allegedly live streamed the murder of her partner by an officer—

Sterling (caller): Let me just say this. These police departments all over this country have had these videos hidden for years. And now, finally, you know, they’re saying, “Oh, we’re going to be honest now.” See, people don’t believe what they’re saying now because it’s been going on for so long.

RLH: And your point is, now that we have cellphone video evidence, we have to admit that this is going on. I have to say, I’ve heard my whole life, the term “DWB, “driving while black.” Growing up as a white person—and Sheriff McMahon, I see you shaking your head, I’m going to get you to respond in a second—I didn’t know if that was actually a thing, if my life would have been different, if my experience with law enforcement would have been different had I been born African American in this country. But Sterling makes a point, we are seeing more and more evidence, and it’s troubling, across this country, how often evidence, cell phone videos pop up with a white officer treating a person of color in a way that is different than white people might have been treated in that circumstance. How do you respond to Sterling, Sheriff McMahon?

Sheriff Ed McMahon: Well, I don’t agree with Sterling. I said earlier, there’s nearly a million officers and thousands of interactions every day in our communities, and there’s a handful of officers that have done bad. To say that we’ve had video, we’ve had information that this was going on, it’s not true. He may believe it, but it is not true. Period.

RLH: Frankie Roberts, do you have a response to Sterling? I mean, does what he said resonate with you?

Frankie Roberts: As I said earlier, what you see is based on where you sit. The pilot in a plane looks at where he’s headed differently than the passengers, that’s why there’s a door there. I would say that one of the responses to a lot of the challenges with black male youth, which spun us into doing this, I would agree that there are very few officers— There are a few officers who are jerks, all right? They have created this paradigm. And most officers get a bad rap because they are a member of the collective. Period.

But the other side of the conversation, that studies would also show, there’s only very few black males who are jerks, but it is treated as though there’s a big gulf of black males, and I think there needs to be reciprocity, that if I have to acknowledge that there’s one or two bad officers, I have to also acknowledge that there’s one or two youth who are jerks, and I don’t think that side of the conversation is revealed equally.

So when I talk to my 21-year-old, if I don’t tell him that he might not be able to identify the jerk, maybe because of the color of his skin, then I’m putting him in a vulnerable position, and I can only speak to my son based on my experience, and I have had more challenging experiences than I’ve had good experiences but literally it’s because of the relationship. If I have an officer who has never interacted with a person of color from true love and embrace, then it might be a little frightening because a person hasn’t had that relationship and vice versa. Now, my son has had different experiences with law enforcement—takes pictures with Sheriff McMahon, and the Mayor came to his grandmother’s funeral. In his mind, they’re on my side.

RLH: Sheriff McMahon, Frankie Roberts is saying there’s a reciprocity that needs to happen, and I think we’re seeing officials in this community try to address that by forming this joint committee, the Community Relations Advisory Board, of which you will be a member as well, and this is a joint committee effort between the county and the city, and Mayor Saffo was also talking about body cams, but are there other things that white officers need to learn about how to interact with—

Sheriff Ed McMahon: Absolutely, and I really appreciate Frankie because he’s going to tell you the truth and he’s going to speak it. And I agree with what Frankie just said, I really do. I was speaking with my wife this morning, because I wasn’t really sure what we were going to do, and I have been here for 25 years, but I’m 55 years old, so I spent half my life up north in a small community where this was never discussed.

RLH: And probably didn’t have the same kind of history that this area has.

Sheriff Ed McMahon: Nothing at all. Now, my wife is third generation Wilmingtonian, so she understands. And I said, It’s just amazing to me, and I love these conversations I’ve had with Frankie and Atiba and different members of the community, where I think I’m doing something that’s so great, and they’re like, “Uh, not really. It’s perceived totally different.” So, yes, there is always room to get better, and I think the dialogue is so helpful, and we need to relay that to our officers that are on the street that, “Hey, we think differently.” And we need to understand that.

Anna (emailer): While I applaud the creation of the Community Relations Advisory Committee and understand the value of community dialogue, I think we need to go further. There are country residents who have been advocating for a citizen’s review board that would provide some outside accountability for police actions. I would like to hear Sheriff McMahon’s opinion on the formation of a citizen’s review board.

RLH: How would that be different from this current committee effort that’s underway? What is she talking about and how you do feel about that?

Sheriff Ed McMahon: The Community Relations Advisory Board that we’re having now, I envision this as being made of up of people like Frankie, that are respected by all of us and are respected within their communities and people trust, so if something is going on, they may not—because of the misunderstandings and the lack of trust—they may not want to trust in my Internal Affairs set-up. They go to Frankie, and Frankie makes sure we get the information and that something is done. Now, there’s a lot of things we can’t share, but Frankie and I have a relationship. We may not always agree. But he’s going to hold me accountable. I’m going to hold him accountable. So, I’m totally in favor with that.

RLH: And I have to say, Frankie Roberts is nodding vigorously as you talk. He agrees with you.

Sheriff Ed McMahon: We’ve had some tough conversations, yeah, and it hurts, but you know what, truth is truth. So, I appreciate that about Frankie. He’s going to speak it, and we’re going to figure it out. Now, if you get a citizen’s review board, I’m opposed to that. Every four years, I have the ultimate evaluation by this community. I’m elected. And I cannot, as the head of a law enforcement agency, have some citizens telling me how to run the sheriff’s office. We have an Internal Affairs that’s in place, and if one of our policies is violated, then we act swiftly and we act severely and we take care of that. If it is of a criminal nature, we get with Ben David and we call in the SBI. So I am opposed to a citizen’s review board telling me or telling police chiefs how to run a police station. They’re not in law enforcement. They have a perspective. And my opinion would be, I’m the pilot, and they’re going to be in the plane. They’re not going to have the same perspective I do. I hold myself accountable. I come to things like this, I’m in the community. Frankie and I have painful conversations, but I’d be opposed to a citizen’s review board, but I’m 110% in favor of the Community Relations board.

Robert (email): When my father was the sheriff in Wake County, he always made the point that all of his deputies were living in the county, but in all areas and neighborhoods, they were encouraged to get to know their neighbors and their communities, so he always had knowledgeable community officers that knew the folks by their family name and the names of their family members. That helped more than anything else. Don’t you think the same thing would help here?

Sheriff Ed McMahon: Wow. I would love to be in a nice county where we could do that. A lot of the deputies cannot afford to live in New Hanover County, and they live in some of the more rural counties, but what we do with that is we try to assign deputies to areas and they stay in those areas and they get to know the community and they get to know the people that live there. They don’t all live in our county, no.

John (caller): I, like the mayor, grew up here, went to school here, came up during the riots in Wilmington, it was a pretty tough time.

RLH: You’re talking about the 1970s.

John (caller): Yes, ma’am. Even though that was going on, I still played football with a lot of the guys from Sea Breeze on weekends, they’d come to the beach where I was raised. We had no problems, and it was always when we got to schools, and even back then there were some agitators that were causing problems. Current day, I look at some of this as a media problem also. I’d like to get your perspective and the officers’ perspectives on that. We had the case in Missouri, where it was “hands up, don’t shoot,” and that played out for months and months and to this day, is still being played out by the media, “hands up, don’t shoot.” Our own Justice Department, that was run by minority people in charge, proved that that was not the case. So how does the media play in this? How does the sheriff and others feel about that? I mean, it seems to me that we’re supposed to except untruths by the media.

RLH: You raise a good point, John. I just want to say, when it came to Ferguson, which is the circumstance you’re talking about, that was breaking news, and different media companies handle breaking news in different ways. I have to say, NPR is pretty good about not reporting something until it has been confirmed. But that was a bit of misinformation that went around. It was some myth that got picked up pretty quickly. But Frankie Roberts, what’s your take on that? How do you think the media is doing in general when it comes to these incidents? Is the media handling it responsibly? Are they shedding light, or are they fanning the flames in an unproductive way?

Frankie Roberts: I would say both. It’s complicated. Again, I think that we, through print media, as well as all the other media outlets, you develop a thinking in a person’s mind. And I think that what the media has done, and it just happens, whether you report the events accurately or not, again, if I parallel 16- to 24-year-old white males to 16- to 24-year-old black males, based on how we’ve been socialized, we look at the two groups differently. One is hopeless and one is hopeful, and certainly the media fans that flame. I’m sure barber shops fan that flame. I’m sure country clubs fan that flame. And I think if you fan that flame, it’s just an outcome and a reality. However, I think that it’s our leaderships’ responsibility, to hold all communities responsible and accountable to reframe the conversation and lean into our discomfort. 

Rachel hosts and produces CoastLine, an award-winning hourlong conversation featuring artists, humanitarians, scholars, and innovators in North Carolina. The show airs Wednesdays at noon and Sundays at 2 pm on 91.3 FM WHQR Public Media. It's also available as a podcast; just search CoastLine WHQR. You can reach her at rachellh@whqr.org.