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WPD Chief Donny Williams on the challenges of modern policing and accountability

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Rachel Keith
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WHQR
Wilmington Police Chief Donny Williams (left) and Lt. Matt Fox (right).

Wilmington Police Chief Donny Williams said his department has undergone a ‘cultural reset’. This means training officers to confront their implicit biases -- and avoid becoming bystanders in the face of misconduct. WHQR visited The Haynes / Lacewell Police and Fire Training Facility to learn more.

At the training center, there were presentations from Chief Willams and his staff on K-9 operations, use of force, and defensive driving. But to start the day, he made clear his thoughts on the public’s view of police.

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Rachel Keith
Dex is one of WPD's K-9s.

“Because right now, law enforcement is being vilified across this country. And to be honest, all law enforcement officers are not out to hurt or fear African American males, just like all African American males are not out to hurt law enforcement,” said Williams.

Chief Williams said there are two examples where his officers could have been justified in taking the life of two Black males -- and didn’t. One was standing with a toddler on Princess Street, shooting rounds in the air. The other: “Within a thousand feet of this training facility back in September, we had a man that was barricaded in a house. And he fired on my SWAT team, and I’ll be honest, my SWAT team is all white officers, and they sought other alternatives.”

But Chief Williams said that if police are shot at, they can return fire, “because our officers want to go home with their families at the end of the shift. But the point is the narrative that is being painted is we’re out to kill people and that’s not the case.”

Because of these narratives, he said, he’s having trouble recruiting and retaining officers. But despite this, he said he wants his staff to be reflective of the community they serve: “We also take into consideration diversity, equity, and inclusiveness because we have had some units that have no female officers in them, and we’ve had some units that have no African American officers in them.”

Williams also mentioned his patrol unit is young, both in terms of age and years on the force.

After national high-profile police shootings of Black citizens, he said he’s instituted an implicit bias training program called, ‘Fair and Impartial Policing’ as well as the Georgetown Law bystander initiative called, ABLE for his officers.

“But do your people have the skills to actually intervene? And that's what ABLE does. It also teaches officers to intervene if they see a common mistake being made. If you see an officer making a mistake, you say something, you call him out on it. But it’s a way that you do it, to where it’s positive reinforcement, and it also focuses on the health and wellness of our personnel,” said Williams.

The Wilmington Police Department is also participating in a UNC School of Government pilot program, in collaboration with the North Carolina Association of Chiefs of Police and North Carolina State University. It's called, ‘Citation in Lieu of Arrest’.

“And that policy basically says on minor offenses you release on a citation instead of taking them into custody. And we are trying to do that. [...] Again, minor offenses, more of your quote, unquote unofficial victimless offense because there are no offenses that are victimless, sort of your nuisance complaints, that's what this is designed around,” said Williams.

Wilmington Police Lieutenant Matt Fox, along with Chief Williams, also said there are other mechanisms to ensure police accountability: “I love body cameras, right? I think as a modern municipal law enforcement agency you’re crazy if you don’t have body cameras, and a lot of them don’t have it; it’s amazing to me.”

As for releasing the footage, it’s up to the courts to make that determination, but the Chief said he’d like the old law reinstated: “Personally, I like the way the law was before where it was up to the police chief, and you could release or not release that video. And in some cases, I think as an agency head, we may need to get that video out quick. And in other cases where it's a very involved investigation, we may need to hold it a couple of days. But if we have to hold it, we’re able to explain why this is a more complex investigation."

Another potential reform that’s often debated is incorporating mental health professionals into police responses. Williams said the department has, for years, had access to a mobile crisis team run by RHA Behavioral Health Services -- and calls on them when needed. At the same time, however, his staff noted that historically the team's counselor has responded from Jacksonville, and can take an hour — and sometimes as long as 90 minutes — to arrive.

[Editor's note: This article has been updated with a clarification. We originally reported that the RHA team operates out of Jacksonville. We followed up with RHA and WPD and confirmed both that RHA mobile crisis has a local Wilmington presence and that the counselor who works with WPD works out of Jacksonville. According to WPD, the net result is the same, a 60-90 minute wait for officers who call for crisis support.]

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Rachel Keith
WPD's defensive driving simulator