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Reform and community groups oppose using $40,000 in NC drug tax funding to build Wilmington police museum

Some of the artifacts currently on display in the lobby of the Wilmington Police Department; many others are kept in storage.
Benjamin Schachtman
Some of the artifacts currently on display in the lobby of the Wilmington Police Department; many others are kept in storage.

The Wilmington Police Department wants to use $40,000 in NC Drug Tax funding to build a museum to display artifacts and photos from the department’s history. Several groups, including Second Chance Alliance in New Hanover County and the North Carolina Justice Center, are calling for that money to be reinvested in the community.

Update Tuesday 5:15 p.m. — This article has been updated with a statement from the Wilmington Police Department.

At Tuesday evening’s meeting, Wilmington City Council will consider whether to authorize the use of $40,000 in funding from the NC Drug Tax to build a museum. [Editor's note: Council voted unanimously to continue the proposal to September. There was no discussion of the issue.]

According to the proposed ordinance, the “Wilmington Police Department Law Enforcement Musem” will “showcase the history of the Department,” including artifacts currently stored away from the public view. WPD Chief Donny Williams recently told city council during Monday morning’s agenda meeting that he hopes the museum will build community engagement – and encourage the public to visit the existing fallen officers’ memorial.

Criticism of the museum proposal

In aletter to Wilmington City Council, signed by the New Hanover County chapter of Second Chance Alliance, the North Carolina Justice Center, and others, advocates asked for the money to be spent in a different way. NC Second Chance Alliance is "a statewide alliance of people with criminal records, their family members, service providers, congregations, community leaders and concerned citizens that have come together to address the causes of criminal records and the barriers they create to successful reentry."

For Daquan Peters, New Hanover County coordinator for Second Chance Alliance, both the source of funding and its intended use are problematic.

“I understand what Chief Williams’ vision is with the museum,” Peters said. “However this museum shouldn’t be funded off the backs of poor Black and brown people, who this law disproportionately impacts the most.”

Peters is referring to the North Carolina Drug Tax Revenue program, also known as the unauthorized substances tax, which is a levy on illegal drugs like cocaine, marijuana, and heroin and illicit alcohol products like unlicensed liquor and mixed drinks served without the appropriate license. According to the UNC School of Government, very few people actually pay the tax on substances like cocaine, marijuana, and moonshine. However, those arrested for possession or sale of illegal goods are liable for backed taxes, penalties, and interest — and the state can garnish wages and repossess property from those who don’t pay up.

Find more on how the museum ordinance, how the NC Drug Tax program works, and some of its critics here.

The drug tax has been criticized by the left-leaning think tank and publication NC Policy Watch, which argues it is designed to “ensnare and penalize people, especially those of color. The North Carolina Justice Center, a non-profit focused on issues impacting low-income people, called the tax a “deeply flawed effort that allows the state to systematically pillage resources from low-income communities and communities of color.”

The Wilmington Police Department did not address these allegations — but did point to several benefits of the drug tax program in a statement that noted, in part, that it reduced the level of taxpayer dollars spent in the department, and aided in "providing high-quality service and protection for the citizens of Wilmington. The funds also allow our team to produce public service announcements that educate the community on life-saving topics." [Note: You can find the WPD's full statement below.]

In a press release, the Second Chance Alliance said “the Drug Tax targets low-income communities and people of color disproportionately. Even if someone ultimately does not have a drug conviction or has been incarcerated for possession of drugs and done their time, they are required to pay the Drug Tax. Their property can be seized and their paychecks garnered to pay this draconian tax, leaving many people with no safe, legal options to earn the money needed to pay the tax.”

Peters joins other advocates who have called for the drug tax program to be repealed, but said that until that happens, drug tax funds should be “reinvested in those communities most directly impacted."

Peters offered several suggestions on how to do that:

"Number one, you could take that money and invest it into housing, not just for justice-involved individuals, but individuals that are homeless. Two, you create scholarship funds for children of incarcerated parents. Or, you can create entrepreneurship funds, for those that are trying to get past certain stages in life and create generational wealth after incarceration. Because, you know, there are many collateral consequences that comes along with getting a criminal conviction. So those barriers often create ways for a person not to get meaningful employment, or even housing."

Why WPD wants the museum

During Monday morning’s city council agenda meeting, Councilman Luke Waddell said he understood the desire to do a “legacy project,” but asked Chief Donny Williams if the drug tax funding could be used differently.

“I would like to see maybe just us look at maybe setting up some sort of scholarship fund for a child of a police officer or something that can kind of be integrated into the community a little better than a $40,000 museum,” Waddell said.

Waddell asked Williams how WPD “landed on” the museum idea.

“Community engagement. We want to get the community into our building, I can go back to when I was a child and I visited the Wilmington Police Department down on Red Cross Street. And one of the things I remember are items that were in the display case.. so we also have Boy Scout groups to visit our stations and, basically, we want to get community groups there to visit our law enforcement Memorial and see the history of our organization, because we have years of artifacts going back to the early 1900s. And you're all hidden in a closet that no one gets to see and I think the public needs to see that stuff,” William said.

Wilmington Police Department's fallen officer memorial, which includes the names of both WPD officers and New Hanover County Sheriff's deputies who died in the line of duty.
Benjamin Schachtman
Wilmington Police Department's fallen officer memorial, which includes the names of both WPD officers and New Hanover County Sheriff's deputies who died in the line of duty.

Williams noted the museum would be located outside of the headquarters' Blue Room, which has historically been used for press conferences and other public meetings. Currently, there is a limited number of artifacts being displayed in the headquarters lobby.

WPD response to criticism

The Wilmington Police Department issued a statement in response to criticism of the plan:

North Carolina Drug Tax Funds have been utilized by the WPD throughout the years and have helped alleviate the amount of tax dollars used by our department. These funds have helped us purchase equipment and training that has aided our department in providing high-quality service and protection for the citizens of Wilmington. The funds also allow our team to produce public service announcements that educate the community on life-saving topics. These are just a few examples of things that the funds have been utilized for.

The creation of the new law enforcement museum will provide numerous benefits for the community and the police department that will make an impact on many lives for years to come. The museum, once opened, will be admission free for the public to visit and engage with us.

The purpose of our museum is to bridge the gap between the police department and the community, and to highlight the history of our agency and city. The museum will serve as a permanent community engagement tool that can serve our community and will connect citizens from all backgrounds with our agency. Citizens frequently come to police headquarters as a result of a service need. We see this museum as a place for the public to visit with us in a manner that is not service driven. There will be opportunities for connecting and learning about the history of the department.

In addition, we are hoping this museum will become an extension of our memorial for fallen officers that have lost their lives while serving their community. The museum will feature the history of policing and interactive educational opportunities. Our goal is for schools and civic groups to make this space an annual learning stop for them. We feel this is a very productive project and will help to bridge the gap between all citizens and our agency by allowing citizens to see firsthand how law enforcement is a great profession for people to enter. Our internal staff has been researching and working with other museums and departments to create a world class location that can serve our citizens and agency for years to come.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.