Beyond Black and Blue: A conversation about race and policing

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— Black men shot by police. Ambush-style killings of law enforcement. Riots and protests.

As the tension between law enforcement and the African-American community builds in parts of North Carolina and communities around the country, WRAL asked Tru Pettigrew, a community leader and speaker, to help moderate a two-hour conversation about race with law enforcement, faith-based leaders and community members.

“I want to see change so bad that it hurts,” said Pettigrew at the beginning of the discussion. “It is that pain and that hurt, and I do my best to not let that hurt transition into hate sometimes.”

Pettigrew asked six guests to join him as a panel to help answer questions from the audience and engage in dialogue that will lead toward reconciliation.

One of the panelists was Sergeant Jeremy Burgin, a white male police officer who has been with the Cary Police Department for 18 years.

“It hurts me when people see me and feel fear,” Burgin said.

Piggybacking off of Burgin, Thornton Winslow, a close friend and business partner of Pettigrew’s, said this concept is nothing new to him — it is just the fact that white America is finally catching up.

“In the black community it is no secret that we have been getting our tails whipped for quite some time,” Winslow said. “This is new to the white community and that’s because they have not had the same exposure that we have had. We live in the same world, but we do not necessarily have the same experiences because you are not in my environment. And therein lies the greater challenge.”

Winslow, a youth sports coach, also frequently facilitates small group community “rap sessions” or conversations in his home.

Kate Deiter-Mardei, a mediator, attorney and mother of two African-American children, said she felt compelled to make a difference in her community after an interaction she had with a police officer at a neighborhood block party.

“I was aware that problems existed, but I have a different perspective now,” she said. “I have a fear, when I hear people talking about ‘the talk’ I don’t know how to do that with my girls. I want all three of my children…to be able to wear a hoodie, and play music, and maybe go through a stop sign and survive a traffic stop.”

Burgin echoed that sentiment.

“The difference comes in when (Winslow) talks to his son – when he has ‘the talk’ with Trey, it ends potentially with Trey dying,” Burgin said. “The difference is when I have that talk with my sons, it doesn’t end that way. And that’s not right. That’s not how it should be, but that’s how it is.”

Marcus Zeigler, a recent graduate of North Carolina State University, said he wants to create a nonprofit to help build relationships between the community and police officers.

As a young black man, Zeigler said he feels fear when he sees a police officer.

“It seems like we are the only ones targeted, but I kind of come at it with a difference perspective because when I was at NCSU I had relationships with police officers – white and black – and they were all good,” he said.

Candace Sweat, a WRAL reporter and the daughter of a Dallas, Texas police officer, said even though her mother is an officer, she is still concerned when she is pulled over.

“(My mom) will ask, ‘How were they?'” Sweat said. “She knows, she knows that little decal on the front or back of my car may or may not make a difference.”

Deiter-Mardei said while she feels anxious when being stopped by an officer, she is aware that she is not treated in the same way as an African-American person.

During the discussion, an audience member specifically asked Burgin what a person should do when being pulled over – despite their race.

“What I tell my family is, put your hazards on, turn the dome light on if it is at night, pull over and put your hands on the steering wheel,” he said. “Don’t move around a lot…and don’t be surprised if I come up on the right side of your car. Illustrate to me that you have no intention of hurting me.”

Dumas Harshaw, a pastor at First Baptist Church in Raleigh, said he is also working to build relationships between the community and police.

“What we have done (at the church) across the years is we have days where we honor law enforcement and we build relationships with them. Then, when things happen in the community, it is easy then to call them in or go to them because we already have these existing relationships.”

Harshaw said the relation piece is extremely important because it provides communication that would not otherwise take place.

Zeigler said he too believes the church plays a role in building the vital relationships.

“The church should definitely start programs with police officers in these after school programs because you have to break that wall, and children are really impressionable…and you have to build that trust so that the same kid who was just scared of the officer is now running to him when his friend gets beat up or something,” Zeigler said. “If you get the kids behind the police officers it will only help.”

Winslow said he believes the trust and legitimacy part comes from genuine outreach and genuine bridge building.

“It is a challenge in regards to trust because trust is predicated on familiarity,” he said.

But many people want to know why the “good officers” are not doing anything to rid the police departments of the “bad apples.”

“I think that comes down to if you believe an officer to be professional, an unprofessional officer knows that officer is professional and they are not inclined to hang out with that professional police officer,” Burgin said. “They don’t want to be in front of that professional police officer doing unprofessional things because the professional police officer will turn them in.”

Burgin said there is, however, a difference between an officer who makes a mistake and an unprofessional officer.

“There are some legitimately bad apples, and then I think there are some cases where there are some mistakes made – it doesn’t mean those officers shouldn’t be held accountable, but it is a far cry from dirty officer,” he said.

While solving the problems that exist between the African-American community and police officers will not be solved overnight, it is important to come together to talk about it, and to help, Pettigrew said.

“Above all things, guard your heart,” Pettigrew said. “Because it is the things of the heart that will determine the course of your lives.”

A special thank you to our friends at WRAL for helping out with this post.