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Local police and community members spark open chatter to improve their relationship

Beyond the Law

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We don't want a Ferguson!"

In one form or another, this is the sentiment heard around the country in various communities that fear the very forces that exist, ideally, to keep them safe. But the Queen City? Her people took action.

In March, Charlotte's Grier Heights community had the opportunity to chat openly and honestly with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department — so openly, in fact, the event ended with an emotionally charged confrontation between 20 or so demonstrators calling for "Justice for Janisha (Fonville)" — a 20-year-old woman shot by a CMPD officer in February — and Police Chief Rodney Monroe.

Fonville's friends and family questioned Monroe about the controversial specifics of her death, and Monroe listened, assuring the demonstrators that Fonville's case was under investigation and justice was being sought.

Contrary to how he's often seen at press conferences, Monroe was dressed in street clothes, not his police uniform — perhaps striving to be more like "us" than one of "them."

Gene Winchester, president of the local chapter of the N.C. Barbers Association and one of the founders of the community discussion, wasn't surprised by the demonstration.

"You're going to have passionate people, because people want answers," Winchester told me later. "People have questions, and the thing is that this right here is the perfect place to have those questions answered."

Moments before that confrontation, though, came an equally intense change-of-heart narrative. Shelton Morris, 42, garnered a standing ovation from the audience for his moving account of being shot by CMPD seven times in 1996. Morris admitted his actions (he didn't specify) were wrong, and stood fast in his newfound positive relationship with local police.

The town hall meeting, hosted at the Naomi Drenan Recreation Center in Cotswold, was only the second of a yearlong initiative titled Cops and Barbers.

Barbers, you ask?

"Barbers represent the community. The black barbershop is like the black man's country club," says Shaun Corbett, owner of Da Lucky Spot Barber Shop on North Tryon and public relations chair of the N.C. Local Barbers Association. "It's where we come together to talk about politics and sports, you name it, we talk about it. The barbershop has always been the cornerstone of the black community; it's where you go to find out what's going on."

Like the quintessential Southern barbershop, Cops and Barbers is modeled to offer a place where community members can feel comfortable expressing their voices and opinions. The Barbers Association partnered with CMPD in hopes of bridging the communication gap between police and the African-American community. The next installment takes place April 12, 3 p.m. at MLK Recreation Center in Hidden Valley. A video starring some of the neighborhood's youth and local police will be featured, offering some do's and don'ts when stopped by law enforcement, with a discussion to follow.

During last month's meeting, the atmosphere edged on the verge of venting. CMPD representatives spoke to the audience about ideal police encounters, but the community demanded more, bringing up specific situations.

"We act to whatever is presented in front of us," said one police official in response to concerns about when officers can fire a gun on scene.

At one point, Monroe put aside the official speak — real talk, if you will. "If you think with your heart, you might just save a life," he said, "but that goes both ways."

Tense? Yes. Effective? Perhaps. In any relationship, it is crucial for both parties to come clean about what doesn't work to get to a better place.

By hosting these discussions all over Charlotte throughout the year ­— there's 13 total scheduled — both the department and communities have multiple platforms on which to be heard. Winchester said the goal was to "engage our communities in information and opportunities that our community is lacking."

In the March discussion, some of that information came even before the big conversation started. As community members and CMPD officials greeted one another, a video, which offered an all-black cast, played on loop titled "10 Rules for Survival if Stopped by the Police." Some of the rules included: be polite when stopped, don't argue with police, keep your hands in plain sight, don't run, don't resist, and file a complaint if necessary.

After a handful of officers and community members participated in acting out scenarios depicting how to utilize those rules in the event one is pulled over, I overheard a few young people sitting near me comment that sometimes even abiding by those rules doesn't necessarily yield a positive outcome, suggesting there isn't a surefire way to avoid police brutality.

Take, for example, Fonville's case. Friends and family said in multiple media reports she never approached officer Anthony Holzhauer before he fired on her. Holzhauer, who faces his third shooting inquiry in five years, said she did, holding a knife.

Talking about this case and others like it, though, is reactive. In the discussions, both police and community members wanted to see something proactive.

One suggestion on CMPD's part was to encourage individuals to file complaints with the department if they feel they were, or could be, unjustly treated.

"As citizens, you should have just as many expectations of us that we have for you," Monroe said.

Corbett, who's been cutting hair since he was 13, says he knows the initiative is working in the right direction. After that day's discussion, he shared his card with the Fonville family, and the following Monday, the boyfriend of Fonville's sister came to him for a haircut.

"He sat in my chair and we talked. One of the things he said was, he had a completely different outlook about police. He said he came in [to the town hall meeting] thinking one thing, and once he had an opportunity to speak with the chief, he realized it wasn't what he thought."

Kimberly Lawson contributed to this story.

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