RISE Award nominee: 'Cops and barbers' brings black community and law enforcement together
The meeting helps teach the community how to respond to police contacts in different scenarios, and it gives law enforcement the opportunity to better understand the black community
Editor’s Note: The TASER RISE Awards have officially commenced. In the second-ever edition of the RISE Award Program, TASER and Police1 again honored officers, agencies, and community partners who have risen above the rest. New this year, the Community Leadership Award aims to recognize non-profits who work with law enforcement to work toward a central mission of creating a safer community. The NCLBA has done just that with the creation of the “Cops and Barbers” group. Stay tuned to find out who our winners are!
Barber shops are known as a place for gossip and hyper-local discussions on community affairs — and nearly every police officer has a barber. It’s at these barber shops that local cops have the opportunity to hear the community’s opinion on current events, and to take those ideas back to their department for further conversation on community policing.
Following several high-profile fatal shootings of black men by law enforcement, a board member of the North Carolina Local Barbers Association (NCLBA) — a group created to assist the barber industry and the community they serve — recognized that having an officer present in his shop was helping his clients to get their voices heard and their questions answered. He began hosting a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer at his barber shop to respond to the questions the black community had about the incidents.
When the NCLBA’s President Gene Winchester was informed of the news at their next board meeting, he decided a larger platform was necessary for the community and police to talk, and "Cops and Barbers" was set in motion.
During the very first meeting, the family of a woman who’d been fatally shot by police arrived to protest the new get-together. After much convincing from a representative, one of the boys in the family agreed to sit in on it quietly and hear what officers had to say, and how they responded to the questions from the community. The meeting, he said, would leave him with a different perspective of the incident.
That small notion of coming to an understanding was enough for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD) and NCLBA to know they were moving in the right direction.
Cops and Barbers
The first or second Sunday of every month, members of the CMPD, the Mecklenburg Sheriff’s Office and the Charlotte Fire Department meet with members of the NCLBA and the community to discuss everything from local police incidents to national headlines.
The monthly meeting, titled, "Cops and Barbers: Hands up, what now?" aims to inform from both angles: it teaches the community how to respond to police contacts in different scenarios, and it gives law enforcement the opportunity to better understand the black community, get to know individuals, and forge relationships with children at an early age.
Members of law enforcement meet with kids the Wednesday before each Cops and Barbers meeting to have dinner and get to know one another.
"We want to deter any misconceptions about who the police are," said NCLBA’s Vice President Deborah Hopkins-Ferguson. "And it gives the cops the opportunity to get to know the youth and know that they’re not all the same."
How well did it work? About an hour into one of the dinners, one of the children in attendance who’d been eating and chatting one-on-one with a plainclothes officer wondered out loud, “When are the police going to get here?”
A Growing Commitment
Since starting in February 2015, the Cops and Barbers meetings have taken off.
Hopkins-Ferguson said the last meeting — which drew more than 200 people — had to be held in a school gymnasium, and the turnout from police and firefighters each time, often off-duty, has been tremendous.
Other than some marketing to get the word out, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department has picked up the bill, according to Hopkins-Ferguson. The CMPD has covered the Wednesday dinners with the community youth and the expenses of the monthly meetings.
The CMPD has brought simulators to the events so that community members can better understand shoot/don’t shoot decision-making and other use-of-force scenarios and decisions officers are faced with every day.
A recruitment table is also present at the meetings, with the hope of creating more diversity in a department that is currently 19 percent African American.
The meeting changes locations so that each of the 13 patrol divisions of the area is represented — both by law enforcement from the jurisdiction and the community.
"We have to give our hats off to the community and the community leaders," said Hopkins-Ferguson. "A lot of people in the community have been expressing how it’s an opportunity to meet the district councilman and other political figures as well."
Proactive Community Building
Hopkins-Ferguson said these meetings have strengthened relationships between the community and their service-providers.
"We love our police department here; we want to be supported by them," she said. "We recognize there are stigmas out there about neighborhoods and police officers."
The success of the program as a model for others, she said, comes from knowing that the officers in your area are familiar with your neighborhood and the habits, cultures, and children in those areas.
"If more cities were willing to devote time and energy and resources to mending and addressing concerns, it would work better for everyone," she said. "I’m so proud of CMPD; they have gone beyond the call of duty to help make this [program] a success in our city."
This summer, an officer will go on trial for the accidental fatal shooting of a local man, according to Hopkins-Ferguson. The ties the community has built with law enforcement, she hopes, may change the way the community reacts to the outcome.
"We want to make sure that when the dust settles here, there are no remnants of Ferguson or Baltimore," she said.
The NCLBA saw a growing national problem and found a way to prevent similar issues from spreading to their community by creating an open environment for productive dialogue between the public and the police. We’re proud to name them as a TASER RISE nominee for the Community Leadership Award.