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Community activists call for public safety office separate from the police

Concept used in NC cities, elsewhere intended to address mental health calls, provide accountability for law enforcement


In a crowded room at Smith Recreation Center on Monday night, about 50 people gathered to learn more about a new approach to public safety in Fayetteville.

Lisette Rodriguez and Shaun McMillan, community organizers and city residents, organized Monday’s town-hall meeting. They called for the creation of an “office of community safety,” a city government entity that would be separate from the Police Department and would, among other things, respond to mental health crises and offer recommendations to hold the Police Department accountable

Among Monday’s crowd were Mayor Mitch Colvin and several Fayetteville City Council members: Courtney Banks-McLaughlin, Shakeyla Ingram, Mario Benavente, Derrick Thompson, Brenda McNair, Kathy Jensen and D.J. Haire. Mayor Pro Tem Johnny Dawkins and council member Deno Hondros did not attend.

Rodriguez and McMillan’s pitch for an office of community safety would address four areas of response: mental health response, violence interruption, resource outreach for the homeless; and an advisory commission that would make recommendations to the Police Department.

Similar programs are in place within the Police Department and other parts of city government, but McMillan emphasized during a presentation on the office of community safety that it should be a department separate from the police entirely.

“When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” McMillan said. “For the overwhelming responses to mental health crisis, we’re sending armed police officers. What this model says is there’s a better way. We can have mental health professionals that actually are on call to respond to these mental health crises.”

McMillan gave examples of police mental health calls gone wrong. He cited Justin Livesay and Jada Johnson, two Fayetteville residents who were shot and killed by FPD officers last year. An autopsy revealed that Johnson was shot 17 times, including twice in the head.

Rick Iwanski, Johnson’s grandfather, was at Monday’s town hall. He said he believes something like an office of community safety could have saved his granddaughter’s life.

“I believe that the police being involved in mental health response is a risk,” Iwanski said in an interview after the town hall. “It can’t be directed by them. They have to be out of it.”

Response in other cities

During their presentation, Rodriguez and McMillan cited similar offices in places across the country such as Oregon and Denver as well as in North Carolina in Durham and Greensboro.

Rodriguez and McMillan played a CNN segment for Monday’s crowd in which reporters rode along with Durham’s Holistic Empathetic Assistance Response team, or HEART, a group made up of trained clinicians who respond to mental health calls. In that segment, a HEART team member emphasized the need for the response team to be unarmed and unaffiliated with law enforcement. She called the people she serves “neighbors.”

At the invitation of Rodriguez and McMillan, Latisha McNeil, director of Greensboro’s Office of Community Safety, spoke at Monday’s town hall.

Greensboro’s office, among other things, oversees a behavioral health response team and the city’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, or LEAD, an initiative found in police departments across the country that allows officers to guide residents to harm-reduction services instead of making an arrest.

Greensboro’s office also houses the Greensboro Criminal Justice Advisory Commission, an entity that monitors issues within Greensboro’s criminal justice system.

“We’ve all got our ideas of things that we want done. We’ve all got these things of how we want to see justice, what justice looks like. This thing that we want here and now in this moment doesn’t always happen like that,” McNeil said. “What we have to do is we have to find ways to work around to get to the things that we need.”

McNeil said the Greensboro commission is “instrumental in putting out recommendations to our police department about ways that the community and the police department could work together collaboratively to address issues that we all want to see change.”

McNeil said Greensboro’s Office of Community Safety operates on an annual budget of $1 million, some of which comes from the national opioid settlement that a vast majority of states, including North Carolina, were awarded as part of a lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies for their instrumental role in the opioid epidemic.

According to Fayetteville’s current budget adopted last summer, the annual budget of the Police Department is about $58 million a year. The city’s total budget is $248.2 million.

If the Fayetteville City Council gets on board to form an office of community safety, Rodriguez said, she hopes the council would direct between $1 million and $2.5 million to the office.

“Ultimately, it’s up to the Fayetteville City Council to decide how much money they want to spend to fund an (office of community safety),” Rodriguez said.

Fayetteville resident Christian Mosley, addressing the crowd, said he wants fewer meetings about the issues that affect the city, specifically the Murchison Road corridor, and more action.

“The reason that Black folks don’t have justice today, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, is because it costs you nothing to integrate. It costs you nothing to let us sit at the lunch counter when I can’t afford the food anyway,” Mosley said.

“We can talk about all of these things,” Mosley continued. “But No. 1, let’s get moving. Let’s stop having meetings about having a meeting about having a meeting. I think we’re all in consensus with that. And No. 2, let’s find out how much it costs. Cut the check and get it done.”

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Reaction from city and police

Police Chief Kemberle Braden did not attend Monday’s town hall because of prior commitments, but he did speak about the calls for an office of community safety at a community watch meeting on Thursday.

“The Police Department will seek help wherever they can find it,” Braden said. “We know that homelessness is a serious issue in our community. We know that mental health is a serious issue in our community. We know that the opioid epidemic has hit Fayetteville hard. We know that there's calls for police reform and oversight of police across the nation.”

Braden said his department has many of the programs that are being called for under the office of community safety model. He cited contracts with nonprofit agencies that act as violence interrupters as well as Fayetteville’s own LEAD program, one of the first in the state. He said the department has a homeless coordinator and a mental health liaison.

Braden said it’s up to the City Council to decide if those programs should be under a different department.

“Does all that need to be consolidated under an office of community safety? That's not for me to decide,” Braden said.

In an email to CityView, Mayor Pro Tem Dawkins said he wants to give City Manager Douglas Hewett a chance to improve public safety within the Police Department and services available through Cumberland County.

Dawkins forwarded CityView an email that Hewett sent to the mayor and City Council members in which the city manager outlined programs that address the concerns voiced by Rodriguez and McMillan.

According to the email, Cumberland County Emergency Medical Services has hired peer support specialists and licensed clinical social workers to create a mental health responder model that would operate as paramedic units. The program is expected to be launched in April.

The Police Department also provides crisis intervention training to dispatchers and officers, Hewett said. City staff are also researching other ways to provide mental health support during crisis intervention.

Hewett also cited in the email the PROOVE project, an initiative still being established that will provide methods of violence interruption.

In the email, Hewett said the City Council established the Citizens Police Advisory Board, an entity that works as an interface between residents and the Police Department. Hewett said the board will make its annual report to the City Council at its April 24 meeting.

The city also is recruiting an assistant to the city manager for public safety, a position that will, Hewett said, “provide even more resources to monitor, partner and create programs to enhance public safety.”

“This report doesn’t minimize the community group’s efforts or the need for us to integrate the items above; rather, this short report is meant to capture what we are doing and have been doing to be responsive,” Hewett wrote in the email.

Council member McNair said in an interview that the City Council has already put many things in place that Rodriguez and McMillan are requesting.

“Let's not reinvent the wheel,” McNair said.

McNair did say, however, that she is open to the idea of an office of community safety that could work together with the police to improve public safety.

Council member Haire said in an email that he supports "a lot of comments that were made. ..."

"I know that we, the city, have moved forward with some of those items presented, but I'm open for doing more," Haire said. "I want to sit down now with our staff and my colleagues and hear everyone's thoughts.  Protecting our citizens is our top priority."

Mayor Colvin and other City Council members could  not be reached for comment for this report.

At Thursday’s community watch meeting, Angela Taylor, associate professor of criminal justice at Fayetteville State University, said that an office of community safety separate from the police could improve trust between the community and the police.

“A lot of flashpoints that we've seen between police and the community occur around either police dealing with mentally ill or people who are behaviorally disturbed,” Taylor said. “To the extent that you can get a community agency that addresses those issues and offloads primary focus for those issues away from police departments, I think the better that would be for police-community relations.”

Next steps

Rodriguez called on people to contact their City Council representative to push for an office of community safety.

“We do have an election this year for City Council, so you need to ask your potential council candidates about their stance on an office of community safety,” Rodriguez told Monday night’s crowd.

The issue previously was brought before the council by member Benavente at a work session in November.

“When it comes to issues of police policy, when it comes to issues of improving public safety, we need someone dedicated to those issues,” Benavente said at November’s work session.

He said the lack of proactivity in addressing public safety and police accountability leads to oversight in the form of lawsuits and protests on the street.

“Oversight’s going to happen to you whether you like it or not,” Benavente said. “The question is whether you want to be proactive about dealing with these issues.”

Colvin said, in response to Benavente at the work session, that he is not against the idea of such an office but is hesitant to dedicate an entire entity to the issue.

The council ultimately failed to reach a consensus on moving the issue forward. The council vote split 5-5, with Ingram, McNair, Banks-McLaughlin, Benavente and Hondros voting for it, and Thompson, Haire, Dawkins, Colvin and Jensen voting against.

At Monday’s town hall, Banks-McLaughlin encouraged residents to speak up at City Council meetings.

“We're the policymakers. You have to go to the county and speak, reach out to your representative, because at the end of the day, if you continue to just talk to each other, nothing is going to get done,” Banks-McLaughlin said.

“We are the individuals that can change these policies,” she continued. “In order to change these policies, you have to show up. You have to hold us accountable.”

Ben Sessoms covers Fayetteville and education for CityView. He can be reached at bsessoms@cityviewnc.com.

Fayetteville, Police Department, crime, public safety, mental health