Should ‘misuse of deadly force’ disqualify a police officer from employment? Graham residents think it does.

An officer guards a Confederate statue outside of Alamance County Historical Courthouse.

Community organizers in Graham have mobilized against the hiring of a police officer recently fired from the Greensboro Police Department for recklessly shooting into an automobile fleeing a crime scene in downtown Greensboro.

Activists are also critical of Officer Douglas A. Strader’s hire because he was involved in a controversial hogtying incident in 2018 that led to the death of Marcus Smith, a black man who was experiencing a mental health crisis.

Strader was one of eight officers involved in the incident. None of them were disciplined because the now-prohibited practice was allowed in 2018. They are, however, defendants in a federal lawsuit filed by Smith’s mother.

“We just don’t think this was a good hire for our community when another community let him go because his actions were a danger to their community,” said Dreama Caldwell, a community organizer with Down Home NC, a nonprofit that  works to empower people in small towns and rural North Carolina.

The City of Graham hired Strader at the rank of Police Officer 1 on March 1. He’d been a corporal in Greensboro before being fired in October 2020. That was a little more than a year after the September 2019 shooting incident that involved three other officers.

Greensboro City Manager David Parrish upheld the firing after Strader appealed the decision. Here’s what Parrish wrote in the dismissal letter dated Oct. 7:

“A single mistake, error or lapse of judgment while using deadly force can have tragic and long-lasting consequences for our community. As a result, we have no tolerance for the misuse of deadly force. For these reasons, I am upholding your dismissal from employment with the Greensboro Police Department.”

In a statement, the Graham Police Department said it “exceeds and complies with all guidelines set forth by the NC Criminal Justice Education and Training Standards Commission” which requires background checks on all applicants seeking law enforcement certification.

“As with all police applicants, Graham Police Department conducted a thorough background into the character and suitability of Officer [Douglas] Strader. Many of the details and results surrounding hiring decisions are protected by North Carolina personnel law and cannot be divulged pursuant to North Carolina G.S. 160A-168.”

Slater’s hire was first reported by the Yes! Weekly, an alternative news magazine that covers Greensboro, in a story titled “Wandering Cops: Triad Sees Impact of Police Accountability of trail, or lack of”.

Policy Watch is documenting racial tension and race relations in Alamance County in a special series titled: The battle for Alamance: A look at the past and present of one of North Carolina’s most divided counties.

Strader’s hire has become a headscratcher for community activists, many of whom wonder why Police Chief Kristi Cole would invite more controversy to a city still reeling from the aftershock of weeks of angry protests last summer over a Confederate statute guarding the courthouse in downtown Graham.

Civil rights activists were pepper sprayed and arrested during the protests, which made national headlines.

The city also made news after former police chief Jeffrey Prichard criticized the Black Lives Matter movement and the federal government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic on the department’s website. Prichard said he thought he was posting the comments to his personal Facebook account.

“This is a Police Department with history, so to hire someone like that just shows there is no interest in repairing that bridge with the community,” Caldwell said.

Community activist Dejuana Bigelow said Cole promised to work to improve race relations after Prichard’s departure.

Hiring someone with Strader’s background to protect and serve the community isn’t the way to rebuild trust, said Bigelow, president of Future Alamance, an grassroots organization pushing for inclusion and equity in Alamance,

“To hire him [Strader] is like a spit in the face,” said Bigelow,. “The Police Department went in a totally different direction than what we had been building to and talking about for our community and for our residents, an inclusive Graham.”

She said the Strader hire is a setback for race relations.

“We’re already working to build one Graham where everyone feels included, and I have had several talks with Kristi (Cole) and several of her officers along the way, and she said she was interested in restoring trust,” Bigelow said. “This hire creates more distrust. It creates more division.”

Further reading on Wyatt Outlaw, NC history and the cost of white supremacy

If you’ve already read today’s Policy Watch special report on the 1870 lynching of Wyatt Outlaw and its connection to the modern problems in Alamance County, you may want to read more.

Today’s piece is the first in a Policy Watch series on Alamance County that will include pieces on local government, the sheriff’s department, public schools and environmental justice.

But our initial story on Wyatt Outlaw and  the history and continuation of white supremacy in the state would not have been possible without the scholars and activists who spoke to us for the piece and the work they’ve already done. All of it is worth your time.

If you were intrigued by what  Duke University’s Dr. William Darity had to say about systemic inequality and the racial terror campaigns designed to preserve it, you should read  From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century, Darity’s recent book with co-author A. Kirsten Mullen.

Dr. William Darity.

The Rev. Ervin Milton  talked with us about modern Alamance County and the connections to story of Wyatt Outlaw. He is a regular contributor at the Burlington Times-News. His columns, including this week’s on the meaning of Lent,  can be found here.

The Rev. Ervin Milton.

 

Dr. Keisha Bentley-Edwards, a developmental psychologist and assistant professor of Medicine at Duke, helped us with a closer look at the psychological aspect of white supremacist thinking and the cycle of violence it has perpetuated throughout our history. Her paper, How Does it Feel to be a Problem? The Missing Kerner Commission Report, is essential reading.

Dr. Keisha Bentley-Edwards.

For a deep dive into the life, death and legacy of Wyatt Outlaw, you need to read Dr. Carole Troxler’s “To look more closely at the man”: Wyatt Outlaw, a Nexus of National, Local, and Personal History She is a historian and professor emerita at Elon University whose work on the Outlaw story is widely considered definitive.

Dr. Carole Troxler.

ICYMI: A conversation about race, mass incarceration and criminal justice reform in North Carolina (Full video)

By all indications, North Carolina and the nation at-large have entered a critical and, perhaps, hopeful phase in their centuries-old conversations about race, crime, punishment and the undeniable links between them.

If you missed it this week, Policy Watch hosted a powerful conversation via Zoom exploring where things stand, how we got to this place, and where we ought to be headed.

The event featured a candid discussion between Satana Deberry, District Attorney of Durham County and Dawn Blagrove, executive director of Emancipate NC, a nonprofit advocacy group that works to dismantle structural racism and mass incarceration.

Our thanks to both DA Deberry and Blagrove for sharing their insights.

Click here to view the entire presentation.

Please watch and then share this special presentation.

 

Report shows fewer criminal charges statewide in 2020

Felony charges in North Carolina declined by 10.4% in 2020 from a year ago, while misdemeanor charges dropped by 18.3%, according to a report released by the Criminal Justice Innovation Lab at the UNC School of Government earlier this week.

Misdemeanor charges totaled 1.3 million and made up 87.3% of the criminal charges overall in 2020. The rest of nearly 190,000 charges, or 12.7% of the total, were felonies.

The data come from the state Administrative Office of the Courts. Researchers with the UNC lab further broke down the offenses into two categories — violent crimes and non-violent crimes. Burglary was categorized as violent due to the seriousness of the offense, the report stated.

Nonviolent charges constituted 91.8% of all charges for misdemeanors and felonies combined. Violent charges accounted for about 8% of the total last year.

The three most commonly charged violent felonies were assault by strangulation, armed robbery and indecent liberties, or illegal sexual contact with a child under 16. State prosecutors pressed over 2,000 felony charges for each of these crimes.

Slightly over a third of nonviolent felony charges were drug offenses, including possession of methamphetamine, which totaled 8,377.

Monetary offenses including embezzlement, larceny by removing anti-shoplifting devices, and identity theft topped the felony charges with the sharpest decrease from 2019. The charges with the largest percentage increase were exploitation of a minor and possession of controlled substances.

The state averaged 282 felony charges per 100,000 population.

The most common violent misdemeanor charges in 2020 was assault on a female, as many as 24,919 charges.

The overall decline in criminal charges is in line with a national trend, according to a press release from the FBI. National data from the the Uniform Crime Reports program exhibit a downward trend for the overall number of violent crimes and property crimes for the first six months of 2020, the timeframe for the most recent report available.

The program collects data directly from law enforcement agencies nationwide. The data capture reported crimes instead of charges brought by prosecutors as in the charging data.

The FBI’s data also show certain crimes went up despite the overall downward trend from January to June of 2020. The number of murders and incidents of non-negligent manslaughter had a year-on-year increase of 14.8%.

Larceny thefts and burglaries decreased but motor vehicle thefts went up by 6.2% nationally for the first six months of 2020 compared with 2019.

However, the first six months of 2020 saw a rise in violent crimes by 2.5% in the South, while the Midwest, the Northeast and the West reported fewer crimes, according to the FBI. Property crimes were down in the South by 9.3%.

Ten years’ worth of NC traffic stop data reveal racial disparities in searches

North Carolina law enforcement officers searched Black drivers and/or their vehicles almost twice as often as their white counterparts, and at a much higher rate than drivers of other races, according to a report released by the North Carolina Criminal Justice Analysis Center on Monday. The Center within the Governor’s Crime Commission is charged with compiling and analyzing criminal justice data.

Police searched Black drivers/vehicles 45 of every 1,000 stops, compared with 23 of 1,000 stops for white drivers/vehicles.  Law enforcement searched drivers/vehicles of other races 14 of 1,000 stops.

Traffic stop data for 2009-2019 show that while the rate of searches of Hispanic drivers/vehicles has declined, Black drivers’ search rate has remained high.

Despite a consistent drop of overall traffic stops statewide in the past 10 years, the number of searches performed during these stops increased: 38,000 in 2019, compared with  31,856 in 2016, the report stated. The largest number of stops occurred in 2010, with 44,462.

On average, 3% of traffic stops resulted in a search during the same time period.

Speeding, which accounted for 42% of the times a driver was pulled over, rarely resulted in searches (1% of the time). But an individual who was believed to be driving while impaired was much more likely to be stopped and frisked, according to the data.

However, illegally-possessed drugs, alcohol, money, weapons and other items were found more often, from just over 10% of the searches in 2009 to over 30% in 2019. The report identified no racial difference in contraband discovery rate.

The data also show a transition to fewer searches with consent. Twelve years ago, the most common search was a consent search, where passengers and drivers agreed to have their belongings inspected by law enforcement officers.

In 2019, the rate of consent searches, which used to account for half of all searches declined sharply to 22%, overtaken by probable cause searches, in which law enforcement officers suspected a committed crime and searched without consent. This category of searches dominates all types of searches at 63%, up from 17% in 2009 when it was the least common.

Only less than 0.1% (1,224) of the searches undertaken in 2019 encountered resistance. Law enforcement reported using force against the driver or a passenger 596 times.

The new report follows up on two previous issues examining the demographics of and reasons for traffic stops from 2009 to 2019.