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Restoring bonds between police, inner-city kids, in an era of mistrust

“They hate the police.”

That’s former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Police Officer Vernon Cathcart talking. He was telling me about kids he worked with as a school resource officer at Druid Hills Academy, a high-poverty K-8 campus two miles north of uptown.

It’s the same school he attended in the late 1960s. The neighborhood was different then. Lots of two-parent families and homeowners, he recalled. It was built in the 1940s for returning Army GIs and their families, and sat near the first Ford Model T assembly plant outside of Michigan.

Today, the factories are gone, and annual median household income sits at a paltry $17,000, according to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing Partnership, which last year announced the first new construction in Druid Hills in decades.

Families are struggling. Just a quarter of Druid Hills’ kids passed reading and math end-of-grade tests, according to 2014-15 data.

Cathcart’s dad, a furniture store warehouse manager, taught him to respect and fear police officers. But when Cathcart returned to his old school as the resource officer six years ago, he found lots of fear, but little respect.

He recalled trying to give a little kid a police sticker. A parent pulled the child away. He gave a boy money for a field trip, but when he saw the boy with his friends in the neighborhood later and tried to speak to him, the boy walked away.

“My heart was broken,” Cathcart told me. “I learned not to expect people to meet me halfway. I learned to meet them where they are.”

The entire Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department faces that challenge right now. After the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott and the protests and looting that followed, the already-frayed bonds of trust between police and inner-city neighborhoods like Druid Hills have been strained to the breaking point.

How do we repair the breach? Chief Kerr Putney is proposing an extensive outside review of his department’s procedures by a national police think tank.

But what can one officer, one person, do? Cathcart and the staff at Druid Hills Academy decided to start with 13 kids, and a tour of the Police and Fire Training Academy.

‘Ready to serve’

How many of you would consider being a police officer, I asked the Druid Hills students waiting to start their tour.

A few hands shot up.

“They just don’t have a good name for themselves,” eighth-grader Isis Clifton explained.

The task of denting that perception fell to veteran Investigator Kay Rivera, their tour guide.

Rivera explained displays depicting the history of the department. The students learned about its first black officers, about old handcuffs and forensics kits. They stopped in an empty classroom where the current police recruits of Academy Class No. 174 receive instruction. The phrase “Parati Servire” – Latin for “ready to serve” – was scrawled on the dry-erase board.

“You can see what they’re doing each day,” Rivera said. “Today they have to qualify at the firing range.”

She asked the students what they think a police officer should learn.

Enforcement, says Yuri Rankin, an eighth-grader.

What else?

“How to use your weapon appropriately,” sixth-grader Takara Baldwin replied.

“Yes ma’am…but there are other things we should use first, right?” Rivera said. “When do you think you should use force – weapon force?”

A few hands went up.

“If somebody refuses to be arrested,” Yuri said.

“No,” Rivera replied. “I’m not going to shoot someone because they refuse to be arrested.”

“If they shoot first?” sixth-grader Kha’Mari Davis asked.

Rivera smiled. “You don’t exactly want to let them shoot first, either.”

She held up an index finger. “If your life” – she added a second finger – “or the life of another person, is in imminent danger… That’s when you use that kind of force.”

She let that sink in, perhaps expecting the obvious questions: How can you be sure? What if you make a mistake?

Surely, the students wondered. Everybody does. But they didn’t ask.

Building bridges

As the tour ended and Rivera prepared to leave, several kids voiced a deeper appreciation for police work. “They don’t just kill people,” Takara Baldwin said. “You have to have a situation in which your life is in danger.”

Rivera reached out to shake teaching assistant Mary Hill’s hand, but instead got enveloped in a sisterly hug.

One tour won’t bridge the divide between neighborhoods like Druid Hills and police. That divide has been building for generations; it might well take generations to eliminate. Perhaps the tour marked a modest beginning for 13 kids.

Cathcart, who retired last month, hopes police can regain community trust. He thinks a renewed emphasis on community policing is one answer for rebuilding mutual respect between officers and kids like those in his old neighborhood.

Here’s a thought: What if churches and civic groups sprouted hundreds of projects around the city to give inner-city kids positive encounters with police officers patrolling their neighborhoods?

Why waste time wondering about it?

Let’s do it.

By Eric Frazier