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A real conversation about mending the relationship between Community and Police

A real conversation about mending the relationship between Community and Police

In the wake of George Floyd’s death and this summer’s fight for racial justice, Substantial Magazine’s President and Editor-in-Chief, Gregory Hedgepeth, a law enforcement officer himself, sat down for a frank conversation with Pitt County Sheriff Paula Dance and Retired Police Chief Tony Godwin to learn about their holistic views of the law enforcement community and what is truly needed to regain trust.

Pitt County Sheriff Paula Dance was elected to office in 2018 as the first Black female sheriff in the state. In her 30 years of law enforcement experience, Sheriff Dance has worked as a patrol officer, Sergeant of the Domestic Violence Unit, Lieutenant of Investigations, Captain and Major of the Sheriff Department.

Former Chief of Police, Tony Godwin retired from the Cary Police Department in 2018 after 28 years of service. In that time, he served in several capacities including leadership roles on Cary’s Emergency Response Team and Criminal Investigations Division. Godwin is also the co-founder of Building Bridges: a program developed to foster trust and have difficult conversations between law enforcement, spiritual leaders and community.


DANCE – Right now, I’m good, you know? I’m okay. Sometimes I’m not okay. There’s so much going on in the world that I think it’s unrealistic to say everybody is going to be okay all the time, so I will admit it. Sometimes I’m not okay, sometimes I’m okay, but at the end of the day, we’re gonna make it alright. We’re gonna make it okay, and we’re gonna move forward.

GODWIN – I tell you what, it’s interesting you asked that question. It’s a seemingly easy question, right? How are you? I’ll tell you what man, I tell you, I have been all over the place with how I am. I’ve been mad and sad and disappointed. You name it. I have gone through every kind of emotion I think there is in the last couple of weeks. I think everybody’s going through the full range of emotions right now with everything we got going on in our community and in our country. So, yeah, I’m right there along with everybody else and just trying to process all of it


DANCE – We’re struggling right now, as an American law enforcement community. We’re struggling to make sense of what’s happening and what’s going on. I mean, the curtain has been pulled back, the curtain is now open, and we cannot close that curtain ever again. There are conversations that need to happen. You know, we certainly should be treating everyone with the same amount of respect and equality as we do our jobs.

GODWIN – It’s interesting the roller coaster that I’ve been on. I remember when I first saw that video out of Minneapolis. And I remember just the anger that I felt. I’m literally yelling at this video of what’s going on with George Floyd. I remember just feeling angry about that and then, of course, feeling sad to see what that officer was doing. I hate to even say ‘that officer,’ because I don’t even want to put him in the boat with the profession of law enforcement, but unfortunately, he was an officer, and to see him doing what he was doing was just such a lack of care. Where’s his humanity? How can you do this? And so, you know, there was a great sadness that I went through, and then, it is as crazy as it sounds.

The days that followed, and you know I hate to even say this because it doesn’t sound right, but I found a silver lining right out of this tragedy. I found a silver lining, and it was encouraging to me, and the silver lining was that we had so many people coming out and denouncing what happened, in particular, this year. We had so many law enforcement officers finally speaking out and saying “That is not okay. That is not right. That does not represent me and what I believe. That does not represent my profession and I’m like.”


DANCE – They had what I call a public lynching on TV, so there is no denying it. There was absolutely no defense for that. As we speak about law enforcement officers speaking up, many had no other choice but to speak up about that because we all saw it. And when we talk about that, it’s what we call the thin blue line. I sincerely think that, initially, the thin blue line was an atmosphere: the way that law enforcement officers treat each other like brothers and sisters. You know, we’re taught that you always have your brother’s back, you always have your sister’s back, but that meant in the physical sense.

And I think, somewhere or other, it evolved into officers then beginning to have their brother’s or sister’s back when they shouldn’t have had their back, when they should have told the truth. And so, I think it has evolved into something that became or created another atmosphere in our community which is the us-versus-them kind of deal, and that shouldn’t be, because we are our winning community. Most of us live, work, and play in the communities in which we live, and so we all have a vested interest in a good, safe, and healthy community. So, I think we kind of have to pull away from this thin blue line where we have our brother’s and sister’s back, especially when they’re wrong.

Really, as I began to look at my policies, those are some of the things that I look at. You know, we did have a policy that was not as strong that said “if you see another officer doing something that’s wrong, then you should report it,” but
it needs to be a little bit stronger. What we’re working towards is not only “you should you report it,” but “you have a duty to stop it.”

I had somebody just send me an inbox message that said “Ms Dance, I don’t know what to tell my sons, my small sons, my young kids. What do I tell them if they see an officer doing something like what happened with George Floyd?” And I can’t tell this person to intervene because I don’t want that officer to say, “I feared for my life when that person tried to intervene,” so you can’t really encourage them to do that. You know, what do you do?

I tell them, you know, pick up the phone. Call 911. And I know that 911 is probably what sent those officers there in the first place, but call them again. Give names, descriptions, let [the officer] know you’re on the phone. You want a supervisor. You want somebody there in person, because you know there’s this egregious act that’s going on. I mean, we’ve got some bridges to repair, you know? And I often say, it’s a two-way street as well. Our community needs to meet us halfway. Our community needs to know that if they call us, they’re not going to end up on the receiving end of death.

GODWIN – Finally, we’re getting more enforcement to speak out, which is so sorely needed. I don’t know if you’ve had this epiphany like I have, but I remember being in a barbershop conversation once were one of my officers criticized another officer: on officer in one of these national events. He said that what he’d done was wrong. And it was definitely quiet in the barbershop. And then one of the patrons said, after like, two, three seconds of quiet, one of the patrons said “I’ve never heard a cop criticize another
cop.” And my initial reaction was “Really? Because let me tell you we criticize other cops all the time.

But where do we do it? We do it in our squad rooms, we do it in our stations, we do it between cars in a parking lot at two o’clock in the morning when we’re talking about these things that have happened. We don’t do it publicly.” And so it was in that moment that I came to understand. I had an epiphany if you will, of the power of speaking out. When something’s wrong, say it’s wrong because it really matters.


DANCE – Certainly, you know, we can teach these things in the academy, but we also have to start looking at who we have within our department in the first place. If we take the George Floyd situation for instance, it is my understanding, and I may be wrong because you know you can’t believe everything that’s in the media, but it is my understanding that one of those officers had been doing the job for just four days and was following directions from his training officer.

So we have to make sure that who we have in our agency, our senior people, are on-point and doing what they’re supposed to do in teaching the younger ones the right things. If not, then we need to lead them out.
A field training officer is like God for our young folks who are just coming in, and they’re gonna pick up those habits, and they’re gonna pick up those attitudes and, frankly, those are attitudes that some of them have towards life. So, not just in our academies, we have to look within and change the attitudes of those who are already there and their thought process.

You know, I was fortunate, when I first came into law enforcement, to have a lieutenant who led by example, who was compassionate. When a bicycle was stolen, he treated that bicycle in the same way that he would have treated a diamond ring that was worth a million dollars. Because, you know what? That bicycle that somebody worked hard for and spent their money for, that person deserves the same treatment. And I’m so glad that I knew him, because he taught me to be compassionate on each and every call. Now, what if I’d had a training officer who said “Oh that’s just a bicycle, and we don’t care about it.” The citizen will see that.

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So it’s very important that not only look at who we’re bringing into the department but also look at who’s already there as well. We need to make sure that those people are policing in the way that the agency has asked them to. It has to do with attitude and who’s doing the teaching.

GODWIN – Basically, law enforcement training. That’s something that we don’t do a good enough job at right now, and you know what? It can’t come soon enough. We absolutely need to have more emotional intelligence training and diversity and inclusion training for all of our prospective law enforcement officers. For a long time, we have done diversity training as part of our state-mandated training every year, but you know, even that, I think, needs to be revamped a little bit.

My solution to a lot of our problems has been that, you know, if we could raise the entry-level age for law enforcement to late 20s, I think that would help a whole lot because let’s face it, I remember how I was at 22 years old. We’re dealing with young people in the community that are learning to be themselves, and they get all pumped up, and then a police officer rolls up who’s only 22-23 years old. They have the same mindset; they’re just wearing a uniform. So you end up with this kind of bashing of heads. Whereas, all of us know that with a little more maturity comes a different perspective and the ability to separate a little bit from our emotions and keep things calm and de-escalate. I think it would help a whole lot in our profession if we raised that entry-level age to 27-28 years old. But there’d also be so many vacancies out there.
And so, what we need to do, since we don’t think we can afford to do that, we really need to work on improving the emotional intelligence of young people coming into the field. I can paint with a broad brush when I say “young people.”

Obviously, there’s a whole spectrum where some young people are more advanced in emotional intelligence than others. I think that we can spur that along by doing more emotional intelligence training, because we really do need it.
We also need more diversity in our police departments and in our sheriff’s departments. We need law enforcement to have more diversity but not just diversity. We need diversity and inclusion, because inclusion is the part that drives: inclusion is where the action takes place.

You know, what’s magic about it is, it doesn’t take any tremendous program, it doesn’t take spending a great deal of money, you don’t have to have tens of thousands of dollars to put something together. You know what it takes? It takes conversation. It takes relationships because it’s easy to hate from far away. It’s easy for me to say, “You know what? I hate all Black people” if I don’t know any Black people. But if I know Black people, it’s really difficult to hate up close. And I just use that as an example. It could be whatever. It could be white people, could be police officers, could be whatever the “other” is to you. It’s easy to brush everybody aside if you don’t know anybody that is like that, but once you get to know them, you’re like, “There’s more alike than there is different in us.” So that’s what we have to do. We have to have a conversation.


GODWIN – That’s an effort that we started over six years ago in the wake of the incident in Ferguson. We had already started the process of putting together a group of officers and local faith-based leaders from predominantly African American congregations to sit down and have conversations about where we, as a department, had fallen short and how we could do better in our African American community. So, we brought these faith-based leaders together and another gentleman who was a Cary citizen. Who was not a faith-based leader, but he was a man of great faith. He had a tremendous amount of passion around this idea of bringing people together. I gained so much from that professionally, from that relationship, and especially with Tru, because he is my brother, no different than my real brother.

You know, it’s not easy. The first time we went into the barber shop to have a conversation, here I am, a white, male, police chief for the South. I have the caricature of everything that’s wrong in law enforcement, and I’m going to go into a black barber shop, and I’m going to talk about the law and the relationship between law enforcement and communities of color. Look, I gotta tell you, that was a terrifying thought process for me. Before I got there, it sounds crazy to say, but right then, going in to have a conversation, I was terrified! But you know why that was? I had been trained to do everything that I’ve done in my career, but nobody ever trained me to have a conversation about race.

And that is so hard here in America. It’s a very uncomfortable conversation. But what I found was, the more you do it, the easier it gets. We had our first conversation in August, or shortly after the events in August 2014, and the guy who owned the barbershop said, “Look, if you guys want to come back, you’re welcome to come back.” And I said, “We want to come back the first Saturday of every month, and we want to continue this conversation.” And we did that. And here we are, six years later. We have not missed a first Saturday in six years. Even when COVID hit, we did it virtually. We did them through Zoom because we’re not willing to let that fall by the wayside. But that’s the magic that can happen if we just sit down and get to know people because once we get to know folks, we understand that we’ve got more alike than we do different.

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