Persons Out of Place

Tuesday, November 4th, 2008

In my application for Bill’s seat on Council, I mentioned my concern (“Walking is not a crime.”) that the recently announced Orange County Community Safety Partnership program, which trains Town staff and the general public to identify and report criminal activity or other public safety related issues, needs to be careful in discriminating what is and what isn’t considered “suspicious”.

When the Police Department announced the Orange County Community Safety Partnership, I was concerned because it sounded like the roundly criticized Homeland Security TIPS program. It wasn’t clear what kind of oversight, training or civil protections were part of the program. Pat Burns, our representative, walked me through the program and provided some insight on its operation. The training presentation has a few items I would like see addressed and I believe the community would be well-served by having Pat run Council through the process to solicit feedback. For me, the part about reporting “persons walking through yards of residential areas or seeming out of place” needs to be clarified. You might recall a recent embarrassing incident when a young man using his cell on his street corner had the police called because he “seemed out of place.”

The incident I’m referring to was reported throughout Town and on BlueNC.

Dear Lake Forest neighbors,

My name is Allen Buansi. I am 21 years old. I’m 5-11, weigh around 190 pounds and I am a black man. More often than not, you may see me in the neighborhood on a bicycle and wearing a backpack. I’ve lived in Chapel Hill for about 10 years and have lived in the Lake Forest neighborhood for much of that time. I attend Dartmouth College, and I head back up to school on September 14. I work at the local YMCA. I am in Chapel Hill for the summer, and I am an assistant football coach for East Chapel Hill High School, the school from which I graduated.

You may see me on the corner of Tadley Drive and Ridgecrest during the day or at night talking on a cell-phone to my girlfriend who lives in Texas. Or you may see me there talking on a cell-phone with my mother who lives in Richmond, Virginia and is a Ph.D student at UNC. You may even see me on a cell-phone talking to one of my best friends, Andres, who also lives in Texas. You may see me there on my bike because I have just ridden back from football practice at the high school. The reason why I am on that corner in the first place? I do not get a good signal back at the house, which is in Avalon Court, a block down from Tadley Drive. And so the only places I get a good signal at are at the corners of Avalon Court and Ridgecrest Drive and of Ridgecrest Drive and Tadley Drive.

…..

A neighbor had called the police department saying that there was a suspicious man standing on the corner. “There have been robbers in the area, and we came check out the situation,” one of the officers said to me. “I see,” I say. “So can I not talk here on my cell-phone? I get a pretty bad signal back at the house.”

The officer then recommended that I go down half a mile to the parking lot of Whole Foods to talk on my cell-phone. He recommended that I leave the neighborhood in which I live and have stayed for the past 10 years, so I could talk on the phone to my loved ones. “Otherwise if we get more calls, we’re going to keep coming down here.”

Last year we had a few day time break-ins at the end of the street. Pretty surprising given that the Police Department is only a block away. Our neighborhood got together and reviewed our community policing options.

During that meeting, a young black woman who lived on our road told us a similar story. She was walking home when a police cruiser slowly pulled-up. She was stopped, asked for ID and told to be “more cautious”. More cautious?

Anyway, it turns out her neighbor had called the police. The neighbor was quite embarrassed, apologized profusely.

I spoke with Pat Burns at length and he provided a copy of the training PowerPoint (here). While the language could be tightened up – “persons walking through yards of residential areas or seeming out of place” – this is the PowerPoint and not the actual training session. Obviously the class-setting provides an opportunity to flesh out what constitutes “suspicious” and provide guidelines on where the bar is set for calling in law enforcement.

Pat understood my concerns, said there was some provision to weed out false reports on ex-lovers, etc. He also offered to let me attend a session to see what kind of safeguards exist for myself (it is open to the public, space available).

If I get the chance, I’ll attend and report back my findings.

Downtown’s Homeless: What is the message? Who is the messenger?

Monday, October 30th, 2006

…whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me…

While I was in Boston last week, the DPC’s (Downtown Partnership) Kiosk Giving Task Force morphed into the Downtown Outreach Work Group.

As the next step, the Downtown Outreach Work Group recommends a public-private partnership effort amongst the Town of Chapel Hill, the University of North Carolina, the Downtown Partnership, the human service agencies, the downtown property and business owners, religious organizations, the media and others, to jointly develop “the message” to request that citizens not give money to panhandlers in downtown Chapel Hill but to encourage them to give to the agencies that address the human service needs of downtown.

Once the message is clearly articulated, then the means and materials needed to address the target audiences will be identified. This is similar to efforts across the country typically called Real Change Not Spare Change campaigns. Raleigh is our closest neighbor that has adopted this program.  In Denver, they have adopted the Give A Better Way campaign, www.giveabetterway.com; and there are a number of other variations on this type of educational initiative.

Though encouraging on the face of it, I’m a bit troubled that this Town-sponsored group has taken on the “official” mantle of managing downtown’s homeless population issue with very little discussion.

The DPC’s charter is business-oriented, their issues business-directed. Panhandling is antithetical to their core directives. I’m concerned that this in-built bias won’t result in further draconian efforts to drive “undesirables” from downtown.

Today’s thoughtful analysis by Council member Sally Greene highlights the potential pitfalls in her excellent post Panhandling and Community Values.

Not all approaches are appropriate as Malcolm Gladwell’s recent New Yorker article “MILLION-DOLLAR MURRAY:Why problems like homelessness may be easier to solve than to manage.” points out.

Sure, I doubt our community would stand for criminalizing homeless support programs ala Las Vegas’ criminalizing feeding the hungry but it might blindly accept the recommendations of an important sounding group, like the Downtown Partnership, whose make-up and charter are not representative of the town as a whole.

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