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Elon panel discussion examines race, policing, 4th Amendment

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GREENSBORO — When a man is shot on the street by an officer, James Mayes said, “there is no appeal.”

“In our democracy, you talk about accountability, about checks and balances, about separation of powers,” said Mayes, interim chairman of the political science and criminal justice department at N.C. A&T. “But when it comes to policing, often there are no checks and balances.”

Mayes was one of six participants on a panel Tuesday night at Elon University School of Law that drew about 100 people, including attorneys, students and academics.

“Beyond Ferguson: A Frank Discussion of Race, Policing and the 4th Amendment,” touched on the Aug. 9 death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen who was shot by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo. Police said Brown, 18, reached for the officer’s gun. Witnesses have said Brown implored the officer not to shoot.

Protests and riots followed, and police were heavily criticized for their response, which included using tear gas to disperse crowds and arresting journalists.

In addition to Mayes, panelists included Greensboro Mayor Pro-Tem Yvonne Johnson, Elon law professor Steven Friedland, Guilford College associate professor of justice Barbara Lawrence, UNCG Police Chief James Herring, and local attorney Daniel Harris.

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The panelists focused on balance between what moderator Robert Parrish described as individuals being free of “police interference” and police feeling “secure as they perform their law enforcement functions.”

Herring said a certain amount of tension is necessary to strike a balance in policing.

“If you don’t have the tension, you can go too far one way and be an authoritarian government or too far the other way and be an anarchy,” he said. “And I think it’s the tension between those two that keeps people on track.”

Much of the discussion revolved around “Terry stops,” named after a Supreme Court decision that allows officers to stop someone if they have “reasonable suspicion” that they might be involved in a crime.

Most of the panelists felt officers perform such stops too frequently.

“Unfortunately, we have to deal with this problem of racism,” Lawrence said. “Historically, police have interacted with people of color with a standard that is less than reasonable suspicion. And one of the outcomes is disproportionate minority contact with police and the criminal justice system.”

Johnson said one way to bridge the gap between minorities and law enforcement is community policing, which Greensboro’s police department is implementing and encouraging officers to know the areas they patrol.

“I believe almost all our police officers are good,” Johnson said. “There are some, like in any other profession, that aren’t. So it’s going to affect a lot of things. But I think the community policing will help.”

Contact Robert C. Lopez at (336) 691-5091, and follow @rclopezNR on Twitter.

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