An Attempt At Reconciliation In Alamance County

Sep 19, 2019

Elon University joined other schools, community groups and law enforcement officials across the country for an inaugural National Day of Reconciliation. The idea was to improve relations between police and people of color.

The reconciliation event at Elon began with a film called "Walking While Black - Love is the Answer."

The film, by A.J. Ali and Errol Webber, tackled the subject of racial profiling.

"I know when I started in policing, numbers mattered," said Burlington Police Chief Jeffrey Smythe during a panel discussion after the film. "It was about how many tickets you can write and how many arrests you could make."

Smythe says he has been in law enforcement for 33 years. He told the audience he knows better now, and his officers don't count those numbers.

"As a white male in a position of power, I have an obligation to make change and make it better for everybody," he said. "That's what my calling is."

Donna Vanhook sat right next to Smythe on the Day of Reconciliation panel. She wore a purple t-shirt, just like a half dozen others in the audience. They are all part of the Morrow Town Task Force, formed a couple of years ago. Vanhook says law enforcement needs to do more.

"So there are three unsolved homicides in this one little strip, this one little neighborhood," Vanhook claimed. "So what we're trying to do is change the narrative."

One emotional comment from the audience came from a woman accusing Alamance County Commissioners and Sheriff Terry Johnson of profiting from the immigration crisis. The comment referred to a recent contract signed between the county and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. As part of the deal, the commissioners voted unanimously earlier this year to approve nearly $3 million for jail upgrades to house people arrested by ICE.

The Elon University Reconciliation Panel was one of only two events in North Carolina on the National Day of Reconciliation.
Credit Leoneda Inge / WUNC

"The people that we’re trying to hold here are criminal illegal immigrants that [are] actually raping our citizens in many, many ways," Sheriff Terry Johnson told the Board in February, as reported by the Burlington Times-News. "The jails are full all over this nation of immigrants, criminal immigrants, not just the ones that came across the border, but the people that are coming here for a reason to victimize our children, our citizens, with drugs, murders, rapes, robberies, you name it."

Sheriff Johnson did not attend the reconciliation event, but Cliff Parker, the department's chief deputy, was on the panel. Parker is the former Elon Town police chief and an Elon University graduate.

"We partner at the sheriff's office with an organization within our country and we're a country of laws and rule of laws and we don't set the law," said Parker. "That's all I am going to say. I am not trying to be argumentative. I don't know how else to answer it other than to say, we are a part of it. To say we won't work with another agency, that’s not the answer."

English Professor Prudence Layne, who moderated the reconciliation panel, noted that a Burlington officer is always embedded in her course “Prison Nation, Deconstructing the Prison Industrial Complex.”

"We made some progress this evening... especially around issues that were directed at the Alamance County Sheriff's Office. That is ongoing work we will continue to do," Layne said.

Elon University was one of only two communities in North Carolina to host an event on the National Day of Reconciliation. The other was in Charlotte.