LAURINBURG — A day after deadly sniper fire in Dallas left five police officers dead, Scotland residents are adding their voices to those decrying violence by and against law enforcement officers.
The Texas shooting began Thursday evening while hundreds of people gathered to protest the killings of black men in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and suburban St. Paul, Minnesota. The bloodshed unfolded just a few blocks from where President John F. Kennedy was slain in 1963.
“It’s a very sad time for all of us,” said Capt. Mitch Johnson of the Scotland County Sheriff’s Office. Johnson, who conducts training and handles public relations for the department. He said people forget that law enforcement officers go through the same emotional responses that others feel.
“I think it’s just as surprising and solemn for all of us. We are a reflection of the community we serve,” Johnson said.
Amid the grief, the longtime lawman said it’s important to choose one’s words carefully.
“When we have things that are painful or things that we are in question of, we have to express our pain in a way that doesn’t hurt someone else,” Johnson said. “There are no winners in this situation. We all lose when something like this happens.”
An Army veteran has been accused in the Dallas shootings. The man, identified as 25-year-old Micah Johnson, was killed by a robot-delivered bomb after the shootings that marked the deadliest day for U.S. law enforcement since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In all, 12 officers were shot. It is still unclear how many shooters were involved. Authorities initially said three suspects were in custody and the fourth dead. Hours later, officials were vague and would not discuss details.
Officials say the accused sniper told authorities that he was upset about the police shootings of two black men earlier this week and wanted to exterminate whites, “especially white officers.” Micah Johnson was black. Law enforcement officials did not immediately disclose the race of the dead officers.
Mark Schenck, chairman of the Scotland County Republican Party wondered whether the motive had more to do with mental health than race. Micah Johnson, private first class, served in the Army Reserve for six years starting in 2009 and did one tour in Afghanistan from November 2013 to July 2014, the military said.
“We have to find a way to debrief them (war veterans) and bring them back to normal,” he said.
Even so, Schenck said he has little doubt that Democrats and the Obama administration will try to put the focus on race.
“We’ve got to quit using race as a political tool. The Democrats have been doing that since 1865,” Schenck said. “It’s killing the country.”
But the events of the last few days show that an honest discussion about race is needed, according to the Rev. Terence Williams of Laurinburg, pastor of From the Word Ministries.
“We have to be able to discuss our fears,” Williams said. “We have now weaponized blackness so blackness perpetuates such a fear to law enforcement. Why? Where is this coming from? We have to be able to have proper training to make sure that our officers know how to respond and how to react.”
Williams attended a press conference Friday in Raleigh held by Rev. William Barber, state president of the NC NAACP. Barber told reporters that the violence in the United States cannot lead the country forward. The press conference had been scheduled to address the shooting deaths of two black men by police in Louisiana and Minnesota over the previous 48 hours.
The first fatal shooting happened on Tuesday in Baton Rouge. Alton Sterling was killed by a police officer after a homeless man made a call to 911 alleging Sterling threatened him with a gun. Video was immediately on social media showing Sterling’s death.
A day later Philando Castile, 32, in St. Paul, was shot and killed by a police officer during a traffic stop for a busted tail light. Castile had his girlfriend and a child in the car.
“This is violence and death gone wild,” Barber said. “This is America in a sense replaying some of its violent past, and in this moment we must mourn for those killed and the families left behind.”
Barber said the first person he heard from after the shootings of the two black men and the shooting of police in Dallas was a retired law enforcement officer. The ex-officer was outraged by the killings, Barber said.
“And that’s possible,” Barber said. “It’s possible to have deep concern and deep hurt and deep outrage about both.”
Williams, a former Scotland County NAACP president, agreed and said this pattern of violence has to end.
“I just don’t want our kids to become immune to accept this as a normal way of life,” Williams said. “That’s why we have to address it. This cannot become normal. We have to make sure we continue to invest in our officers because they need to feel like they are going to go home too.”
State Rep. Garland Pierce took part in a news conference the day before the Dallas shootings with members of the North Carolina Legislative Black Caucus to call for change in light of the recent police-involved shootings.
“Many of our young people are traumatized, our citizens are traumatized. It seems to be the norm instead of something that just happens every once in a while,” said Pierce, a Democrat representing Scotland, Hoke, Richmond and Robeson counties.
When reached a day later, Pierce said Thursday’s shooting has only compounded the problem.
“It’s time for a pause in America,” he said. “All of America regardless of race, creed whatever. There is mistrust on both sides and it shouldn’t be like that.”
Pierce, who is a Baptist minister, said it seems like violence is a daily occurrence and he is worried it will desensitize the youth. With social media, the world has access to the violence quicker.
“It is right there in our living room,” he said, as compared to years ago when it took some time to get the news. He added it seems youth react quicker than people his age.
“We gotta talk honest about the fear and concerns and not play around. We’ve got to have dialogue, real serious conversations, not pointing fingers. If not this is something that we will keep visiting time and time again. Could it happen in Laurinburg? Could it happen in Scotland County? Sure,” he said.
Pierce said families are hurting on both sides and he hopes a resolution can be reached before it gets to the point of no return. He is willing to sit down with other leaders in the church, community, civic organizations as well as those in the sheriff’s office and police department.
Schenck also expressed sympathy for the officers’ survivors.
“It’s a real tragedy,” Schenck said. “Our hearts go out to the families who lost loved ones. It would be terrible to know that someone’s not coming home ever again because of this.”
Laurinburg Mayor Matthew Block said the city plans to review local police procedures during the July 19 city council meeting. It will include a report from Police Chief Darwin Williams.
City Manager Charles Nichols on Friday emailed city council members copies of President Barack Obama’s executive order on a Task Force on 21st Century Policing. The task force is charged with identifying “best practices and otherwise make recommendations on how policing practices can promote effective crime reduction while building public trust.”
“We are going to take a look at that and make sure the police department has everything they need to institute those practices,” Block said. The order can be viewed at www.cops.usdoj.gov/policingtaskforce.
As a training officer, Capt. Johnson said officers must develop a mindset that recognizes the ever present risk of injury without responding in a way that causes further problems.
“We train with a mental mindset so we can have a tough mindset before our actions are set,” Johnson said. “We have threat levels – this brings you to an increased threat levels. It only heightens your awareness to things that can happen.”
Robert Malloy spent nearly 40 years in law enforcement, including 18 years as police chief of Laurinburg. He is also a former president of the local NAACP. He said there needs to trust and an open line of communications between law officers and the citizens they serve.
“One way to help stop this is to have an interchange among the police and the public. You have to talk to people, to know them. Staying in a police car 24/7 isn’t good community policing,” Malloy said. “Whatever biases one has, training can eliminate that. If all someone sees is color, there is no sensitivity to who you are and what you are about.”
Scotland County NAACP President Herman Tyson said the chapter’s Executive Committee will meet on the issue on Monday.
“First we would like to offer our condolences to the two families that loss their family members as well as the families of the five officers,” Tyson said. “This is truly a national catastrophe.
“We need to band together, come together and resolve the issues. We need more training for our law enforcement, more effective interacting with the neighborhood mothers and barber shops. If the individual knows the person, they are less likely to pull out a firearm.”
Tyson wants everyone to feel safe.
“The police say they are scared, our kids are scared too. The goal is to protect our community and for them [officers] to return home safe to their families,” Tyson said.