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Black Police Chiefs, Feeling Squeezed, Face Criticism on All Sides

Donny Williams, a native of Wilmington, N.C., who became that city’s police chief this year, said he tried to limit the number of officers who showed up to calls. He attributed that goal to a sentiment he heard coming up in a Black neighborhood, where people would complain of “carloads” of police officers showing up in their communities. When 10 officers respond to a traffic stop in which four would suffice, that can seem like over-policing, he said.

He also does not allow his officers to wear armored vests as an outer layer or other militarized-looking apparel when it is unnecessary because he wants his officers to appear approachable, not like soldiers, he said.

His friends and family still have “brutally honest conversations” with him about their issues with the police, he said.

“That’s one of the things that I can see from the perspective, especially of the Black community, it looks like we just come in as a military force in the Black community,” Chief Williams said.

When he was still a patrol captain in a Black part of town, Chief Williams said he noticed that the officers had no bond with the young people, who seemed to have few organized activities to keep them busy.

“I was one of those young Black men,” he said.

So he started programs that brought children and the police together. He recalled that he became interested in the profession when he got to know three officers who worked in the public housing project where he lived; they took him on his first trip outside of the city, to the zoo in Asheboro.

As a Black woman who is from Phoenix, Jeri L. Williams, the city’s police chief, said community members sometimes had more patience and trust with her to get to the bottom of a critical incident before casting judgment. She built that capital with the community through years of meeting with faith groups and other organizations for “very painful” listening sessions about policing, she said. They have prepared her for this time when there are huge demands for change.

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