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Community colleges increase training for police officers in the wake of protests

After a week of protests around the state and concern about the police response, the State Board of Community Colleges approved funds for a program that would provide training for police officers in subjects such as de-escalation, relationship-based policing, and community interaction.

According to documents from today’s State Board of Community Colleges meeting, the state’s community colleges provide most of the education for North Carolina police officers.

“They need the best training and tools available to engage in de-escalation of tense situations and successfully interact with all members of their local communities,” said North Carolina Community College System President Peter Hans.

The Board approved $100,000 for the training, which would “provide broad access to the latest training and methods, ensuring that North Carolina’s law enforcement officers have the tools and training necessary to engage effectively within their communities,” according to meeting documents.

State Board member Frank Johnson said that amount of money wasn’t enough.

“It really doesn’t make sense to me to have just that little bit, when this needs to be expanded really big time,” Johnson said.

Hans said that the system was limited by the amount of money it had available. The proposal is to fund the program with $53,730 that remains in the State Board reserve fund for this fiscal year. The remainder of the money would come from next fiscal year’s reserve fund. Hans also pointed out that given the economic downturn and a state budget shortfall, the system is under some restrictions as to how money can be spent.

“We believe we can buttress this in the short term and get a better sense of where there may be gaps to be filled,” Hans said.

The Board discussion comes amidst protests around the country and in North Carolina in response to the use of force by the police toward black people. In particular, it was sparked by the killing of one black man, George Floyd, by police officer Derek Michael Chauvin on May 25 in Minneapolis. Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, and Floyd died as a result.

“Across the United States, so many are demanding change after the senseless suffocation of George Floyd,” Hans said, adding later: “These are all huge societal issues that America is wrestling with.”

Johnson continued to push back against Hans, saying that since the Board was already going to have to use money from the next fiscal year, the Board could provide more money to tackle this issue.

The conversation got heated when Board member David Willis jumped in.

Johnson said community colleges can address the root cause of the problem. He said anybody can get into these police officer training programs and get a credential if they pass the test. He asked whether the right people were being selected to enter the program.

Willis said Board members shouldn’t make assumptions about training that exists today for police officers without “factual knowledge of what’s happening on the ground.”

Willis suggested that it would be a good idea for the Board to have a broader look at what’s being done with police training, what programs exist, and what gaps exist, so that the right amount of funding can be ascertained.

Johnson responded, saying: “David, I’m going to give you some factual knowledge. If somebody puts their knee on your neck and kills you because they’re not trained … that’s factual knowledge.”

Willis said: “Frank, I’m going to give you some factual knowledge. Interrupting someone when you’ve had five minutes to spout off is rude. And is uncalled for.”

At one point, someone asked Johnson to put his phone on mute.

Board Chair Breeden Blackwell eventually ended the conversation, saying: “Board members, I’m going to ask you kind of just take a chill pill right now and let’s just kind of move a little slower. And we can address all this stuff in a professional manner, and that’s what I want you to do.”

Board member William Holder, a black man and retired police officer from New York, said he has “witnessed much of what the world is now seeing.” He chimed in later in the meeting about the program and the conversation between Board members.

“Denying a person the opportunity to be heard, or worse yet, not listening to someone who is trying to tell us something, is the reason why we are experiencing what we’re experiencing right now,” he said in response to the earlier conversation.

As to the program, he said it might not be adequate to solve the entire problem, but that it was a “move towards a solution.”

“This is a complex issue. It’s not something that can be solved with one measure. However, I truly believe that making recurrent training relevant is one way in getting us to where we’d like to be as a society,” said Holder.

In the end, the plan was approved unanimously.

In other news, the Board allocated some of the federal dollars they’ve received to combat COVID-19. They approved $4 million to go to the state’s community colleges to support virtual student tutoring. Here is how the money will be distributed.

The Board also approved a contract for access to the Student Assistance Program for all 58 community colleges. The contract is for $950,000 and that money will also come from federal dollars earmarked to tackle COVID-19’s impacts.

The program is similar to “an employee assistance program,” according to meeting documents. It provides access to services for students and members of their household who “may be experiencing personal, medical, or other concerns, and can connect students to longer-term resources when appropriate.”

The Board also announced two new community college presidents.

JB Buxton, a member of the K-12 State Board of Education and long-time education leader, was named the new president of Durham Technical Community College.

Chris English, interim vice president for economic and workforce development at Blue Ridge Community College, was named the new president of Southeastern Community College.

The Board also announced that Nate Humphrey would be taking over as associate vice president for workforce continuing education at the community college system office. He comes most recently from Washington state, where he served as workforce education director with the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.