WINSTON-SALEM, N.C.—On June 2, just as the sun was setting behind the old tobacco warehouses downtown, the city’s police chief addressed roughly 200 people who were gathered for the fourth day to protest racial injustice. Unarmed and dressed in a navy polo shirt, Catrina Thompson spoke for almost seven minutes—without notes or talking points—until her voice tightened and her eyes welled with tears. She expressed her outrage over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis eight days earlier, and she committed to the racially diverse crowd of young people that she wanted a police force that all of Winston-Salem’s citizens could be proud of.
“The person who resents and despises a bad officer is the good officer,” Thompson, 52, said. “These men and women that you see around here?” She pointed to her staff on the outskirts of the group. “Most of them aren’t even on duty. They’re here because they love this job, they love this city, and they love you.”
The protesters clapped and whistled. Several held up their phones to stream the moment on social media. “Tell it!” they shouted. “Come through!”
Earlier that week, peaceful marches around North Carolina had devolved into fiery chaos, spiking insurance claims for damages to over $10 million and testing the public’s patience for the national movement to end racial injustice and police brutality. In almost every case, heavy-handed police tactics seemed to make those situations worse, not better. That night in Charlotte, a little more than an hour to the south, officers fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters and officials declared a state of emergency. Cities around the country were seeing similar flare-ups—officers clashing with marchers by day and sometimes looters at night. Thompson didn’t want that to happen in Winston-Salem. For the past three years, she had worked to strengthen the foundation of goodwill between officers and citizens, and she hoped that foundation would sustain this racial reckoning, not crack under its pressure.
So Thompson made a pledge: As long as the demonstrators did not turn violent or destructive, they would have her department’s full support. “I want to show the rest of America that our voices can and will be heard,” she said, “and that can be done without tearing our city apart.”
For 31 straight days of protests, that is precisely what happened.
Thompson didn’t try to “dominate” the streets with pepper spray and flash-bang grenades, as Attorney General William Barr suggested in a call with governors the day before. There were no platoons of geared-up riot police, no rubber bullets, no swinging batons. Instead, the chief instructed her officers to close the roads and accompany the marchers on bicycles, even if that meant inconveniencing motorists. Drivers can wait 40 minutes, she reasoned. These injustices have been going on for 400 years.
Because of that approach, there were no injuries and no arrests. Unlike many of its neighbors, Winston-Salem, population 250,000, did not suffer so much as a broken window.
“I’ve seen you out with the protesters,” City Council member James Taylor Jr., who chairs the city’s Public Safety Committee, told Thompson during a meeting later that week. “You stood with them and you stood for them, and you also stood with and for this police department. … There are some people who cower behind their desks or behind their positions, but you didn’t do that. You stood tall, and you represented this city and this department very, very well.”
Praising both the protesters and Thompson’s leadership, the editorial board of the local newspaper wrote, “Whatever it is we have, we wish we could bottle it and export it.”
During the height of the summer’s upheaval, as the national debate turned to ways to fix the broken relationship between law enforcement and communities of color, the subject of diversity among police came up frequently. One of the most notable trends is the small but growing group of Black female chiefs like Thompson. In North Carolina alone, African American women have broken the “brass ceiling” at municipal police departments in six cities, and in Pitt County, voters recently elected the state’s first Black female sheriff. All but one of these women became leaders after 2014, when the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement brought the problem of police violence into worldwide focus. Catrina Thompson seemed to be particularly effective. Not only had she steered her agency through a difficult few weeks, but she also seemed to enjoy broad support in the community. In July, I spent some time in Winston-Salem, hoping to better understand Thompson’s approach to policing and figure out whether in fact she was the secret ingredient the newspaper editorial had wondered about.
Things were not quite as smooth up close as they seemed from a few miles away. For certain activists in and around Winston-Salem, it didn’t matter how many law enforcement agencies were run by people of color: A cop is a cop, regardless of race or gender. “A Black president did not heal racism in this nation,” said local faith leader Bishop Freddie Marshall during one contentious online forum this summer, “and a Black sheriff and a Black chief are not going to erase the systemic nature of racism in these policing organizations.”
But diversity and representation in leadership aren’t irrelevant, either. In Thompson’s case, her experiences growing up in a single-parent household in northeast Detroit gave her a balance of empathy and strength that transcended the well-worn bromides of community policing.
For demonstrators like Frankie Gist, a 24-year-old anti-gun-violence activist who first met Thompson at the June 2 protest, the chief’s background was crucial to her credibility. She spoke to the crowd not only as a 26-year veteran of the police department, but as an African American mother of two who worries about the safety of her own teenage son, who has autism. To Gist, Thompson came across more like a “cool-ass aunt” than a cop: firm but kind. She brought a warmth and sincerity to matters of racial justice that her male predecessors had lacked. “I could feel the genuineness,” Gist said.
When I spoke to Thompson later, she said she was amused by Gist’s description of her as an “auntie.” “I was energized by [the protesters’] determination to be heard,” she told me, “and by them standing up for what they believe is right—which is also what I believe to be right.” More important, she felt, were the changes made in her department, which had been heavily criticized in decades past. Long before this summer’s protests, the Winston-Salem police had adopted all eight reforms outlined in Campaign Zero’s #8CantWait initiative—including a ban on chokeholds and requiring deescalation training for officers. To her, things were moving in the right direction.
“We are not perfect,” she said, “and will never be perfect because we’re human, but we’re always striving to be better. And we’re a whole lot better than many other agencies across the state, and across the country.”
Then came midsummer, when an incident much closer to home put Thompson’s optimism to the test. News of an in-custody death at a neighboring agency last December—in circumstances that bore disturbing similarities to George Floyd’s killing—brought forth a new burst of public outrage and a new round of protests that forced Thompson into a more traditional law enforcement role. She received bitter criticism from some of the same activists who had cheered her only weeks earlier. It would put pressure on the idea that one person , no matter how accomplished, could keep peace in a Southern city in the summer of 2020.
The air in Winston-Salem still smelled like drying tobacco in 1994, when Catrina Fambro, 26, arrived in central North Carolina to attend the police academy. The eldest of four sisters, she was raised by a single mother and her grandparents in northeast Detroit. Her parents divorced when Fambro was 10 because her father, a former Chrysler employee who struggled with a drinking problem, became increasingly violent toward his wife. Sometimes their fights were so loud that Fambro would put pillows over her younger sister’s ears to keep her from hearing them.
Gunshots nearby kept Fambro and her sisters from playing in the neighborhood, so they rode their bikes in tight, worn circles in the backyard. Fambro grew up to be a high-school honor student, class treasurer and captain of the cheerleading team, all while working part-time at her grandfather’s convenience store. “She was not going to accept mediocrity,” said her sister Monica Jackson, who remembers “Trina” as being the rule-follower in the family, the one who was always in charge. Fambro pursued a computer engineering major at Wayne State University, thinking that would best suit her reserved, analytical personality. Her path took a sharp turn after agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms convinced her that a career in law enforcement would give her both job stability and an opportunity to serve the public. She promptly switched her major to criminal justice.
Fambro was the only woman in her rookie class but she graduated as its president. Nevertheless, she still felt that to be taken seriously she needed to overperform—in the classroom, at the range, on the streets. She never forgot the solemn warning her grandmother gave her when she was a child: “A Black woman will always have to work twice, even three times, as hard as everyone else to get half the credit.”
As Fambro learned while out on patrol, her new community had a vibrant but troubled racial history. At the turn of the 20th century, Winston-Salem was the industrial hub of over 30 tobacco companies, including R.J. Reynolds, and the Hanes textile empire, offering so many manufacturing jobs that it was a beacon for the Black middle class. But as that middle class grew, bringing with it increased demands for better housing, political representation and union membership, so too did white workers’ resentment and fear of being displaced. In the fall of 1918, a lynch mob of over 2,000 terrorized Winston-Salem’s Black neighborhoods, killing at least three people. Progress toward racial equality happened in small, discrete victories, like the early desegregation of the city’s streetcars and the election of several Black aldermen. But highway projects in the 1940s and ’50s leveled some of its most prominent African American neighborhoods, undoing some of those gains. By the time Fambro arrived, manufacturing had sharply declined and the city had become an uneasy blend of affluent white suburbs and struggling underserved communities.
The police department, too, faced a major crisis of legitimacy with people of color. In 1984, 10 years before Fambro arrived, officers from the Winston-Salem Police Department arrested an 18-year-old African American man named Darryl Hunt for allegedly raping and murdering a white woman. Despite a lack of physical evidence, prosecutors convinced an all-white jury that Hunt was guilty, and he was sentenced to life in prison. He served 19 years before DNA tests and another man’s confession proved he did not commit the crime. After his full exoneration and release from prison in 2004, Hunt founded the Darryl Hunt Project for Innocence & Freedom, but he was tormented by his ordeal for many years after. In 2017, he took his own life.
The police department’s mishandling of the Hunt case “helped define race relations in Winston-Salem for nearly 20 years,” according to the Winston-Salem Journal. Leaders in the city demanded change, and a civilian review board recommended the department reform its lineup and interrogation procedures to make them more transparent and scientific, which it did. It also created the full-time position of community relations specialist, for which it hired the executive director of Hunt’s nonprofit.
As significant as these problems were, Fambro still found a lot to like, even admire, about both her new city and the people she worked with. The old Southern mill town had a gritty determination about it, an underdog’s sense of civic pride. Putting on a bulletproof vest, strapping a sidearm to her hip, and venturing out to protect its citizens always felt like a privilege to her. Physically smaller than many of the suspects she had to arrest, Fambro focused on talking to people rather than doing things “the hard way.”
Fambro rose through the ranks, first in patrol, then in the recruiting, training and criminal investigations divisions. In 2000, she married one of her fellow officers, Alonzo Thompson, who is currently the chief of police in Spartanburg, S.C. (The two now split their weekends between cities.) The couple soon had a daughter and then a son, who was later diagnosed with autism. In 2016, Catrina Thompson was promoted to assistant chief in charge of the Investigative Services Bureau.
If Thompson had one defining characteristic as a leader, according to those who worked with her, it was her openness to feedback. Some civic leaders took their concerns straight to Thompson, rather than then-chief Barry Rountree. James Perry, president and CEO of the Winston-Salem Urban League, told me Rountree (who is also African American) made some important reforms in the department but was more “combative” than necessary. Perry describes Thompson as more diplomatic, “a listening ear, not just for the African American community, but for the community writ large: the Latino community, the LGBTQ community, just across the board.”
When Rountree announced his retirement in 2017, the city narrowed its search for a new chief to two candidates: Thompson and a major from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department. Thompson stressed her deep love for her community and the need for a zero tolerance policy in cases of police misconduct. “As the chief of police,” she told the audience at one forum, “No. 1, we need to send a message that we will not tolerate injustice.” The outside candidate, however, was tarnished by the discovery of his old Twitter account, from which he shared several inflammatory items from right-wing websites.
“Thompson knows where we’ve been and how to take us to the next level,” wrote the Journal in its endorsement. In November 2017, she was chosen to lead a department of 570 sworn officers and 173 civilian personnel, working with a budget of approximately $75 million.
Catrina Thompson was not Winston-Salem’s first African American police chief, or even the first Black woman to lead the department (both of those distinctions belong to Patricia Norris, who served as Winston-Salem’s chief from 2004 to 2008), but Thompson was part of a new wave of Black women who have risen to the top of major American law enforcement agencies over the past half decade, including in Philadelphia, Phoenix and DeKalb County, which surrounds Atlanta.
“I think it’s gotten to be cool to have a female chief,” Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis, president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives and the chief of the Durham, North Carolina, police department, told me recently. “I think city managers are starting to pick up on the fact that women in this field provide expertise and balance, and that our approaches aren’t always about the ego or the brawn. We’re constantly thinking about how to do this work with as little harm as possible—not just harm to the community, but harm to our officers as well.”
A few studies on use-of-force practices bear that out. A 2017 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that only 11 percent of female officers had ever fired their weapon on duty (compared with 30 percent of men) and less than a quarter reported having physically struggled with a suspect in the previous month (compared with 35 percent of male officers). But Dr. Brad W. Smith, a criminology professor at Wayne State University and co-author of 2008’s Race and Police Brutality, is reluctant to dwell too long on gender-based differences in policing practices because the very same stereotypes now considered positive when attributed to female officers—approachability, compassion, an ability to listen—were once used to shut women out of law enforcement. More important for establishing public trust, he said, is having a police force that mirrors the community it serves. “For me,” Smith says, “it’s irrelevant whether [women] do [the job] differently. If they do it exactly the same, then they have every right to have the job just like anybody else. And from the standpoint of legitimacy, they should make up half of police departments.”
But they don’t come close to that level. According to the most recent data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, less than 13 percent of law enforcement officers are women and only 3 percent are African American women . That percentage shrinks the higher you go in the ranks: Less than 3 percent of all police chiefs are female. So when any woman—especially a woman of color—rises to the top of a department hierarchy, her performance often gets more attention. That has been particularly true this summer, as the national spotlight focused on protests in large cities like Dallas and Seattle, both of which had Black female police chiefs.
In 2017, when U. Renée Hall became the first woman to lead the Dallas Police Department, she took over an agency already stressed by a pension scandal and reeling from the deadly July 2016 ambush that killed five officers and wounded nine. Months after she arrived, Amber Guyger, a white, off-duty Dallas police officer, shot and killed a Black accountant named Botham Jean when she mistakenly walked into his apartment. A number of officers felt that Hall was too quick to condemn Guyger, but Terrance Hopkins, a 29-year veteran of the department and head of the Black Police Association in Dallas, described their reaction to me as “the arrogance of ‘You don’t question law enforcement.’” According to Hopkins, Hall was a strong leader, “One that said ‘Nope, we’re gonna be open, honest, transparent. We’re gonna put information out there.’ And folks didn’t like that.”
“When you make a decision,” Hall told me when I interviewed her this summer, “it has to be in the best interest of everyone. It cannot just benefit the [police] association. It cannot just benefit the police officers. It cannot just benefit City Hall. It has to encompass as many of the ‘everybody’ as it possibly can. And it has to be ethical. It has to be moral. It has to be legal.”
This summer’s protests proved to be Hall’s breaking point. An investigation by The Dallas Morning News found that her officers used rubber bullets and launched pepper balls against peaceful protesters in May, flouting the department’s own crowd-control policy. On June 1, police tear gassed protesters who had gathered on the city’s Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge and eventually arrested almost 700 of them, though many of those charges were later dropped. Civil rights attorneys filed a federal lawsuit against both Hall and the city on behalf of two protesters who say they were seriously injured by the police during those events. One of them lost an eye.
“I was disappointed with that heavy handedness,” said Dr. Sheron Patterson, a faith leader in Dallas who invited Hall to speak to her church. Before the protests, Patterson felt Hall was doing a good job, but the deck was stacked against her. “She has to stand in a painful intersection of gender and race,” Patterson told me. “And she gets so much disrespect and undermining simply because she’s a woman, and then she’ll catch it because she’s Black. … She is trying to change the culture, and it is very hard when you have rank and file who are sexist and who are racist.”
On September 8, Hall resigned.
Hall’s ouster this summer, as well as the early retirement of Seattle’s chief, Carmen Best, is disappointing to some police-reform advocates, but not necessarily surprising. James Forman, Jr., a professor at Yale Law School whose critical study of mass incarceration, Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize, told me that it’s crucial to remember the uphill battle these women are facing. Policing is a complex system that shouldn’t be political, but it is, and everyone a chief must answer to has a different picture of what public safety should look like. Hiring a standout candidate with good ideas is the first step forward, but “if you don’t change a lot of the personnel below [the chiefs], then they can run into really, really brutal, sustained opposition, such that it becomes very hard for them to make any reforms that stick.”
Nor does it surprise some of the chiefs themselves. RaShall Brackney, who has served as chief of police in Charlottesville, Virginia, since 2018, holds a master’s degree from Carnegie Mellon University and a Ph.D. from Robert Morris University. In Pittsburgh, she became the first Black woman to oversee a special operations division, which included a SWAT team and bomb squad. Yet when she recently voiced her support for gun-control measures in Charlottesville, she was flooded with angry emails calling her “young lady” and telling her to “put her big-girl panties on.”
Brackney explained the situation to me this way: The supervisors who have promoted or hired her (usually white men) are “always in a win-win position,” she said. “If I’m successful, then they’re considered innovative thought leaders, very much transformational. If I fail, well, they’ve given me the opportunity, and I just couldn't handle it. So, it’s always a win-win for them. It’s never that same kind of level playing field for any of us.”
When Thompson took over as Winston-Salem’s chief in 2017, she wanted citizens to respect her title, but she made a conscious effort to let people see her as a person out of uniform: a wife and a mother caring for a child with special needs, a churchgoer who loved the city that welcomed her. And, finally, as an accessible leader who believed in the principles of community-oriented policing. She brushed aside the need for a security detail and made sure her email address was posted on the department’s website so citizens could reach her directly.
On top of holding listening sessions around town, she encouraged her officers to high-five schoolchildren outside their classrooms, participate in holiday events and mentoring programs, contribute to charity fundraisers, perform refugee outreach and periodically take pastors on patrol as a way of getting to know faith leaders. Thompson was most proud that the rank and file came up with their own ways to build bridges. Members of the department’s bicycle patrol started collecting warm clothing for the homeless, for example, and the bomb squad created beeping eggs so that visually impaired children could join the police-sponsored Easter egg hunt.
Enforcement patterns changed, as well. Whenever possible, officers worked with trained mobile crisis-management teams to reduce the risk to citizens experiencing a mental health emergency. From 2014 to 2018, arrests for traffic violations—often a hallmark of overzealous policing—dropped by almost half. Another key marker, arrests for nonviolent drug offenses, dropped from over 6,500 in 2014 to roughly 5,000 in 2018, all while the clearance rates for violent crimes stayed at or above the national average. This summer, Winston-Salem became the first city in North Carolina whose police department was awarded “TRI-ARC” status from the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, meaning that it met or exceeded the best-practice standards in all three of its law enforcement, communications and training academy divisions.
None of this means that Winston-Salem is a crime-free oasis. In keeping with the national trend, incidents of violent crime have risen by almost a third in the past two years, and even though it is generally concentrated in specific areas, gun violence has accounted for much of it. Officers themselves are not immune. In 2017, one of the department’s captains lost her 26-year-old son in a shooting on the campus of nearby North Carolina A&T State University.
Days before the protests began after the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Catrina Thompson’s energy was focused on the murder of a 50-year-old woman named Ella Crawley, who was beaten, strangled and left on a walking path in a local park. The same weekend, a 21-year-old pregnant woman named Jericka Nasgah was shot multiple times and left to die in an intersection. In the coming weeks, over 200 citizens gathered to demand justice for Crawley and Nasgah, as well as for other Black homicide victims. As one mother whose son was killed told a reporter, “I’m tired of seeing hearses filled with bodies.”
Members of the City Council were tired of it, too. “We can’t continue this way,” said a frustrated James Taylor Jr., chair of the public safety committee, during a June 8 update on crime in Winston-Salem. “I love the police department, and I love this community … [but] I have kids. Many of the people in this place have kids, and we want to leave this community better than we found it. This update does not make me happy.”
Thompson didn’t believe progressive reform and basic law and order were mutually exclusive, but there always was some tension between the two. Crack down on crime too hard and she risked alienating a large part of her community, which would further erode trust in the police. But citizens wouldn’t feel—or be—safe if she eased up too much and crime continued to rise. That would erode the public’s trust, too. With limited resources and personnel, she had to make choices that not everyone liked.
The protests in Winston-Salem had become by midsummer a symbol of that tension.
Even though the crowds stayed calm, they blocked major thoroughfares through and around the city, including U.S. Highway 52 and part of Interstate 40. Then the organized marches splintered into smaller sit-ins at a local shopping center. Two grocery stores, Trader Joe’s and Publix, were forced to close early on June 29 and June 30 when demonstrators refused to move from their aisles. Outside the Publix, a white man driving an SUV rolled into the crowd of protesters, nearly hitting a person on a bike.
Thompson had reason to worry. People who were fed up with the protests grew increasingly vocal. “Parents should have taught them don’t play in the street!” a woman who once worked for the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office posted on Facebook. “RUN THEIR STUPID IGNORANT BUTTS OVER! It’s a road to be traveled on by vehicles, not whiney [sic] spoiled brats who thinks [sic] the world owes them something!”
Thompson remembers thinking about the car incident outside Publix: “We’ve gone all this time without any issues—no safety issues, nobody injured, but this could have been bad.” It could have been another Charlottesville.
“Things that have gone real well can change in 15 minutes,” Assistant Chief Wilson Weaver, who grew up on the east side of Winston-Salem, explained. “We want to let our people be heard; we want to let them do their thing and get their messages across while keeping everybody safe. But we don’t want to have to worry about something blowing up in the middle of a protest, or a car driving through the middle of a protest, or having to deal with an active-shooter-type situation.”
In other words, the concern was not that the protesters would become violent, but that they would become the targets of violence. This concern was not misplaced. According to research conducted this summer by the Chicago Project on Security & Threats, there were at least 72 documented incidents of cars ramming into crowds of protesters in 52 cities, resulting in multiple serious injuries and one death. Several people died from gunshot wounds at protests and counter-protests in Seattle; Austin; Portland, Oregon; and most recently in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where prosecutors say an Illinois teenager shot three protesters, killing two.
Thompson decided she could not allow large groups to continue gathering in the roads. On July 1, the department issued a news release stating that anyone who failed to comply with traffic laws would be arrested.
Around the same time that Thompson and her executive team were making changes to their policy, news broke that the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation was looking into the December 2019 death of a man named John Neville at the Forsyth County Detention Center, which is run by the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office, not the police. According to a state medical examiner’s report, Neville, 56, died of a brain injury and heart attack brought on by asphyxia after five guards forcibly restrained him in a face-down position—a scenario that bore painful similarities to George Floyd’s death. In the video that was released after local media filed a lawsuit, Neville, a father of five who had been detained on a misdemeanor assault charge, repeatedly cried, “I can’t breathe” and “Mama.” He lost consciousness and was taken to the hospital, where he was ultimately taken off life support.
Forsyth Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough kept the news of Neville’s death under wraps for six months, until the state finished its probe and the five guards who restrained Neville (as well as a jail nurse who appeared not to intervene) were charged with involuntary manslaughter. Though Thompson’s officers were not involved, she knew that Neville’s death would spark new protests focused around the jail, and because the building was in the middle of downtown, her department would have to enforce the policy it just laid out.
That did not go over well with a core group of social justice advocates in Winston-Salem, specifically the newly formed Triad Abolition Project, which called on the city to defund and eventually abolish the Winston-Salem Police Department. Some of its supporters, like 33-year-old Calvin Peña, had been present at the June 2 march downtown and they felt betrayed. What about Thompson’s promise to support them? The entire world was calling for an end to racial injustice, and the police were worried about traffic?
“The people who feel inconvenienced [by road closures] are the folks who do not wish to see this movement continue,” Peña, who is originally from Los Angeles, told me. “There’s two sides, honestly, right? People who are with the movement, and people who are not.”
Other activists felt it was important to meet with police to push for reforms, but the TAP was not interested in doing that. For most of the summer, they communicated their feelings to Sheriff Kimbrough with a large sign that read, in part, “BLOOD IS ON YOUR HANDS.” They were not interested in Thompson’s record of community outreach, either. To them, any attempt by law enforcement to build trust with citizens was disingenuous at best, a sinister surveillance attempt at worst. They encouraged their supporters not to trust the cops, and definitely not to call them.
To Frankie Gist, the organizer who liked Thompson’s “auntie energy,” this level of antagonism didn’t make sense. He considered regular meetings with city leaders, including those in law enforcement, a critical part of his job as an activist.
“We’re protesting and fighting for justice to be at the table,” Gist told me. “Our ancestors didn’t fight for us to just keep protesting and protesting and not get nothing done. … How are you ever going to get what you want from this lady if you’ll never sit down with her?”
On July 8, following a news conference by the district attorney on the Neville case, leaders from several groups, including the Triad Abolition Project and Black Lives Matter/Winston-Salem, called for protests outside the detention center. Bullhorn in hand, TAP co-founder and Wake Forest assistant professor Brittany Battle lead chants during a protest march to the center, after which she and several other activists gave speeches, demanding more answers from the sheriff.
As planned, Thompson followed through on her new order. Police arrested five people that night and charged them with impeding traffic, a misdemeanor. Battle disputes the protesters were in the road.
The next day, the crowd grew to about 40 people. Police arrived in a utility vehicle outfitted with a long-range-acoustic device, which they used to warn the group that anyone gathered in the street would be arrested. In what the TAP called “an act of civil disobedience,” a number of protesters deliberately stepped off the sidewalk. The police then rounded up 15 of them and charged them with impeding traffic, too.
Battle accused the police of intimidating protesters by bringing an acoustic weapon, even though they used it as a public-address system. “You don’t bring a gorilla cart out with an LRAD on it for no reason,” she told me. (When I asked Assistant Chief Weaver about this, he said there were no plans to use the LRAD as a sound cannon, only a speaker. “We would never do anything to hurt somebody when we’re trying to make an announcement,” he said.)
The protests continued the following night, which ended in 16 more arrests. The giant crowds from the beginning of the summer had thinned, but the protesters who continued became more defiant, kneeling in intersections and forming human chains across them.
About this time, I sat down with Thompson and her assistant chiefs at one of the department’s substations. Behind her face mask, Thompson was polished and professional but also clearly exhausted. Six weeks of protests, the coronavirus and the turmoil surrounding the Neville case had taken their toll, and her phone still chimed constantly. She had spent so much of her energy and so many of her department’s resources trying to repair the damage other officers at other agencies had caused. She was sickened by the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and John Neville. But she wanted justice for Ella Crawley and Jericka Nasgah, too. At least those were cases she could do something about.
"I thoroughly, 100 percent support what they’re protesting,” Thompson said of the newest wave of demonstrations. “That was never a question, and it still isn’t a question. … So they’re mad at me. Big deal. At the end of the day, if they need us, we’re going to be there to support them. And we’re not going to let anything happen to them.”
She was flanked by her three assistant chiefs, William Penn, Wilson Weaver and Natoshia Miles, the officer whose own son was killed in 2017. Like Thompson, each happens to be African American and each has earned a master’s degree. That is part of what the chief wants for her department: not only a more diverse force, but a more educated one—more graduate degrees, more types of training. More technology, more innovation. More thoughtful approaches to complex problems. Because she believes that policing can be better. If she didn’t believe that, she wouldn’t be doing it. “We know that there is systemic racism in our country,” Thompson said, nodding at her team. “We also know that it exists in law enforcement agencies. It’s no secret to any of us.”
The protests would continue for another month and a half, until the beginning of September. For 49 days, the activists set up tents in a downtown park and held #OccupyWSNC demonstrations featuring candlelit vigils, drumming and musical performances. They wrote email scripts for concerned citizens to send to lawmakers and issued calls for action via social media, where the group gained roughly 2,500 followers on its Instagram account. Eventually, they did meet with the sheriff, who agreed to two of their key demands: a countywide ban on prone restraints and notifying the public sooner of any in-custody death.
The protests never turned destructive and, by and large, the marchers stopped blocking roads. Police haven’t arrested any protesters since the end of July.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect date for an “act of civil disobedience“ by protesters. It was July 9, not July 8. Also, the number of people arrested on July 8 was five, not four.