Major Mike Campagna of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD) looks back at the events of Sept. 2016 and explains his desire to debunk stereotypes portrayed in the community and on social media.
“I started looking at the stereotypes of police officers and young, black men,” Mike said. “These particular ones are often in opposition to each other.”
He explains how stereotypes occur on both sides. Someone may have a family member who is a cop, but they’ll refer to them as one of the good ones, the exception. And another may see a young, black man that’s doing well and think that he’s the exception.
“We look at all these exceptions or outliers that fit common stereotypes and we look at them as the norm, when really they are the exception,” he said. “We look at the reality of what’s next to us and think that that person is an exceptional and that everyone else like them is bad. It’s probably the opposite. Since then, it’s been my mission to break down those stereotypes in both directions.”
Mike has served within CMPD for 24 years and currently manages the Training and Recruitment Divisions of CMPD. This time last year, he was Captain over the Central Division which covers the uptown Charlotte area.
As the protests unfolded last September following the police-involved shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, he walked with protesters as they marched multiple nights in uptown.
Mike takes us back before Sept. 20, 2016 when he reflects on issues in the community.
“What was building before the event, were some discrepancies in the community. We’ve got data to show what we knew before. Crime is related to poverty. In our community, poverty is related to race. That’s where a lot of our problems are coming from.”
“That doesn’t mean to say that you can make the connection with crime and race. That’s important, but poverty and race in Mecklenburg County are related. Since last year we’ve seen a lot of the data and studies. The economic mobility study came out before the events showing this is true.”
Mike’s work connects him to issues in communities with people of color that go far beyond the police department.
“The kinds of things affecting the community are affordable housing, education opportunities, jobs, mentorships and apprenticeships. So you add that level of frustration onto this pinnacle of frustration where someone dies or loses their life, and then the police department becomes a focal point of these frustrations. While we don’t directly touch housing, job opportunities and the school systems, we are the face of all that because we are the people in these communities most often.”
““We look at all these exceptions or outliers that fit common stereotypes and we look at them as the norm, when really they are the exception,” he said. “We look at the reality of what’s next to us and think that that person is an exceptional and that everyone else like them is bad. It’s probably the opposite. Since then, it’s been my mission to break down those stereotypes in both directions.”
The night of Sept. 20, Mike watched from home as protesters moved across the university area. He knew that the rest of the week, protesters would reach his area, uptown. CMPD had to be strategic in staffing so all resources weren’t exhausted at the beginning of the event. He says, “That worked until about midnight, when I got a phone call to come in.”
“What made this event different was the rise of social media,” he said. “That turned things into chaos.”
Initially, he helped with logistics and in the Command Center. He and others watched everything unfold through CMPD’s helicopter video, news feeds and live streamers. At about 5 a.m. Sept. 21, he went home, got a little bit of sleep and came back in.
“I started to get ready again for what was certainly going to be uptown. And it was.”
In the afternoon, people organically came uptown and started marching. Marshall Park was where some of the evening protests started. At this time, Mike’s role changed.
“My role then was interacting with the protesters to see what their intentions were, what their needs were and what kind of movements they were going to make. There was no real established leadership. It was just a group of people and they were trying to label themselves as a group. That just becomes very chaotic. Those first few days were.”
“I had some success in just listening to people as they were yelling and just interacting with them. I found I was able to break the ice a little bit just by face-to-face interactions with different people.”
In these situations, officers are assigned certain roles. For example, some officers are told to just stand in a spot and not let anyone walk down certain roads. They can’t break the line and talking can be confrontational. There’s also anxiety around their interactions being posted on social media.
“Other officers had different jobs to do, different roles. It isn’t that they don’t want to or are unable to talk; it’s just that sometimes it’s difficult for officers to make that decision to engage in conversation because they are concerned.
‘What if I say the wrong thing? What if I’m videotaped? What if I’m livestreamed?’”
Mike’s ability to connect with people was important during that time because he took the lead on engaging in conversations.
“What I found I could do was to interject myself into a situation and provide that personal sounding board, listen to what they’re saying and then answer questions if they were ready to listen. At the very least, we would walk away with a sense of mutual respect.”
He was also able to influence the groups.
“For the rest of the week, my motto was to walk with the group, identify those leaders who would talk to me, try to engage with them and build a level of trust. What I found out was throughout the week, that I could use that influence to help the group make better decisions.”
He never steered the group telling them what they could and could not do, but he was able to give direction. For example, if protesters wanted to go on the interstate, he let them know that people would be arrested. The best thing to do was to just keep the crowd moving.
CMPD has implemented more programs and training since the September protests and Mike has shaped that training. One of these is the Constructive Conversation Team.
“During the protests, I found that people were happy to see me, but they looked at all the other officers like they were a bunch of jerks. That’s not fair because of all the great officers we have.”
Since then, 40 officers were trained for the Constructive Conversation Team. The training equips officers with the ability to listen first, build a connection with people and to answer questions. This team has been deployed in several situations such as another officer-involved shooting on Albemarle Road in February.
“The idea is if we can get out ahead of it and on the street and on the scene, providing answers to questions, listening to what their concerns are, then we can prevent things from escalating. It’s about creating a connection with a person as a human being. And once you can see each other as human beings, then it’s harder to escalate that level of anger and hostility. So far, it’s been pretty successful.”
During the training, resident volunteers come in to play the role of residents during these conversations. Everything is real – questions, emotions and energy. It’s a lot different than another officer in jeans and a t-shirt playing the role of a resident. To that end, the volunteers and officers come together to talk about their perspectives.
“That’s been real powerful. The citizens get to help us with the training and they get to walk away with a different perspective about police officers.”
The next step is to roll the training out to all officers. CMPD also offers another community program called transparency workshops.
“The greatest frustration for me leading up to and during last September is just a great amount of misinformation. People just don’t understand what police officers do or how things work. What I try to get people to understand is how difficult it is to be a police officer and what happens when your life is on the line.”
The transparency workshops allow people to understand CMPD’s work and exposes them to CMPD’s decision making process for things like when to use force and which cars are stopped. The conversations are natural and real. And CMPD is open to citizen suggestions.
“The transparency workshop falls in with the community letter when you talk about safety, trust and accountability. That’s our goal is to let them know this is what we do.”
Mike believes to move forward, the city, its partners and the community also have work to do, not just CMPD.
“The Community Letter, the mobility study, the task force are moving us in the right direction. We have to deal with issues that are affecting these communities. These aren’t necessarily police issues. As a police department, we are accountable for our contact with people and how that goes and how we treat people. We can’t reduce crime by ourselves. We need the community’s assistance in looking at what these issues are.”
Mike’s committed to training officers, breaking down barriers and having those tough conversations with citizens. The city needs to continue to move forward.
“Once the fervor dies down and once people stop marching in the streets, it’s easy to get back to business as usual. I think it’s really important for us as a city as a whole to keep on addressing these issues so that when there’s another officer-involved shooting, which there will be, the community will be ready to work on it in a productive manner than taking it to the streets.”
“I feel like we have a plan now. The economic mobility study shook us up, and I’m glad it did. I hope that we can begin to see some changes. If we can improve quality of life in some of these communities by improving job opportunities and personal financial growth, we can reduce crime. If we reduce crime, we’ll reduce the reasons officers need to be in those communities. And we reduce conflict and contact between the community and CMPD. That’s what I’d like to see.”