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Commissioner questions Spring Hope's policing of black residents

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SPRING HOPE — Mistrust and racial tension boiled over during a heated debate Monday night between a black town commissioner and the white police chief who grew contentious with his hand on his firearm. 

Commissioner Prudence Wilkins, who is black, told Police Chief Nathan Gant, who is white, that blacks in the community were coming to her with complaints that they felt intimidated by his officers.

Wilkins said a white officer asked a black woman on three occasions why she was parked at the old high school. Each time, the woman explained that she was allowing a handicapped man she cared for to stretch his legs. She said the officer asked the woman for her cellphone number just in case something happens.

This newspaper recently received a similar complaint from a black woman who said she was sitting in her parked car in broad daylight in front of the public library using its Wi-Fi when a white police officer asked why she was there. The woman said the officer asked for her cellphone number.

Wilkins said she received a complaint from an out-of-town black woman in her 50s who said that when she was pulled over in Spring Hope, she felt intimidated by the white police officer, so much so that she had a panic attack.

Gant said he’s reviewed the body camera footage and he doesn’t think his officer did anything wrong.

Wilkins said the woman called her and she went to the scene. Wilkins said she noticed herself that the officer’s hand was on his gun the entire time.

“Well ma’am, my hand’s been on mine since we-” Gant said.

“Just like that,” Wilkins said.

Both parties were talking over each other at that point, making it difficult to make out exactly what was said next, even after multiple viewings of the confrontation on the Southern Nash News website.

Wilkins said blacks feel like they’re being targeted.

Gant said Spring Hope residents who are hooked on drugs still have jobs, and most of the people his officers have arrested are from out of town.

“We’re a strange thing where we are,” Gant said. “Because unlike any of the other places around here even the people who have criminal histories and are addicted to drugs have jobs. So the majority of them are working every day. So they’re not out running the streets. Nine times out of 10 the people we get coming through town aren’t from town.”

Wilkins said she’d like the police department to work to close the relationship gap.

Gant told Wilkins that people with a problem with one of his officers should come to him.

Wilkins said blacks don’t feel comfortable going to Gant.

“If they have a problem with my guys then they should come to me,” Gant said. “Because coming from you it’s third-party information.”

Wilkins told Gant she represents the community and they come to her because they don’t trust him.

“I’ve never given anyone a reason not to feel comfortable coming to me,” Gant said. “I think anyone who knows me knows I have zero racist bone in my body.”

Wilkins told Gant that people in the black community don’t trust Gant.

“I’ve never given anyone a reason not to trust me,” Gant said. “And I’ve never done anything to you to deserve the attitude I’m getting right now.”

Wilkins said she wanted to move on because the back-and-forth wasn’t working.

Commissioner Brent Cone, who is white, stepped in to tell Gant that any resident can go to any town board member with concerns.

“They know us,” Cone said. “I’ve lived here all my life. They know us. They would be more comfortable to come to us.”

Cone said he would bring anyone who came to him with a problem about the police to Gant and stay to mediate. 

Commissioner Brenda Lucas, who is black, said she’s always felt comfortable bringing concerns to Gant.

“Whenever I get a complaint, you know about it,” Lucas said to Gant. “I trust you.”

Mayor Buddy Gwaltney, who is white, said the officer should have asked the woman at the school what she was doing there because the building is now private property, but Gwaltney said he didn’t know if three inquiries were necessary.

Gwaltney said the records show that more whites are pulled over in the town than blacks.

The confrontation eased with the board turning to other matters.

During the two-hour meeting, the board reversed its decision to keep the basketball courts at Spring Hope Community Park closed as part of the COVID-19 shutdown.

The board originally voted to follow Nash County Parks and Recreation’s lead in only opening the baseball fields. But during a public hearing on the town budget, Anthony High and other black residents asked commissioners to reconsider.

High said the perception would be the town was purposely keeping the basketball court closed for reasons other than the coronavirus.

Gwaltney asked the board to rethink its basketball closure vote. He said he’s lived a block from the park since 1974. While there were once broken beer bottles littering the grass every morning, he said there’s been no trouble at the park in years.

Gwaltney said he missed kids walking by his house dribbling a basketball on their way to the park. The town’s kids have been really good about obeying the stay-at-home order, he added, but said they’ve been cooped up for months and need to get some air and exercise.

Opening the basketball court is a health risk, but it’s also part of returning to some sense of normalcy, Gwaltney said.

The budget hearing also included residents’ questions as to why the town has only one black police officer, a part-timer.

Gant said minority and female officers are in high demand as police departments seek inroads into the communities they serve. 

Gant said he can’t get black officers to work in Spring Hope for $31,000 a year when Raleigh and Wake County are offering nearly twice as much. When asked why Spring Hope has never had a black police chief, Gant said he can’t speak to the past, but now he makes $50,000 a year and a black law enforcement official with his credentials can earn $110,000 in a city like Durham.