Heggins discusses career in High Point, vision for Salisbury
By Jessica Coates
SALISBURY — In her campaign for Salisbury City Council, Al Heggins has said that she wants to build relationships between citizens and the Salisbury Police department.
It was a topic that she dealt with in a previous job, as the human relations director for the City of High Point from 2004 until 2015.
Heggins said that, during her time there, she focused on proactively solving problems by helping people build relationships before issues arose.
But she said that an event meant to proactively address tensions between High Point police officers and the city’s African-American community led her to be wrongfully terminated from the city in Oct. 2015.
“It’s complex; it really is,” Heggins said. “I wouldn’t wish this on anybody at all.”
It began in 2014, in the wake of numerous killings of unarmed black people by police officers across the country. Heggins said that community members reached out via email to her, as director of the human relations department, and expressed concerns about the fear that was spreading through the community.
“So I took those emails to the police chief — who was my peer, because I didn’t report to the police chief — and I took them to the city manager. And I said, ‘Listen, this is what’s coming in and this is what I propose,’” Heggins said.
She proposed doing a series of conversations called “Black and Blue,” which would bring together the High Point African-American community and the High Point Police Department.
“And the format that I used to facilitate these conversations was the exact same format that I used for building integrated communities. And building integrated communities is what I was recognized for by the White House as a White House Champion of Change for outstanding work in municipalities (in 2013),” Heggins said.
She said the format encouraged participants to “really go deep” in their understanding of cultural differences, as well as institutional and structural racism.
For the first group meeting, she said, she handed out 120-page notebooks — which she and a staff member assembled — that had a glossary defining words like “intersectionality” and “discrimination,” as well as statistics.
“It had information in it about how many unarmed people of color have been killed due to police, and it also had information in there from the Police Benevolent Association that talked about how many police officers we’re beginning to lose because of the racial tensions and the misunderstanding,” Heggins said. “So this was a very balanced approach to … there’s life being lost on both sides.”
The group of approximately 150 African-American citizens and police officers met several times and came up with a list of 30 items that they wanted the city to consider in an effort to ease racial tensions.
One of those 30 items was a citizens’ review board — a diverse board of 20-30 citizens to review appeals by other citizens who file complaints about police officer misconduct.
Heggins said that, in order for the citizens’ review board to be effective in High Point, there needed to be a community discussion about how to have informed discussions “not fueled by emotion but by real research that has been done across the country.”
“So one of the ladies that came in to talk about the citizens’ review board was selected by an African-American woman who was part of this committee,” Heggins said. “I did not select the speaker; that was not my job as the director. My job was to support the concerns and the attitudes and actions and reactions of the minority community.”
Heggins said that, although she did not choose the speaker — a Guilford College lecturer named Dr. Barbara Lawrence — she did vet her.
Heggins said that Lawrence had an advanced law degree, was a former police officer and prosecutor, and was an expert on both critical race theory and citizens’ review boards.
Heggins said the March 28, 2015, lecture Lawrence delivered — which Lawrence titled “Police Accountability and Citizen Oversight: A Framework for Dismantling White Supremacy and Establishing Real Justice in the 21st Century” — was well received by those who attended.
However, Heggins said, two High Point City Council members who did not attend told the city manager at a public retreat that they were offended that the lecture took place.
“And before this event took place and the speaker came in, everybody who was participating in the Black and Blue conversation or who had information about it — and of course our city council had to have information about it, so that’s why they were receiving it — nobody ever said, ‘Hey Al, can we talk about this? We’re concerned about the topic.’ That never happened,” Heggins said. “No one ever said anything to me at all until after it had taken place.”
Heggins said it was comments made to her after the Lawrence lecture that led her to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC, in May 2015. She believes that her termination from the city in Oct. 2015 was retaliatory and discriminatory in nature.
Due to the fact that her lawsuit is still pending, Heggins could not share what the comments were that led to her EEOC complaint being filed.
“I can say, because this has been written about and this is also a factual statement in the lawsuit … and something that the city admitted, that when I was called into human resources to discuss the flyer, I was told that … because she used ‘white supremacy’ in the title of her presentation and defined that and talked about it in her presentation, that it was as offensive to white people as a black person being called (the N-word),’” Heggins said.
Heggins said employees cannot file discrimination lawsuits until the EEOC investigates the claim.
“And there has to be enough substance there for EEOC to give you a right-to-sue letter. And that’s what EEOC gave me and that’s why I was able to move forward with the lawsuit,” Heggins said.
The City of High Point’s director of communications, Jeron Hollis, said that the city could not comment on an ongoing legal matter.
Heggins said that, until the Lawrence lecture incident, she was never given any indication that something was wrong with her performance.
“As a matter of fact,” she said, “(my reviews) always exceeded expectations.”
Heggins said that, both during her time in High Point and in her current campaign for Salisbury City Council, her goal is to help people come together through “conversations that are productive and that move everybody forward.”
“Especially when there’s a common issue or even when there’s an opportunity to share great ideas and everybody says, ‘Wow! We can really make this work,’” Heggins said. “That’s just sort of who I’ve always been, from a kid on up, ‘Let’s come together and get along and make this thing work.’”
Heggins said that, although council members can’t “get into the weeds of arresting people,” they can help set policy to promote public safety.
“And I think, also, we can be very instrumental in facilitating the community and the police department coming together in a way in which the community really supports the police department in the best way that it can. And for the police department to give us really good ideas of how to support them,” Heggins said.
She said that there is not “just one magic bullet” to solve violent crime.
She said that the council should try to align itself with the work of citizen-led, grassroots movements that are also working to solve the city’s crime problem.
“City Council certainly can’t go in and give the superintendent any directives because the superintendent doesn’t report to the City Council,” Heggins said. “But the City Council can certainly partner with the school board and say, ‘What is your vision? And how can we, as a city council, support that vision?’”
Heggins said that she knows not every student in Rowan County will go to college, which is why she wants to focus on “lifelong learning.”
“Every student has got to find their way, and I hope that we can create the kind of learning environment that really sparks the thrill and the joy of learning and saying, ‘Oh! I don’t have to take the same kind of pathway as Johnny. I can just be Jane,’” Heggins said.
On recruiting business
Heggins said that there should be incentive packages for local businesses as well as larger industries.
“Because (local businesses) are not going anywhere,” Heggins said. “They want to be here. They’re investing their time and money and energy into Salisbury.”
Heggins said that she would also want the council to partner with local colleges to help train the city’s future workforce to be ready for the industries that the city wants to recruit.
Contact reporter Jessica Coates at 704-797-4222.
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