Ferguson Laurent: One year later
By Shavonne Walker & Rebecca Rider
SALISBURY — On the morning of Nov. 3, 2016, news quickly spread of an officer-involved shooting in the 600 block of East Lafayette Street.
It all started when the Salisbury Police Department’s Special Response Team attempted to serve a “no-knock” search warrant at a house where an informant had reported buying drugs. When officers rushed in, resident Ferguson Claude Laurent Jr. shot at the them. An officer returned fire, killing Laurent. He was 22.
The shooting sparked turmoil and a lengthy SBI investigation.
A year later, police officials and community activists say the Salisbury Police Department has made changes — and still has work to do.
After the shooting, Salisbury Chief Jerry Stokes announced the police department was committed to the implementation of a number of changes, including the suspension of no-knock warrants unless approved by the chief or deputy chief.
In June, after receiving a report from the State Bureau of Investigation, District Attorney Brandy Cook cleared Officer Karl Boehm of any wrongdoing in Lauren’s death. Witnesses who were inside the Laurent home during the incident told law enforcement they had heard voices outside and, when they looked out, saw police surrounding the home.
Detectives recalled hearing the officers announce their presence before the shooting. A no-knock search warrant does not require officers to immediately announce they are there to serve a warrant. However, Boehm said in his statement that, immediately after entering the house, he announced, “Police department, search warrant.”
Boehm said he told Laurent to get on the ground, but the man went to the back of the bedroom, pointed a gun and fired. Boehm fired eight times striking Laurent in the head, torso, right upper arm, the right forearm, left wrist and forearm.
The death of Laurent, who was black, prompted calls for more training for police, more diversity within the department and a better relationship between the predominantly white force and the black community.
Since the November shooting, the police department has hired 15 officers — seven white males, five black males, two black females and one Hispanic male.
Stokes said the department’s efforts have yielded a good mix of officers, but two of the new hires that added to the department’s diversity left. One joined the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department and the other decided he didn’t want to be in law enforcement.
“We’ve made great strides working toward ensuring our force represents our community. There have been challenges — I think you’ll find any law enforcement agency having this issue — but our efforts seem to be paying off,” Stokes said.
During a 2016 press conference, Stokes said the department planned to create a Chief’s Citizens Advisory board.
Stokes said last week that the advisory board was a topic of much discussion at the Community Action Planning Sessions the city held earlier this year, where residents and city leaders discussed ways to improve public safety and community relationships.
He has has commitments from 13 people so far to be on the board, with a goal of about 25. But Stokes said he has slowed that process while he and the public safety group that came out of the communitywide meetings define what the advisory board’s role will be.
Meanwhile, another agency has come into the picture. Stokes announced last month that the Office of Justice Programs Diagnostic Center, which falls under the U.S. Department of Justice, will work with the police department and residents to come up with ways to work together to address issues such as the opioid crisis, violent crime, community engagement, and the low clearance rate of homicides and gun crimes.
A solid plan for the advisory board is still being developed, the chief said.
“I can definitively say it will not be a ‘review board’ as we see in Charlotte,” Stokes said in an email to the Post. “The board in Salisbury will serve to give advice on policy, operational goals, and information conduit to and from the public on police department matters. Because of personnel laws, the board would be unable to review the actions or complaints regarding employees or any particular personnel matter.
“But, right after the Nov. 3 shooting, I called in a number of people to provide information. This group would be one of the first to be called if we were to have another incident.”
Training & outside help
Another change was training for the entire police force about implicit bias — attitudes or stereotypes that affect people’s understanding, actions and decisions in an unconscious way.
Stokes said his department didn’t have a biased policing problem, but the training helped officers understand different perspectives and interact with citizens more effectively.
“I think you can agree we enjoy an improved relationship with our community, and some of that is because we helped our officers understand implicit bias and the impact that has on police-community relationships through the training,” Stokes said.
Since the shooting, the police department has begun foot patrols and, according to Stokes, has since seen a downturn in crime numbers. It also is making efforts in four focus areas — aggravated assault with a gun, residential burglaries, theft from motor vehicles, and shots-fired calls.
“I see our plan working, but as always, we continue to monitor and will adjust as we see anything that doesn’t look like it is as effective as we hoped,” Stokes said.
The department’s partnership with the federal Office of Justice Programs (OJP) should help, Stokes said.
“I am hopeful the OJP will provide us other things we may not have thought about to enhance or implement new to reinforce the strategic plan to reduce the fear of crime and actual crime and improve on our community relationship. We also see an increased interest in help from our federal law enforcement partners,” Stokes said.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has assigned two agents to Rowan County, and the FBI has been talking with the police department. Stokes said his department has officers attending training offered by the FBI this month.
City police have also worked closely with the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office since Sheriff Kevin Auten received funding for a Crime Reduction Team. The police department’s Neighborhood Crime Abatement Team works with deputies regularly, Stokes said.
“So our efforts are two-pronged — we have worked to get officers out and engaging the community and take responsibility for their patrol areas and worked to target those offenders we feel are responsible for our crime issued for enforcement action,” Stokes said.
Earlier this year, community members took part in a survey that was designed to determine how the police can better serve and protect the community. Stokes said the survey did not provide the type of data needed or desired.
The Office of Justice Programs may provide a survey for the police department.
Stokes said he’s learned, when releasing information about an incident, to not be specific unless he can confirm the information right then.
At a press conference soon after Laurent’s shooting, Stokes said preliminary information indicated two or three shots were fired. When autopsy results showed more gunshot wounds than that, Stokes said he “was characterized as a liar.”
“We made every attempt to address questions we felt the community would have and spoke in an attempt to be as transparent as possible, as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, some chose to twist that information by making it to be something it wasn’t.
“I’ve been a police officer for more than 33 years; I knew full well an autopsy would tell the exact number of shots. It would have been foolish to purposely lie.”
Another lesson for Stokes from the Laurent shooting stems from the officers’ decision not to use cameras when they served the warrant.
He said he believes the officers who entered Laurent’s home should have worn body cameras.
Footage from such cameras may not always show events clearly, he said, but it could have been helpful.
“It would have been possible to have a clear indication to the community what occurred if it was captured on video … and I may have been able to release the video sooner than the SBI completed their report to quell some of the concerns I couldn’t answer,” Stokes said.
Salisbury City Council recently authorized the purchase of a new body camera system.
“Along with training on use of the new system, we are reinforcing the need to properly document officer-citizen interactions through use of the cameras with officers. Our policy is clear now that SRT will wear cameras during their operations,” Stokes said.
A year later, community leaders are still grappling with Laurent’s death and the scars it left on the community.
“I still feel like he should not have died. But he did,” said the Rev. Anthony Smith, a local minister and community activist.
Laurent’s death left the Lafayette Street community “traumatized,” Smith said, and he would have liked to see more outreach and engagement with the neighborhood and with local members of Laurent’s family.
Smith did, however, acknowledge that the police department has made changes and stuck to some of its promises over the past year.
“I’m glad that there was some movement in the institution of local law enforcement in the direction of justice,” he said.
But the crux for Smith, and other activists, is still no-knock warrants. Smith said he would like to see the complete suspension or removal of no-knock warrants, which he says are disproportionately used in communities of color.
Smith said he would also like to see the department make reparations, or put in some sort of long-term redress, for Laurent’s baby daughter, Shiloh.
He would also like to see local police examine racial dynamics and how it executes warrants in the Salisbury community, and for officers and the department to continue to engage with the community.
“The watch word for me is vigilance on what does justice look like in the wake of (Ferguson Laurent’s death). And that’s a question I’m constantly asking myself,” Smith said.
Community activist the Rev. Tim Bates said that he’s been pleased with some of the steps police have taken in the past year, such as the resurgence of foot patrols, its citizen academy and a community action plan.
“Those types of things are positive, but we need to do more,” Bates said. “…We have a lot of meetings, but we need to have more results and more follow-up.”
Bates said he is still concerned, not just with an officer-involved shooting like Laurent, but with other homicides in the community. He would like to see more of a community presence and outreach from police, and suggested that officers follow up with victims’ families at least once a month to keep them up-to-date on the investigation.
“I don’t think we have a system in place that supports the families,” he said.
Bates also said that, if possible, police should set up some sort of support center to help children deal with difficult losses in the community, such as the death of 7-year-old A’yanna Allen.
A’yanna died in December after a drive-by shooter fired into the bedroom where she was sleeping with her grandmother. No one has been charged in her death.
Contact reporter Shavonne Walker at 704-797-4253 or reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264.
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