Josh Bergeron: Salisbury receives prescription for more communication

Published 12:10 am Sunday, July 25, 2021

From a Salisbury- or Rowan County-centric position, it might seem that the community is unique facing tough, divisive issues, but an analysis of racial issues in the Salisbury Police Department presented last week shows the opposite.

Hired by the city of Salisbury, Charlotte-based WPC Consulting on Tuesday told City Council members that racial divisions exist in the Salisbury Police Department for reasons that include a lack of discussion about them among personnel. The consultants, Willie Ratchford and Anthony Wade, recommended a number of approaches to deal with issues, but communication stood as a central theme for their prescriptions.

“No matter whether it’s a large city or it’s a small city, you have the same issues as everyone does, especially when it comes to the issue of race,” Ratchford said. “And the thing that we have left many of those communities with advice to address their problems with is three things. It’s communication, communication, communication.”

There needs to be more communication within the city of Salisbury and within the police department about what’s going on inside, he said, adding that the city needs to face issues head-on.

Some findings in the report:

• Black and white employees of the Salisbury Police Department feel community perceptions of the agency have affected internal relationships.

• Black and white employees in the department have different perceptions of a racial division, with consultants saying there’s a racial perception divide. Most who believe there is a racial divide are Black. Those who believe the opposite are white

• Black and white employees who have different perceptions about race don’t talk with one another about why they have different opinions.

• Racial tensions exist, in part, because of a failure to communicate.

The report also credited “the media” with causing division.

It’s important to note that media is not a monolith and someone’s opinion about an outlet can be influenced by an opinion about a news event and the mere fact that it was reported. People also blur lines between social media and traditional news outlets, branding all of them as “the media.”

To be clear, news outlets make mistakes and can benefit from the same discussions consultants recommended for the police department, but there are a lot of mediums pulling peoples attention. Depending on the medium, accuracy and opinions vary wildly.

I think it’s worth focusing on one discussion point in particular because it exemplifies what might happen in the absence of communication. Some police officers reported to consultants and interviewers that elected officials politicized internal issues in the police department.

“How do elected officials utilize issues within the department if it’s internal to the department because we aren’t privy to what’s happening internally?” Mayor Pro Tem Al Heggins asked.

The answer, Ratchford said, is that police officers saw elected officials join protesters during demonstrations they responded to. Officers said the elected officials were protesting against police when they “were called to perform their duty, to protect this community and make sure this community was safe,” he said.

“I don’t think we’ve had any elected officials protesting against the police,” Heggins said.

Ratchford responded that someone’s intent can differ from its impact.

“It may have been the intent of an elected official to be out during protests to see what’s going on in the community … If you’re standing with the protesters, the impact that it might have on police officers is that he or she is with them,” he said.

This part of the presentation ended with Heggins noting the word “internal” isn’t the right descriptor, but the discussion here is perfectly timed for the moment the community (and the country) finds itself in.

On any range of issues, two groups or individuals could have invaluable discussion about intent versus impact. Wade called it “reality versus perception.”

So many of the issues that seem to fundamentally divide the public are matters on which a discussion, or maybe even a tense debate, about intent versus impact or reality versus perception could help if both parties are willing to listen.

It might be hard to draw a good crowd of people with diverse viewpoints. They might need to start with lighter issues first. But a series of conversations about issues, actions or phrases where the impact is different than intent could be invaluable for Salisbury and Rowan County. On race-related issues, conversations are much easier when politics are left at the door, Ratchford said. One roadblock is that so many of the hot-button issues on race have been irreparably politicized.

A 21st-century discussion about the way things are communicated can’t occur without including social media, which could be another roadblock. Ratchford preferred talking to people in person and expressed a distaste for social media as a primary tool.

“There was a time in our country where we disagreed because we had different opinions. We now have different facts, which is like really crazy. Social media just exacerbates that,” Wade said.

Wade said he’s a proponent of skillful use of social media by public information staff. In addition to being face-to-face, social media can help Salisbury tell its story while others are telling theirs, Wade said.

“That’s how you get the best of both worlds,” he said.

Josh Bergeron is editor of the Salisbury Post.