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Black football players say Durham sheriff’s office gave distorted and insensitive account of traffic stops

On a Monday morning last October, Duke football players shuffled into the team meeting room. Mondays are usually their day off, but they had guest speakers arriving bright and early.

Representatives from the Durham County Sheriff’s Office delivered a message that would leave many of the players offended and unsettled: Cops are more vulnerable than Black men. So, behave.

The sheriff’s representatives showed the players a PowerPoint presentation that contained misleading statistics and an incomplete account of legal rights at traffic stops, according to legal experts. A copy of the presentation was obtained by The 9th Street Journal.

The incident provides a glimpse into how the office, led by Sheriff Clarence F. Birkhead, conducts community outreach. In this case, Birkhead and other officials angered a group of mostly Black college athletes.

The 9th Street Journal interviewed five Black players who provided details about the meeting and said they and other teammates were bothered by the presentation because it distorted the facts of police shootings in which Black men were unjustifiably killed.

Police misconduct has been a serious problem throughout the nation, leaving civilians dead and injured. Of the 13 fatal shootings by police in Durham and Raleigh from 2013-2020, nine victims were Black men, according to an analysis by Indy Week and data compiled by The Washington Post. 

Players told The 9th Street Journal the sheriff and his representatives seemed out of touch. 

They were particularly bothered by one slide about police encounters nationwide. “In 2019, police fatally shot 9 unarmed blacks and 19 unarmed white males,” the slide read. “By contrast, a police officer is 18 ½ times more likely to be killed by a black male than an unarmed black male is to be killed by a police officer.”

“What it felt like (the presentation) was saying is that it’s more dangerous for white men in America than Black men in America,” said sophomore James Hopson II. He added that to him, the sheriff’s office implied “it’s more dangerous for the killers than the people who are getting killed.”

“They’re telling us to stay calm,” junior Jacob Monk said. “They’re talking about how cops are very nervous when they do these things. But you’re the one with the gun.”

Said sophomore Isaiah Fisher-Smith, “It sounds like an excuse to be more trigger-heavy.”

Birkhead had no apology for the presentation in a statement to The 9th Street Journal.

“The relationship between the black community and law enforcement has always been strained,” wrote Birkhead, who is Black. “The presentation was not intended to assign blame to either law enforcement or citizens. Rather, the presentation was intended to spark a dialogue between police and citizens…The presentation is something we have shared before and this is the first time we have received feedback like this. We felt then, and still feel now, the subject matter is the reason several players in the audience might have concerns.”

* * * 

The football team invites three to four guest speakers each semester, such as deans or career advisors. According to Birkhead, Will Cole, the team’s director of player development, invited representatives from the sheriff’s office to speak. 

Cole told The 9th Street Journal that the team envisioned a presentation about traffic stops and invited Birkhead because he is Black and has had a “long-term relationship” with Duke. (Birkhead is a former Duke police chief.) “We just wanted to bring him in to inform the guys for educational purposes of the kind of police encounters that come up with students,” Cole said in an interview.

Black players were bothered by the PowerPoint presentation. “I’m no mathematician,” said player DeWayne Carter, “but 2% of 375 million is a lot of people.”  (Slide from Sheriff’s PowerPoint.)

The week before the Oct. 18 presentation, one of the coaches announced the sheriff was coming to promote “building relationships” and “community engagement,” according to sophomore Khilan Walker. 

The players were already annoyed about having to wake up early on their day off. They were even less enthusiastic when they heard they would be lectured by a cop.

Some hoped the conversation would be productive. Others were skeptical. Hopson and others said that Kevin Lehman, chief of staff for the football team, told the team that since Sheriff Birkhead is Black, the players might be able to “relate” to him. 

* * * 

At the start of the meeting, Cutcliffe introduced the speakers. (Cutcliffe declined to comment for this story.) Birkhead delivered some brief remarks and Lt. Eric Carpenter, who is white, replaced him at the podium and began the 30-minute presentation with a set of statistics.

The statistics immediately bothered the players. There they were, a group of mostly Black men, dragged out of bed on a Monday morning only to hear a cop suggest that they were threatening. They traded glances that communicated their shock. Why are we here? they wondered.

The players said the presentation made traffic stops of Black men seem dangerous – for the deputies. 

“We’re nervous,” a speaker from the sheriff’s office said, according to several players. 

Monk said, “They’re telling us to stay calm. On the next slide, they’re talking about how cops are very nervous when they do these things. If we’re unarmed, why do we have to stay calm when you’re the one with the gun?”

“They painted themselves as victims,” DeWayne Carter, a junior and one of the team captains, said. “They didn’t even give us a chance to give them a chance.”

Carpenter’s presentation used statistics that presented a biased account of racial patterns in traffic stops, the players said. As he continued, many members of the team lost interest.

“When it got to that point, everyone had zoned out,” Monk said. “No one was locked into the meeting anymore, because we honestly felt disrespected.”

“I felt like it was a shot at us,” said Hopson. “It feels like less value (was being) put on our lives. That’s what it felt like.”

Eventually, Carpenter gave the players a chance to ask questions. For the most part, they were silent.

“I felt like it would be pointless to interact, because this is how (law enforcement officers) truly feel,” said Carter.

* * * 

The PowerPoint used by the sheriff’s office presented a one-sided view of traffic stops. 

Players said they found the presentation disturbing from the first slide. It said that during a “12-month period” with “over 375 million contacts” between police and the public, “only 2% experienced threats or use of force from police. Handcuffing was (the) most prevalent type of force.”

Carter said he found that number alarming, even if the sheriff’s office did not intend it so. 

“I’m no mathematician, but 2% of 375 million is a lot of people,” he said. As he looked around the room at his teammates, their surprised faces indicated they agreed.

The next slide attempted to explain and minimize police shootings, saying that “in 2019, police fatally shot 1,004 people, most whom were armed or otherwise dangerous.” It said that those fatally shot included “9 unarmed blacks and 19 unarmed white males.” 

The slide also said, “By contrast, a police officer is 18½ times more likely to be killed by a black male than an unarmed black male is to be killed by a police officer.” 

The PowerPoint is attributed to federal data. But it echoes a Wall Street Journal opinion column by writer Heather Mac Donald. (Sheriff’s PowerPoint)

The slide attributed the data to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, a federal agency. But identical wording appears in a 2020 Wall Street Journal opinion column titled “The Myth of Systemic Police Racism” by Heather Mac Donald, whose analysis cites Washington Post data and other sources. Mac Donald is a conservative political commentator and author of “The War on Cops.” Jeff Sessions, who served as attorney general in the Trump administration, once called her “the greatest thinker on criminal justice in America today.”

Birkhead did not directly address The 9th Street Journal’s questions about the wording being identical to Mac Donald’s or the source of the data on the slides. He again referred to the statistics as coming from the U.S. Justice Department.

Sonja B. Starr, a law professor at the University of Chicago, tweeted a thread of 25 criticisms of Mac Donald’s article and its sources. Among the critiques, Starr noted that Mac Donald excluded a growing body of empirical studies that point to racial discrimination in policing and the criminal justice system. She also said Mac Donald’s article also relied upon a study that used faulty logic in explaining white officers’ fatal shootings of racial minorities

Frank R. Baumgartner, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told The 9th Street Journal that the statistics in the PowerPoint “seem designed to suggest that it’s reasonable for a police officer to treat you differently based on your race and gender.” 

Baumgartner analyzed 20 million traffic stops in North Carolina for “Suspect Citizens,” a book he co-authored, and found that Black people are about twice as likely as white people to be stopped by officers while driving on highways, and approximately twice as likely to be searched.

The presentation’s characterization of police as vulnerable confirmed his suspicions about the inner workings of law enforcement: “They put it right there on the PowerPoint, that they’re scared of Black men.” 

He found the presentation “a complete overstatement of the risk to the officer at a traffic stop.”

* * * 

The football players said the deputies emphasized their own rights when searching vehicles but said little about the rights of the people they stop. Law professors who were told about the players’ accounts and provided a copy of the PowerPoint said the players received a skewed perspective on racial dynamics at traffic stops, their own rights, and how they should interact with officers.

For example, the Durham City Council in October 2014 implemented a mandate that requires city police officers to provide a consent form before searching a vehicle, which explains the extent to which an officer may search. Baumgartner said consented searches in the city decreased afterwards, falling by 95% by the end of 2020. 

The PowerPoint did not mention this form, which presumably could be relevant for a Duke student who is stopped near campus.

Another piece of advice from the PowerPoint reads, “Be honest with the officer. If you really didn’t see the stop sign, or were unaware of the speed limit, let the officer know. Being honest about any situation never hurts.”

But a defense attorney might disagree with that advice. Duke School of Law Professor Lisa Kern Griffin said if a law enforcement officer stops someone, they should pull over, keep their hands on the wheel and provide requested documentation such as a driver’s license. However, they should not answer probing questions or try to offer excessive explanations about their situation without talking to a lawyer. “Try to stay calm, to be polite.” However, because the outcome of police stops is unpredictable, it is “better to stay silent.”

Professor James E. Coleman Jr., a Duke School of Law professor, agreed. He said he was troubled with the tone of the presentation.

“I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with the football team, or Duke, inviting police officers to come talk to students about issues like this,” Coleman said. 

“What concerns me about the presentation is that it seems to have been set up to suggest that the police have reasons to stop Black people more often than white people; that they have reason to fear Black people more than they fear white people, and that, therefore, Black people being killed is not a reflection of racism, but a reflection of how dangerous they are, and how legitimate it is for police officers to be quick to use their deadly force…

“What they ought to be doing is addressing those issues and trying to train their forces so they stop doing these discriminatory traffic stops—and they stop killing Black people.”

* * * 

The day after the presentation, Cutcliffe summoned the players into the football meeting room once again. 

The players gathered inside, some wondering if he would apologize or address the sheriff’s presentation that left them so angry.

The head coach was angry, too – at the players.

He said the players were disrespectful. They seemed tired. They were eating. Phones were going off. He caught some eye rolls. Their masks were too low.

The players were disappointed in the coach’s reaction, they told The 9th Street Journal. But no one spoke up. The team was struggling, having lost four of its seven games.The players wanted to focus on football.

“I felt like saying something to the coach, but I didn’t feel like my voice would be heard,” Hopson said.   

* * * 

On the day of the meeting, Duke Football tweeted a picture of the unmasked Lt. Carpenter at the presentation with the caption: “Thankful for the @DurhamSheriff Department every day, but especially today. They took time this morning to stop by our team meeting to educate us and give helpful tips on how to interact with law enforcement.”

This tweet from Duke Football was deleted after players complained.

Carter and a few other players emailed the social media team to say the tweet was distasteful and to ask them to take it down. The team deleted the tweet, but several students, professors and community members were already outraged by it. The tweet had gone viral, accompanied by an onslaught of angry comments.

Duke Football has a long history of engaging with organizations to speak with student-athletes on various life-skills topics,” Art Chase, Senior Associate Director of Athletics/External Affairs for Duke Athletics, said in a statement to The 9th Street Journal.

This specific presentation was designed to provide a deeper understanding of North Carolina laws (and their own personal rights).”

“We greatly value the perspectives of our student-athletes, and, as our programming continues to evolve, will seize the opportunity to further evaluate our speakers, topics and formats,” he added. “We were in unison with the student-athletes that specific images of the presentation were insensitive as the posted content did not properly provide the full context of the event, and thus, (the tweet) was removed.”

Cole, the team’s director of player development, said, “I can see and understand the frustration…I know it’s an uncomfortable conversation. But I thought the meat of the presentation was great stuff. I thought you could have easily walked away from there gaining information.”

* * *

The players had mixed feelings about online reaction to the presentation, which was overwhelmingly negative. Some wanted to join the criticism on social media, while others did not want to jeopardize their standing on the team or inflame further controversy during a difficult season. 

Carter said he understands that often, when police interact with civilians they are “obviously” scared. 

“But at the same time, you’re the ones with the power,” he said. “Whenever I get stopped by police, I literally will sit there and not move, hands the wheel, do whatever I’m instructed, all the windows down, because there’s just that innate fear, already.”

Photo at top: The Durham County Sheriff’s Office posted this photo of the meeting with Duke football players on its Facebook page. Players said the sheriff’s representatives presented a distorted view of traffic stops.