Why a Charlotte barber champions race relations with cops

Charlotte barber Shaun Corbett helped launch the "Cops and Barbers" program, which organizes town hall forums so community members can talk to police.

(AP Photo/Skip Foreman)
Shaun Corbett stands in the barber shop he owns in Charlotte, N.C., Wednesday, July 15, 2015. As the city braces for the trial of a white former police officer charged in the shooting death of an unarmed black man in 2013, Corbett thinks his efforts to bring unity between the community and the police department will forestall the possibility of violence.

As North Carolina's largest city braces for the trial of a former police officer accused in the killing of an unarmed black man, an unlikely coalition of barbers, clergy and law enforcement is working to improve relations between the black community and police in Charlotte — and to head off possible violence once the trial ends.

Jury selection is scheduled to begin Monday in the trial of ex-Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer Randall Kerrick, who is charged with voluntary manslaughter in the September 2013 shooting death of Jonathan Ferrell.

The 24-year-old Ferrell, who is black, was involved in a car accident and had gone to a house, apparently to search for help. A person at the house called police, and three officers responded. Investigators say Kerrick fired 12 shots, 10 of which hit Ferrell. Kerrick was the only officer who fired his gun.

For Shaun Corbett, who owns a barber shop on Charlotte's north side, the case drew immediate parallels to another shooting: the 2014 killing of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, by a white police officer. The case touched off a national debate over the way police conduct themselves when confronting minorities.

It also touched off destructive riots that erupted after a grand jury decided not to indict the Ferguson police officer in the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown.

Fearing the same violence could erupt in Charlotte, Corbett said he told himself that something had to be done, especially as barbers have a "responsibility" to look after the community.

"Back in the day, a barber was a prestigious position in the community. That's where you came to get the information. That's where you came to get counsel. That was the cornerstone of the community, and I think we got away from that," Corbett said.

He brought the issue to the N.C. Local Barbers Association, where he is a member of the board, and the "Cops and Barbers" program was born.

The group organizes town hall forums so community members can talk to police. The program also urges officers to get to know the places they patrol by getting out of their cruisers and meeting the residents. The youth are advised on how to handle encounters with police.

The first event was held on Super Bowl Sunday, and Corbett said more than 200 people showed up.

"Whatever the outcome is with the trial, I think the foundation and the groundwork we've laid is going to make that difference," he said. "I think that it's actually that we have the opportunity to have an honest dialogue. That's what the 'Cops and Barbers' movement is about."

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Det. Garry McFadden, who is active in the group, shares the optimism that there will be calm during and after the trial.

"We can't say what's going to be the verdict and what's going to be the jury, but I think that when it comes to the community, we have a good relationship with the community people here, and that makes for a much better advantage for us," McFadden said.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, Charlotte - like most Southern cities - was deeply segregated. But Charlotte doesn't have a history of racial violence like other southern cities. Civil rights and white business leaders quietly joined forces to desegregate the city's upscale restaurants and hotels. In a simple but powerful gesture, they ate lunch together in the restaurants, peacefully opening the door to integration. That contrasted sharply with the massive resistance elsewhere.

Bishop Philip Davis of Nations Ford Community Church said jury selection will be the key to the trial and how the community reacts. Like Corbett, he, too, has established a program to foster dialogue between police officers and residents.

Davis' church, on the city's south side, has hosted "5-on-5 Fridays," where young men between the ages of 15 to 25 to come to play basketball, eat hamburgers and talk to local police officers.

The program is under way this summer, and Davis said his church's role is to be as calming an influence as possible and to open the dialogue between the police department and the community. The program also hosts job recruiters, college and military recruiters and even offers free haircuts.

Davis credited the now-retired Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Rodney Monroe with maintaining the calm by announcing charges were filed within 24 hours of the shooting.

Davis also said the focus of the Kerrick trial shouldn't be on the prospect of violence, but instead on Ferrell's death.

"We've just basically been wanting people to understand the value of life lost," he said, "more so than the potential of some property loss."

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