Town of Elon Police Chief Cliff Parker took a deep breath, slouched back into his leather-padded desk chair and stared off into the distance.
The 56-year-old police chief has worn some type of badge for more than 30 years and, among other pursuits, has occasionally assisted the Secret Service and met two U.S. Presidents during his career. But the Elon University alumnus, even with his vast experience, struggled to provide an answer for this summer’s carnage in Dallas; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and St. Paul, Minnesota, using his flailing hand motions as a physical manifestation of his swirling inward thoughts. As he attempted to formulate an articulate response, he openly wondered how the nation arrived at its current divisive juncture and wanted to provide an explanation that encompassed all perspectives.
Ultimately, he couldn’t find one.
"There’s no easy way to answer a question like that,” Parker said sternly. “Words can’t describe what it’s like when someone loses a life.”
For 25 years, Parker worked with the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, an organization identical to the ones that will examine the cases of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. In his three decades of public service, Parker said he’s shared rooms with and consoled individuals whose loved ones were killed by police, which he said was the most heartrending aspect of his job.
Because the former SBI officer has been a member of the Elon community since his freshman year in 1978, he believes his familiarity with the university and the town itself will help him and his staff provide comfort and security as a new school year begins, despite the legacy of a horrid summer.
“Being that I went to school at Elon and walked the campus, I remember my time at Elon and the fun I had. I realized the importance of the connection of the community and the police department,” Parker said. “So when I became the police chief in 2012, the goal was to have enough transparency and interaction as possible. That’s the key — we have to build trust and bridges and rely on each other.”
Parker said the shooting in Dallas that killed five police officers was “gut-wrenching,” because during his time as a patrol officer, those moments with his family before he departed for the night were the most tender. He even sent four Elon policemen to the funeral as a sign of respect.
With a portrait of his three daughters and a few of his grandchildren hanging directly across from his desk, he said it was relatable to him because every night, he “loved [his] family, kissed them and did [his] job and hoped [he] saw them again," something those five officers probably did the night they were slaughtered.
A NEED FOR CHANGE
While the Dallas shooting resonated with Parker on a personal level, Black Student Union President junior Alexis Williams has a personal bond with the other culminating events that led to the tragedy.
The Atlanta native originally wanted to attend Washington University in St. Louis, an institution only seven miles away from Ferguson, Missouri. Williams said she was somewhat disappointed she wasn’t there during the Michael Brown shooting in 2014 because she is a person who “[wants] something to fight for and [wants] to be there to actively do something.” Williams compared the situation to being cut mutliple times, saying "What did we do [to deserve this]?"
When she saw Sterling’s son emotionally explode on national television and then saw the Facebook livestream involving Castile’s daughter, Williams was “disturbed” because their young lives were drastically altered.
Alton Sterling's son breaks down during a press conference after his father's death.
“I don’t want to see a brother of mine getting shot,” Williams said. “I don’t want to see a baby in the back crying because they don’t have a father. Those are visual reminders of the consequences that can happen.“
While Williams said the Dallas shooting was “senseless,” and that innocent people are entitled to life, she sympathized with the shooter to an extent. With systematic racism as a blunt reality for most African-Americans, and with national police brutality cases happening far too often, Williams said change must occur if retribution is the option some people think to take first.
“It’s sad that the shooter felt so helpless that he didn’t know what else to do but retaliate,” Williams said. “I don’t know what it feels like to be a black man, and to feel like you’re constantly being attacked on a daily basis — small or large — takes a toll on the human soul. In all, it was just too much.”
MOVING FORWARD TOGETHER
After the initial shock of the national epidemic subsided, Williams' focus rapidly shifted toward her college community. She said she felt pity for the Minnesota officer who shot Castile because she felt he was genuinely overwhelmed with the situation and ill-prepared to handle conflict. It’s impossible, she said, for her to not worry about a similar tragedy happening here.
The statistics are also not ideal.
Stanford University analyzed 4.5 million traffic stops in North Carolina and found that police searched 5.4 percent of black drivers that were pulled over, compared to only 3.1 percent of whites. Another analysis by ProPublica reported that black males aged 15-19 were 21 times more likely to be killed by a policeman than a white male in that age group.
Elon is widely categorized as a predominantly white university, and with minority admissions steadily increasing since 2010, Williams doesn't want the evolving racial population to lead to problems between African-Americans and law enforcement. Williams said she "just wants every black student to feel they can go to class," without fear of racial profiling because they may be different.
“I think that it’s really important that we don’t try to feel like Elon police are against us," Williams said. “I want black students to know that those officers are there to protect all of us and for us to have a better relationship. I want us to know their faces, know their names, and if we ever feel like we’re treated a certain way, that we’re comfortable enough to go to them and that they’ll have our backs. “
Parker said he understands Williams’ hesitations, noting that biases and deadly police encounters paint a “broad brush” over good policemen as if all of them are corrupt. But he adamantly stated that everyone at the Elon police department is approachable.
To promote transparency, Parker and his staff implemented a ride-along program, where people can cruise with a police officer around a neighborhood to see what they do. Elon PD is also heavily involved with the Elon Elementary School, and any of Parker's officers are willing to grab coffee with a college student if they want. Parker said that racial profiling is a violation of his policy and encourages Elon community members to report any unfair incident someone may have with law enforcement.
“If I am not at work and blue lights came behind me, my anxiety level would skyrocket. That’s just human nature,” Parker said. “But I do not want people to think they’re at a disadvantage to be treated with kindness and respect because of the color of their skin.
"I want our community to know that they can come and approach us if there is a problem. It doesn’t matter what your creed is or what the color of your skin is — it’s as simple as that. “
While the national conversation on this topic continues, BSU's executive staff are working on events to bring African-Americans and police officers on to one accord. Williams said she hasn't felt hostility between black students and Elon PD, but wants more interaction between the two groups to ensure camaraderie. Even though much progress is needed, Williams said simply talking and absorbing another perspective —especially one that is drastically outnumbered—is a huge step in the right direction.
“If you’re a non-minority — if you never dealt with these types of issues — be open and receptive to people who have been in these situations," Williams said. “If there is a conversation to be had, if one wants to engage in a conversation to events that have happened, I hope people would listen to the black perspective, because unless you are black, you don’t know what it feels like to be black. “