Full disclosure: I have known Brian James since he was a baby.
And I don’t mean that figuratively.
James grew up next door to me in Woodmere Park in northeast Greensboro and was a backyard philosopher virtually from the moment he could speak.
“You know what?” the little guy typically would say before dispensing toddler wisdom through the chain-link fence that separated our yards.
Never mind that I was more than a decade older.
He was never shy in front of an audience.
Flash forward 45 years, give or take, and here he is, the new chief of police of Greensboro.
And he’s still pretty good with a crowd.
James met the general public for the first time on Jan. 22, taking questions from the floor in the gym of Peeler Community Center, not far from where he and I spent most of our childhoods.
The new chief was peppered with all types of questions from the packed room — domestic violence, the drug crisis, trust, body cameras, “criminalization of the homeless,” the mentally ill, how police deal with people who don’t speak English, the pronouns officers use in interactions with transgender individuals — and he answered each with little hesitation.
Not all of the speakers pointed out problems.
One woman encouraged the crowd to remember that good policing involves the community’s role as an active partner. Another spoke glowingly of officers who work with residents in the nearby Claremont Courts public housing complex.
But this was not an easy room.
Typically, James would stroll toward the crowd, microphone in hand, and make direct eye contact with the questioner.
He didn’t flinch once. But he wasn’t smug or dismissive, either.
A woman from High Point who had lost a loved one to a violent crime complained about detectives who seemed to care little about either her or the unsolved case.
James rightly could have suggested that this was a question better answered by High Point police. Instead, he expressed his sympathy for the woman’s loss. And then shared he with the crowd his plans to add a victims’ advocate to the force.
He engaged. He listened respectfully. He asked clarifying questions.
If he didn’t know something he said so, and promised to find out.
He made no sweeping promises that he couldn’t deliver.
And he gently pushed back once or twice on the premises of some questions.
For instance, when pressed to voice a strategy for dealing with various segments of the community he said he preferred one strategy for everyone: to treat them all the same.
“I want to make sure that with each interaction,” he said, “we treat people with dignity and respect.”
Then someone broached an incident in 2014, when an officer fatally shot Chieu Di Thi Vo, a woman who was holding a knife, spoke little English and may have been suffering from bipolar disorder.
“I wonder what happened before that day,” James said. “I wish he (the officer) hadn’t gotten that call. How can we intervene before things develop into a person with a knife?”
And when a retired civil rights attorney, Lewis Pitts, pressed him about police officers’ use of excessive force against African Americans, James took some exception to Pitts’ use of the word “ivory tower” to describe the new chief’s perspective.
“Mr. Pitts,” James said, “let me say this. The fact that I am here says a lot.
“If you haven’t noticed, I’m a black man. When I take my uniform off, I’m still a black man.”
James said he knows what it’s like to have someone change sides of the street when he is approaching them on a sidewalk, because they fear him.
He is who he is, he said. And he brings those life experiences to the job.
At the same time, he added, “I have certain responsibilities to the entire community.”
The mostly black audience of nearly 200 applauded, a hopeful sign that they appreciate the delicate balance involved.
When asked later about the exchange, Pitts, a white man who is a frequent critic of police, said, via an email, “I didn’t intend to be as harsh as I apparently sounded.”
Pitts said he was concerned that James had seemed to be saying in some of his earlier answers that “such things don’t happen because ‘we have policies against them’ and if anyone felt mistreated by police all they needed to do was tell someone and file an internal complaint.
“If (there is) no admission of there being problems, then there will be no different approaches or solutions put in place.”
Pitts also said he was concerned that James should be aware of “the public discontent with the lack of impartiality” of the department’s Professional Standards Division.
Even so, Pitts also said he was encouraged by James’ answer.
“… He admitted with passion his real life experiences of a Black man out of uniform, in jeans and baseball cap, as being haunted by racism,” Pitts wrote. “To me that should be taken as an important, honest acknowledgment of how much discrimination still exists in our city and nation … AND thus how likely it could be that certain police officers are tainted by overt or implicit racism. But I did not hear that reality be applied to his plans for being Chief.
“No doubt he gave me a tongue lashing in a forum where many easily perceived that the new Black chief was wrongly attacked by an old white man — me.”
Pitts added: “I would be happy to work with our new Chief in hopes that he will have the power and will to acknowledge and redress the corrupt culture within the GPD that gives a bad name to the good work of so many good police officers.”
James made no pretensions of being perfect, all-knowing or equipped with a solution for every problem. In a word, he appeared genuine.
What you heard was what we’re getting, honest and unvarnished. Or at least it sure seemed that way.
A day later, a retiree from the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office called to express how pleased he was with James’ selection.
He said James was well-thought-of when he began his law enforcement career as a county detention officer.
The caller also said he had heard from a number of Greensboro officers who were happy that James had gotten the job.
Noting the racial divisions that had sometimes plagued the department in the past, I asked him the race of the officers he had heard from.
They happened to be all white, he said.
This isn’t to say that James should expect only bravos and bouquets as he undertakes arguably the most difficult job in Greensboro.
The meeting at Peeler was only the first of several planned throughout the city. And, technically speaking, James hadn’t even started the job yet. Outgoing Chief Wayne Scott didn’t officially retire until Jan. 31.
Scott’s successor was widely expected to be an outside hire. As in someone with a fresh perspective, new ideas — and no baggage.
Then again, maybe there’s such a thing as good baggage.
James is a known quantity in the city. Odds are he was so comfortable at the Jan. 22 forum because he has been to so many like it over the years, often when tensions were thick.
And so far, at least, Greensboro appears to like what it sees.