Makeba Hoffler’s then eight-year-old son Zakarryya was running around playing a game of tag outside his family’s apartment. Then, suddenly, he sat crouched under the stairs, shrinking as police pointed guns at him and his friends.
Over a year has passed since the August 2020 incident when Durham police officers aimed their weapons at three innocent young Black boys—ages 8, 11, and 15—while responding with guns drawn to a 911 call concerning a “suspicious person with a weapon” at East Durham’s Rochelle Manor Apartments. The incident sparked downtown protests and even a meeting between the boys’ parents and the police chief. But it didn’t spark any meaningful change in the police department or display of remorse from the officers, Hoffler says.
“I wanted them to give these kids an explanation or a sincere apology,” Hoffler says. “At this point, there’s nothing.”
Hoffler spoke with then Durham police chief C.J. Davis a few days after the incident, a meeting that she said went well. In a public statement published a week after the incident, the former chief expressed “sincere remorse that this incident even occurred.”
But Hoffler says she sensed disregard when she met with the involved officers a week later. She says one asked, “What do you want us to say?” She left the meeting early alongside Ashley Harris, whose 15-year-old son had been forced to the ground at gunpoint, put in handcuffs, and searched by police during the incident, and Chris Kenan, a community organizer who helped set up the conversation.
The police officers were dismissive and unapologetic again when she encountered them during a Civilian Police Review Board hearing in June, Hoffler says.
“They still had that nonchalant attitude, like we wasted their time, like what you all did didn’t affect our kids,” she said.
No substantial changes
When Kenan pulled up to Rochelle Manor just hours after the incident, he didn’t know what had taken place. He says he thought the animated crowd gathered there was thrilled to see him: He had police and mayor Steve Schewel in tow for a “Safe Zone Friday” event intended to address a problem he noticed when he grew up in Rochelle Manor.
“I’ve never seen the police come to Rochelle for anything good,” he says.
The crowd was not happy to see him and the officers. “They were waiting to confront me, to say, ‘They can’t come here. The police, we don’t want to see them,’” Kenan says.
After hearing what happened, Schewel and Kenan worked quickly to secure an investigation into the incident and organize a conversation between the boys, their mothers, and Chief Davis, Kenan says. Still, the police’s actions made him feel like he “was working backwards” as he tried to build a bridge between police and the community.
One officer repeatedly used his phone instead of engaging and a supervisor excused the officers’ behavior during the incident in a meeting between police and Kenan, Hoffler, and Harris, Kenan says.
“I felt disrespected. I felt not listened to,” he says. The chief’s initial engagement and support had given him hope that meaningful changes would come from the incident, he said, but the officers who actually police Rochelle Manor didn’t seem to care.
“Chief Davis was not gonna be there when we call for the police to come. Those higher-ups are not coming,” says Kenan, who works as a high school teacher and football coach.
Kenan would like to see police come into Rochelle Manor when something bad isn’t happening, to become members of the community and get to know the folks living there, he says. He and Hoffler both feel like police haven’t done so since the incident.
“They only come out here when somebody calls them. They don’t come in and interact with these kids,” Hoffler says.
One officer was suspended for a day following a police investigation of the incident, The News & Observer reported. The incident also eventually resulted in a June 2021 hearing from the city’s Civilian Police Review Board. The board investigates police investigations when there’s cause to believe they were mishandled and then offers recommendations to the city manager and chief of police.
Ahead of the Civilian Police Review Board’s meeting, the police officers who pointed guns at the children filed for a restraining order in an attempt to block the review. They alleged in court that the board’s chair, DeWarren K. Langley, broke policy by speaking with the press, WRAL reported. “Seeing the video footage and hearing the testimony, it was very concerning,” Langley had previously told WRAL. The review moved forward after a judge ruled against the restraining order request, and the board produced a total of 18 recommendations for the police department.
Former interim police chief Shari Montgomery responded in writing to each recommendation. She described how the department is already following or is not capable of following 17 of the recommendations.
Montgomery said the city would adopt one clear recommended policy change: a minor tweak in language. The department will no longer use the term “wife-beater” to refer to a white tank top T-shirt, as advised by the board, Montgomery wrote. Body camera footage of the incident released last November shows an officer telling Hoffler that “somebody’s out here with a gun, they have on a wife-beater,” as she rushed to get the children away from the officers’ weapons.
“I think there was careful consideration of the recommendations put forth by the board,” Langley says in response to a question about the department’s consideration of the board’s recommendations. The review board doesn’t have the power to discipline officers and isn’t tasked with recommending discipline either, he added.
The entire “Findings” section of the board’s inquiry into the police department’s investigation of the incident was redacted in a copy obtained from the city. The redactions, over a full page of single-spaced text in length, “were necessary to prevent the City from disseminating personnel privacy-protected information in violation of the statute,” city attorney Kimberly Rehberg wrote via email.
City manager Wanda Page, who oversees the Durham Police Department, did not respond when repeatedly asked via email if the department had made any policy changes following the incident. Durham Police Department public information officers did not respond to emails asking the same. Rehberg responded that she had advised city officials to refrain from public comment because people involved in the incident have threatened litigation.
“While City officials are not in a position to discuss this issue with you at this time, I wholeheartedly agree that the incident remains an important one for Durham, and especially for the children and the families impacted by it,” Rehberg said. “I can say that the remorse expressed by the Chief in her statement and the urgent objective to see Police-Community relations greatly improved are sentiments still held by City leadership.”
Lasting effects for the kids
Hoffler says that even a year later, the incident has stuck with Zakarryya.
“My son went from wanting to be a police officer to can’t stand being around them,” she says.
Police came to Rochelle Manor again while he was playing outside shortly after the incident, she says. Afterward, Zakarryya stayed inside for weeks. When he came face-to-face with the officers at the Civilian Police Review Board hearing, he broke down in tears, she adds.
“I didn’t realize how this was affecting him until we had that meeting,” Hoffler says. “They had to pull my baby out the room because he was hyperventilating, crying.”
Interactions with the police like Zakarryya’s can have broad, traumatic effects, according to Johns Hopkins University criminologist Dylan Jackson. Intrusive and aggressive officer behavior can leave children with feelings of shame and social stigma that linger for years, Jackson wrote in an email.
Hoffler placed Zakarryya in therapy after the incident—with no help from the city, she said—and she plans to get him back in therapy soon.
What happened at Rochelle Manor is consistent with “adultification,” Jackson wrote. Police affected by implicit bias and eager to catch a suspect may at times incorrectly perceive an innocent Black child as older, which can increase presumptions of guilt. The damaging interactions that sometimes follow create distrust and negative attitudes toward police. Reducing the “hyper-surveillance” of young Black kids and investing in community and civic engagement would support the health and well-being of Black youth, he wrote.
Hoffler says she hasn’t seen such engagement at Rochelle Manor.
“The only time we see these cops is when they’re coming over here for someone else. So now my son is afraid to be around cops. He stops and shuts down,” she says.
Hoffler doesn’t want more police community engagement events. She doesn’t want more meetings. At this point, even an apology “is out the window,” she says. She wants the officers to be punished more severely and the city to give more educational resources and other resources to kids like hers.
Hoffler says she thinks about what would have happened if one of those guns had accidentally gone off, about what she and the police felt as weapons pointed toward her child.
“We would have been trying to hope our baby makes it through the night while you’re kissing your kids,” she says. “It’s not fair. It’s not fair.”
Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.
Comment on this story at firstname.lastname@example.org.