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Wilmington Police Chief On The Firing Of Police Officers For Their Racist Comments

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Three police officers in Wilmington, N.C., were fired last week for what they said. During a routine video audit, they were caught on tape saying extremely racist things. That is according to the department's investigation. We're joined now by chief of police Donny Williams, and I should note he is Wilmington's brand new chief. He fired these three officers on his first official day on the job. Chief Williams, hey there. Welcome. Thanks for joining us.

DONNY WILLIAMS: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: I want to start with this video. From what I have read, the language was racist. It was also violent. Can you just tell us a little bit more what was on this tape?

WILLIAMS: Disgusting - it was disgusting. It was painful. It was hurtful. Words, to me, just don't describe what I read and what I ended up listening to when I watched the video.

KELLY: Yeah. They used the N-word in this video to describe Black people in Wilmington. They talked about slaughtering Black people. I mean, you're from Wilmington. You've been on this force for nearly three decades. What was it like to see and hear this kind of language coming from your fellow officers?

WILLIAMS: It was very hurtful. Being from this community and then working alongside these people for so long, so just hurt, and not just me. In addition to our community being hurt, there are a lot of officers in this agency that are just hurt behind this. They're devastated because they had no clue that these people felt this way.

KELLY: What happens to these three officers now?

WILLIAMS: I don't know. I know what will happen is they will not be Wilmington police officers, and hopefully they will not be law enforcement officers again. And whatever they decide with life, I hope what's in their heart, they can get beyond it. And I wish them well.

KELLY: Well, looking ahead, you're the new chief. What are you doing to make sure something like this does not happen again?

WILLIAMS: First thing that I want to do is I want to sit down individually with every single Wilmington police officer. We have 281 sworn positions. I think about 168 of those positions are police officers, and maybe 59 or 60 are corporals. I'm going to meet with them individually starting on Monday. I want to go over some expectations, some policy changes, the importance of community engagement. And I want to hear from them how they feel and what they're going through because right now for some of our officers, it's probably a little scary to be in law enforcement right now because it's like, you're not liked, you're not respected by a lot of folks out there. And this probably wasn't the tone when a lot of our people joined the agency.

KELLY: Yeah. We have done some reporting at NPR on the particular challenges faced by Black members of police departments right now. And I just wonder, what do you say to people who say, how can you be Black and supporting Black Lives Matter and be leading a police department right now?

WILLIAMS: You support what's right. And that's the bottom line. At the end of the day, you do the right thing for the right reason. And color shouldn't matter. And I think at the end of the day, we all want the same goal. We want a safe, better community. You do the right thing for the right reason. It doesn't matter if it's a police officer or a citizen - right is right, and wrong is wrong.

KELLY: I'm just sitting here thinking what a moment in history to take over as police chief. Does it feel daunting, or does it feel like maybe this is a moment, given the whole national conversation unfolding, where you can really get some stuff done?

WILLIAMS: I think it's a big wave of reform that is coming. And the way that I described it to somebody, I don't want to be paddling against this reform, and I definitely don't want to get caught in a rip current. I want to ride the wave. I want to be part of it. And this is an opportunity that we can make policing better not just for my community, but as a nation.

KELLY: That's Donny Williams, the new police chief in Wilmington, N.C.

Thanks so much for joining us.

WILLIAMS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF STARS SONG, "THE BEGINNING AFTER THE END") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.