Trying to solve big social problems is really hard. I knew that from my own lived experiences before I was sworn in as a member of the Charlotte City Council in December 2023. I was born and raised in the Southside Homes Housing projects in Charlotte, and lived there until I was 18. Two years later I was pregnant with my second child and headed to federal prison.
I have lived through generational poverty, domestic violence, and incarceration — including having my daughter while in prison. While the work of solving these problems is difficult, it is not impossible. Yet it requires those in power to follow the evidence and proven solutions, and not just react and respond with the same old answers.
That is why what some of my colleagues on the City Council and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department are proposing — criminalizing certain ordinances that are tied closely to poverty, homelessness and mental illness — is so objectionable.
In early January, the city council’s Housing, Safety and Community Committee voted 3-2 to recommend giving CMPD more authority to use police discretion to address certain behavior like sleeping in parks and public urination. I voted against the idea. Using more police discretion to solve any large, complex social issue — like poverty, homelessness or mental health concerns — has never been effective.
Tonight, on Feb. 12, the city council will address this proposal. Nothing I have heard since this proposal was first presented has changed my mind about voting no.
What makes this effort and its timing especially mind-blowing is that it is happening alongside another set of conversations we are trying to have around how CMPD engages with community members, especially those who pose no public safety risk. In the same month when this criminalization effort was proposed, Police Chief Johnny Jennings convened his first Community and Police Collaboration group meeting to engage community members around how law enforcement should interact with laypeople. It was organized after the disturbing CMPD incident on Nov. 13, 2023. We witnessed the disturbing viral video of the incident where CMPD officers engaged with two people for smoking what they said was legally purchased THCA, followed by one officer beating a young women 17 times during the arrest.
Since then, Jennings admitted he had concerns about his officers’ handling of the situation and expressed an openness to collaboration and cooperation with community members about policing. He asked for community partners to come together, share ideas, and focus on recommendations in that first meeting on Jan. 25.
During that committee meeting, a CMPD representative said officers would not look to make an arrest in every situation where an ordinance was violated, and instead would seek compliance, but that “the ability to arrest someone often provides greater likelihood of compliance.”
CMPD’s attorney also explained that people charged with violating certain ordinances could seek dismissal if they “provide evidence that they are addressing the underlying condition for the offense, such as a mental health illness.”
When someone is unhoused, unable to access a public restroom, and perhaps suffering from a urinary tract infection, the threat of being arrested “to secure compliance” is, at best, irrelevant to the situation at hand. At worst, it is a threat of force and the loss of one’s liberty that is misguided and disproportionate.
When someone is unhoused and unable to secure a safe place to sleep, being forced to show up in criminal court and provide evidence that they are “addressing the underlying condition for the offense” — whether that is poverty, illness, or some other pressing reality — is not only dehumanizing, it is also disconnected from promoting actual public safety.
The problem we are facing as a city will not be solved through police-enforced compliance. We should not criminalize the poor, the unhoused and those with mental health concerns.
Tiawana Brown is a Charlotte City Council member serving her first term. She represents District 3.