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ABSOLUTE POWER

by Jeff Sykes

jeff@yesweekly.com | @jeffreysykes

Incident highlights need for external police review, group claims

The video starts like a clip from the television version of Cops, with the white officer subduing the African American man, forced face down in the grass as the officer presses his hands, supported by his full body weight, into the prone man’s back.

With a press of his knuckles into the back of the man’s neck, the officer switches his stance, positioning himself behind the man and reaching for his handcuffs. He keeps a firm grasp on the detained man’s hands, positioned compliantly at the small of his back.

“What did I do?” the man asks, beginning what has become an all too common dance between police power and public liberty.

This incident went down on Aug. 4, at the intersection of Atlanta and Memphis streets, just north of the Spring Valley neighborhood in Greensboro. The police officer, identified as T.B. Cole, a 33-year old with six years on at the Greensboro Police Department, can be heard lecturing the man, one Rufus W. Scales, a 27-year old man who lives at 502 Memphis Street, about being intoxicated in public.

Rufus and his brother, Devin Scales, the man working the video camera, implore the officer that they are mere steps from their front door.

“I don’t know where you live,” Cole replies. “All I know is you’re out in the middle of the road.”

Cole secures the handcuffs, and keeps a firm hand on the detained brother’s back, while radioing in the collar. A good stat for sure. Or is it?

Greensboro police deny that they use stop and frisk methods on patrol. A spokesperson for the department stated that officers rely on reasonable suspicion, an element of police protocol just short of probable cause, in order to justify detaining a person. Unlike big cities up north, like Newark and New York City, where stop and frisk has been employed, officers, by policy, don’t just stop people at random.

This incident took place a few days before a young African American man was shot by police in Ferguson, Missouri, setting off a week of tumultuous protests there as battle ready riot police took to the streets in military gear complete with snipers mounted atop armored vehicles.

The initiating similarities between the Ferguson case and what went down at the corner of Memphis and Atlanta streets on a clear Monday evening in Greensboro are striking. That the situation didn’t escalate beyond a simple arrest caught on video is due to the compliance of the Scales brothers and the composure of Officer Cole.

But in the context of a national debate about the dangers of walking in public while being a black man, the incident touched a raw nerve emitting a sharp pain ever since the Trayvon Martin incident in Florida.

White college students party in the street in some Greensboro neighborhoods. The city sponsors events where people walk around public streets carrying cups of beer. But in Rufus Scales’ own neighborhood, within sight of the door to his home, he gets detained on mere suspicion.

Cole ended up charging Scales with three misdemeanors:

intoxicated and disruptive, resist, obstruct and delay, and impeding traffic (sit/stand/lay), according to an arrest report provided by the GPD.

It was these seemingly frivolous charges, coupled with the timing of the video’s release last week, that moved community activists and faith leaders to hold a press conference on Thursday that criticized Officer Cole’s actions and renewed calls for an independent citizen’s police review board.

Rev. Nelson Johnson, himself no stranger to heavy handed police tactics, sought to counter the police narrative that the Scales brothers were drunk in public. Johnson said he had been ministering to the two brothers for about a year, since an incident in which Rufus Scales was tazed and Devin Scales was dragged by police in a public parking lot. The brothers are almost completed with the New Members class at Johnson’s church.

“They are not just two black men wandering down the street, with nobody on the street but them, and no cars, cursing and drinking,” Johnson said. “That’s the image. It’s a cultural image.”

Johnson sent a letter to outgoing GPD Chief Ken Miller on Aug. 11, asking the department to examine Cole’s actions in the arrest, which Johnson called “an unprovoked, unnecessary and seemingly irrational abuse of power.” The letter introduced a seven-page document detailing the Scales brothers’ version of the incident.

The brothers left their home on Memphis Street about 6:30 pm headed to a nearby tobacco store. They saw a police car sitting at the intersection of Memphis and Atlanta streets, about 50 yards away. The brothers walked toward the police car, on the left side of the road, in the absence of a sidewalk. The brothers claim that the police car turned and headed toward them and as it passed the officer instructed them to get out of the street.

The patrol car passed by, but came to a sudden stop, and the officer exited the car. He demanded their identification, which the brother’s offered. Because of a previous incident in 2013 where Rufus was tazed, and Devin dragged by police, the documents states that “both young men were fearful of being assaulted and wrongfully charged with a crime.

“Their fear was accented, as there was no apparent reason for the officer’s initial hostile language or any need to stop and aggressively approach them for simply walking down a street in their own neighborhood.”

Devin Scales said Thursday that he had purchased a small video camera because he was tired of repeatedly being stopped by police for no apparent reason and he wanted to begin documenting the experience.

He had the camera on Aug. 4 and began filming Cole as he approached them. In the document to Chief Miller, the brother’s claim that Cole demanded they stop filming him and eventually “grabbed Devin’s hand holding the camera and forcefully snaps the camera screen shut but does not take the camera.”

Cole instructed the brothers to follow him to his car, at which time Rufus Scales said “What’s this bullshit about?” The brothers allege that Cole turned and grabbed Rufus Scales, forced him to the ground and began the series of events seen on the video made public last week.

As of press time Tuesday, GPD acknowledged an open investigation into the complaint but would not provide further details. Officer Cole remains on regular duty while the incident is reviewed by GPD’s Professional Standard’s Division.

Rev. Johnson, joined by retired civil rights attorney Lewis Pitts, and a group of African American ministers and community leaders, used the incident to renew their call for an independent citizens police review committee.

Pastor Greg Headen of Genesis Baptist Church relayed a story about an incident in his community recently. He said a man and woman had a domestic incident and Headen gave the man money to go call a friend for a ride to leave the area. The man came rushing back moments later, saying police threatened him with arrest for standing at the corner.

Police followed the man to Headen’s home. Headen said the man pleaded with officers from his porch to “leave me alone, stop harassing me.”

“When things like that happen, it makes you wonder what would happen if somebody is not in the community like a pastor, someone he can run to and get support,” Headen said.

Others were more direct in their assessment of tensions between African Americans in Greensboro and their police department.

Alphonso McGlenn, pastor of Bethel AME Church and the president of the Greensboro NAACP, said the Ferguson incident was due to a “disconnect between the predominantly black community and the police force.” He said there was a similar disconnect in some parts of Greensboro.

McGlenn, as did all those at the press conference, lauded the many good police officers in their communities. But he pointed to the need for a citizens police review board to deal with the known instances of abuse of power.

“As we very well know, and as we have seen in Ferguson over these days, there are some officers who are misguided in their efforts,” McGlenn said. “There are some officers who perhaps are motivated by other passions and have conducted themselves unprofessionally and even infringed upon the constitutional rights of citizens.”

He said a citizens police review board with subpoena power would ensure that police are given the proper checks and balances practiced in other forms of government.

City officials are in the process of again reviewing the established complaint process. A city council subcommittee has been meeting this year, but no policy changes have yet to occur. Police Chief Miller has strongly opposed any call for an external police review board, especially one with subpoena power. Council members have questioned what legal authority an external body would have over city personnel matters.

McGlenn said such a review board would, in his view, free law enforcement from worry and allow them to do a better job of community policing.

“We don’t want a Ferguson here, but we do know that Missouri is not the only community sitting on a powder keg when it comes to the disconnect between policing, governance and citizenry,” he said. !

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