A&T students allege that racial profiling during stop by Greensboro police led to unlawful detention

by Jordan Green

Gian Spells and Carlyle Phillips are requesting a written explanation from the city of Greensboro for a traffic stop that led to an overnight jail stay. (photo by Jordan Green) Two NC A&T University seniors ended up spending the night in jail last month after a traffic stop that they contend amounted to racial profiling. They say officers gave false information to a magistrate, resulting in unlawful detention.

Gian Spells and Carlyle Phillips, who are both black, said in an interview on Monday that they were driving through downtown Greensboro from a friend’s apartment and headed towards toward Spells’ apartment near the A&T campus at about 1:15 a.m. on Nov. 14. They said at the time they left their friend’s apartment not only were they not intoxicated, as court documents state, they hadn’t even drank any alcohol.

As detailed in a written complaint filed with the Greensboro City Manager’s Office the pair said Phillips was driving north on North Edgeworth Street and turned right onto West Market Street at a red light. The two said they saw oncoming headlights — about a block away, Phillips reckoned later — but Spells judged that he had ample time to make the turn. In the next block, the vehicle reportedly caught up with them. They switched lanes to avoid turning right onto North Eugene Street. At that point, the two said, the other vehicle pulled alongside them and then dropped back behind.

“I was scared, I’m not going to lie,” Spells said. “It was my first time in that experience. I was frightened. When I saw the lights, my hands started shaking. Carlyle was coaching me on what to say.”

Spells is a former intern at the Beloved Community Center, which has been engaged in a campaign to increase police accountability since at least the beginning of the year. As an activist, Spells had helped raise awareness about police misconduct. Now, he found himself in the driver’s seat during a traffic stop for which he could find no logic or reasoning.

“I never thought that it would happen to me,” he said. “It was my first time being incarcerated. I had never been arrested. I had never even been stopped. I knew something was off. I said, ‘Oh no.’ The officer said, ‘You cut me off.’ I said, ‘No, I didn’t.’ At that point I was calm. I said, ‘I’m just going to let things take their course.’ He said, ‘You been drinking. Get out of the car.’ I said, ‘No, I’m not going to get out of the car.’

Then everything went haywire.”

In the complaint, the two allege that Sgt. TA Long reached his hand into the vehicle to unlock the driver’s side door, and Spells moved the officer’s hand from the lock, prompting Long to threaten the driver with Mace. Spells was taken from the car, handcuffed and placed in the back of a police car.

The two said by this time, six or seven cars had arrived on the scene as backup and several officers were gathered around the car.

“They came with an attitude,” Phillips said. “I haven’t even said anything. I have my seatbelt on.”

In the complaint, Phillips alleges that an unidentified female officer ordered him out of the car and he questioned why he should have to do so. Phillips said another officer threatened to Tase him. The police reportedly opened the door, pulled him out, pushed him against the car and handcuffed him. The complaint alleges that an Officer Justin Naquin frisked Phillips and placed him under arrest.

Conditions of release forms for both students signed by Magistrate LN Freeman direct that, “due to intoxication,” the young men should be held in jail overnight and released at 8:30 a.m. Spells was not charged with driving while intoxicated and he said his request for a test to gauge whether there was alcohol in his system was turned down. In fact, the only charges taken out against the two were for resisting a public officer. The two question why, if indeed Spells had cut off Sgt. Long, he was not charged with a traffic violation. And why were they detained overnight on the basis of being intoxicated when the police evidently made no attempt to gather evidence to sustain that finding?

Sgt. Long and Officer Justin Naquin could not be reached for comment for this story.

City Manager Rashad Young said that according to official policy the city will investigate the complaint. That the complaint was filed with the city manager’s office rather than with the police department’s professional standards division is out of the ordinary, but the complainants express cause for concern that it will not be properly investigated. Among a half-dozen reasons cited, the complainants allude to the department’s reluctance to investigate a complaint of racial profiling made by two former officers, Charles Cherry and Joseph Pryor, and

to an allegation that Assistant City Manager Michael Speedling stated that an internal investigation of Pryor by professional standards was marred by “discrimination and incompetence.” Speedling has said his statement was taken out of context, and that he actually said he believed that the investigation would be compromised if what Pryor said was true. Pryor, Cherry and AJ Blake, who were fired from the department in August, contend that they have been subject to racial discrimination and retaliation.

Young brushed aside concerns that the police department cannot be trusted to conduct a proper investigation.

“I don’t find a reason to deviate from the chief doing the job I hired him for,” he said. “If you play that reasoning out, any citizen can say, ‘Department so-and-so can’t evaluate an issue.’ That doesn’t work in an organization of 3,000 employees, 22 departments and 260,000 citizens. I’m not a law enforcement officer. The complaint is about nuances of a stop. I can get the manual and review it, but I’m not really qualified to investigate.”

Spells and Phillips are requesting that the city expunge the charges from their records, reimburse them for towing and legal fees, provide corrective training to the officers involved in the stop and issue a written explanation of what happened, along with an apology.

Young took a noncommittal stance on whether the city would provide a written explanation for the officers’ actions.

“We’ll need to see what this shows,” he said. “I don’t have any idea what the officers’ or what the chief’s evaluation of this is.”

Cherry assisted the students in filing the complaint, but Spells said he and Phillips authored the document.

“This is about the citizens of Greensboro, of which I am a citizen of Greensboro,” Cherry said. “My contention all along is that the same thing that occurred with regard to me and these other officers is happening in the community. It’s just proof that I’m correct. So this is not about what the police department did to Charles Cherry, Joseph Pryor and Ahmed Blake. It’s about the community, why we need a police review board, and making the police department work for all of us. I can be an asset to people because I’ve been at the police department for 23 years. I understand the rules and regulations and how they’re supposed to work.”

Phillips took part in a civil disobedience in early May, along with four other students who briefly sat down in city council members’ seats during a meeting break and then got arrested outside of council chambers. Members of the group, Spirit of the Sit-In Movement, had spoken numerous times before city council, highlighting employee relations matters as they affect officers of color and decrying the actions of the department’s gang enforcement unit. The students received support from an elder group of pastors, including the Rev. Nelson Johnson of the Beloved Community Center.

On Monday evening, Phillips expressed skepticism that his and Spells’ complaint will be properly investigated and will result in the two getting justice.

“We are not on the payroll of the Beloved Community Center,” Phillips said on Monday. “We’re just students at A&T who were done wrong, and want our situation to be remediated. As a citizen in Greensboro, I’ve gone to some of the town-hall meetings. Chief [Ken] Miller seems well intended. The faces change; the game doesn’t. So this is his opportunity to prove us wrong. If they don’t investigate it, it will confirm what we’ve been saying.”

Read the complaint: Complaint alleging racial discrimination and unlawful arrest and detention filed by A&T students Gian Spells and Carlyle Phillips