Ancient history, still news

by Jordan Green

When David Wray resigned as chief of the Greensboro Police Department, YES! Weekly had been publishing for scarcely more than a year. We’ve just celebrated our seventh anniversary. In the meantime, another police chief, a city manager and two mayors have come and gone.

Initially, the News & Record was the major media player in the story. Metro columnist Lorraine Ahearn and police reporter Eric Townsend broke it, after all. Then came veteran journalist Jerry Bledsoe, grinding out a counter-narrative in the Rhino Times week after week. Blogger Ben Holder rewrote the rules for how information is disseminated online, opinions formed and power transacted. Political and professional reputations were made and destroyed, or at least battered in the ensuing fracas. The media ecosystem that sprung up around the story probably merits an academic study as a cautionary tale for local political establishments seeking to manage public opinion.

YES! Weekly, a little known contender at the time, scrapped to get into the action.

Now, most of the media players have quit the field.

The News & Record dropped the story like a rancid steak. Holder declared victory and went to the pool after City Manager Mitchell Johnson was fired in 2009. The never-ending Bledsoe story gradually expired. Essentially, people got tired of hearing about it and decided to move on. It’s a non-story now.

Except that it is a story. It’s as if after 2006, the foreign news bureaus folded up their tents and left Baghdad while the carnage continued. Which is essentially what happened in Iraq.

In this case, the reputations of people who make life and-death decisions to protect the public safety are shoved about, private lawyers are billing the city for hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend lawsuits, and the parties are contesting item by item the question of whether the city’s largest department is sheltering a culture of racial discrimination or upholding the city’s core values of honesty, integrity, stewardship and respect.

This may come as a surprise, but a handful of lawsuits related to alleged practices under the administration of David Wray are still pending, including a lawsuit against the city filed by the former chief. Actual trials to argue the cases are still on the distant horizon. A US magistrate judge has set a date in September for completion of discovery in two cases involving 39 black officers and Officer Julius Fulmore, recognizing that the complexity of the cases creates so much uncertainty that the discovery period might need to be extended even beyond that.

The city has shared a draft motion for protective order to a lawyer for the 39 officers indicating a whole slew of topics that will be subject to discovery: claims for hostile work environment related to alleged line-up books, a claim of disparate treatment because of race for advancement opportunities, whether Councilwoman Trudy Wade disclosed the names of plaintiffs in violation of a confidentiality agreement, just to name a few.

In other words, essential facts relevant to the controversy will be kept from city taxpayers who are footing the bill to defend current and former employees in the lawsuits.

Has anything been learned? Sadly, the answer falls somewhere in between ambiguous and not at all. Presumably some questions will be resolved if and when the suits make it to trial. All the lessons drawn from those trials will shed light on actions taken in the police department before Tim Bellamy was appointed interim chief in January 2006, before Rashad Young was hired as city manager in October 2009 and before Bill Knight was  elected mayor in November 2009.

In the meantime, a new crop of allegations of racial discrimination and retaliation have emerged from within the department, rooted in practices carried out under the watch of Tim Bellamy, but resulting in the terminations of five black and Latino officers by interim Chief Dwight Crotts and Chief Ken Miller. Lest there be any confusion, those making the accusation of racism rather than those accused of racism were flushed out of the department.

Young signed off on all of the firings, and received unanimous backing from a council famously divided over issues such as the White Street Landfill. Young was also well liked by citizens, suggesting that the treatment of the black and Latino officers was not a cause of significant concern within the black community or the community at large.

Three of the officers fired in 2010 and 2011 — Charles Cherry, AJ Blake and Joseph Pryor — are plaintiffs in the 39-officer suit.

Young upheld Pryor’s termination in October 2010. In December, Pryor received a “right to sue” letter finding merit in his claims of racial discrimination, harassment and hostile work environment. Blake, who was fired in August 2010, has also received a “right to sue” letter. Cherry, whose termination came down about the same time as Pryor’s, has yet to receive a letter. Requests by two other officers, who were fired last year, remain in the pipeline.

Ancient history? If only we could be so lucky.