Are the bad times in the GPD really behind us?

by Jordan Green

Mike Speedling, the assistant city manager for public safety and human relations, and Alice Burkholder, Greensboro’s staff liaison for executive searches, kept sentry at the doorway of the meeting room at the coliseum. Inside, three young men wearing blue jeans and three-day beards, at least one of whom was an undercover police officer, sat in the back row.

A middle-aged lady who turned out to be a community watch leader sat near the front. Ted Plattenburg, an executive headhunter, from the Cincinnati consulting firm DHR International, paced the floor at the front of the room.

Not the most auspicious beginning for the first of a series of public input meetings on the selection of the city’s next police chief, perhaps.

Plattenburg introduced himself at the start of the noontime meeting on Monday, and asked for volunteers to speak about what they would like to see in the next chief. Demurrals from the one reporter in the room at the time and the three low-profile security guys quickly narrowed the discussion to the community watch leader, who declined to give her name after the meeting.

Her primary reason for coming, she said, was to ensure that the community watch program continues. She added that she would like the next chief to be someone of “utmost integrity.”

“Also, I want to keep the gang unit intact,” she said.

“Bullets were flying into homes, and I don’t accept that. It was a gang member’s home for a fact. Who shot in, we’ll never know.”

The community watch leader added that she has “a direct relationship with a police officer.”

In fairness to Alice Burkholder, two additional public input meetings were planned for Monday and Tuesday evenings, and the noontime meeting at the coliseum was added as an alternate option for residents who, for whatever reason, find evenings incompatible with their schedules.

After the solitary resident’s initial response, Plattenburg was placed in the unenviable position of having to keep the conversation going.

“There is a lot of possibility about Greensboro and the police department,” he said. “And I’m feeling and sensing that not much is broken here, but there needs to be some leadership. Would you agree with that?” Later, he said he had drawn that conclusion from his first two meetings since arriving in Greensboro on Sunday, one with patrol officers and another with commanders in the police department, and from learning that crime rates are down.

“They’ll tell you there’s a lot of good things going on here,” he said. “I met with a lot of good people in the department that have their heads and their hearts in the right places.”

This meeting felt both similar and different to a series of public input sessions less than four years ago. It had been about nine months since Chief David Wray resigned under pressure, and Tim Bellamy was immediately appointed to replace him in an interim capacity before the city started looking for a permanent replacement. They ended up settling on Bellamy after a committee composed of respected citizens made an unqualified recommendation in his favor.

Those meetings were led by then-City Manager Mitchell Johnson, who answered tough questions. Johnson himself would find himself out of a job a little more than two years later. To judge by the low turnout at this meeting and the absence of City Manager Rashad Young, the stakes are significantly lower in this hiring decision.

Still, the unease and distrust within and around the police department feels distinctly like 2006. The reassuring expressions of confidence in the department by city leaders and their hired consultants are an eternal verity in civic life. The sense that this is a new day, and that the controversies of the past don’t need to be brought up — well, that’s Greensboro, isn’t it?

Plattenburg’s gentle question seemed innocuous enough at first.

“Will you talk a little bit about what’s gone on here in the past and disconnects with the community or council?” he asked.

The community watch leader’s resistance to it spoke volumes.

“I don’t want to talk about the past or hash up any differences that have happened in the past,” she said. “I want to stay positive and go forward.”

Plattenburg said he will be working 12-hour days through Wednesday, talking to ordinary citizens, city employees and council members to get a sense of what they want in their next police chief. On Thursday, he said, he’ll sit down with his own staff and identify some cities that have faced similar challenges to Greensboro, and target candidates from those cities. On Monday, he told me, he was still in listening mode, and it was too early for him to talk about particular problems or cities that share common challenges with Greensboro.

I challenged Plattenburg on his statement that “not much is broken here,” noting that a certain conservative weekly has published an elaborate treatise on how Wray was pushed out and white officers were supposedly treated unfairly because of a culture of political correctness, and how just the previous week five black students were arrested at city hall after claiming a “subculture of corruption” is operating within the police department. I might have added that the mayor undermined public confidence in the current chief by saying on the campaign trail that he was selected because of race. I submitted that determining whether the department is institutionally compromised or essentially sound might be a critical step in determining what kind of person you want at the helm.

“Talk to me on Wednesday night,” Plattenburg said.