Barber asks black officers to drop suit

by Jordan Green

Greensboro City Councilman Mike Barber called on 39 black police officers to drop a discrimination lawsuit against the city of Greensboro during a press conference on Monday. The outspoken council member, who represents District 4, also charged that comments by Mayor Yvonne Johnson and police Chief Tim Bellamy at a seminar at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government a year ago “severely” damaged “the way other people perceive our great city” and prompted a Justice Department investigation.

Council members acknowledged in March that the US Justice Department was looking into the black officers’ claims. And on Monday, Barber confirmed a second Justice Department investigation, first reported in The Rhinoceros Times, “into the entry-level demographic of our police and fire department hiring practices.” “There is a concern that the second Department of Justice inquiry was commenced after the public appearance by our mayor and our police chief,” Barber said. “Both of them traveled to the Kennedy School of Government and participated in a round-table discussion, which included the facts surrounding our recent challenges in our city government.” The councilman later acknowledged he had no evidence that that Johnson and Bellamy’s participation in the forum prompted the Department of Justice to look into hiring practices by the police and fire departments in Greensboro, but condemned the mayor and police chief for airing the city’s problems at Harvard. “It is important that we not treat the challenges we continue to face as some social experiment that we can discuss in an academic setting for personal benefit, but instead recognize that this severely damages the way other people perceive our great city,” he said. “It is important that we not take these issues on the road, just as we don’t like surveys in national magazines that do anything but applaud the great place this is to live.” Mayor Johnson responded by characterizing Barber’s assertion as a “bona fide lie.” “It wasn’t like it was a secret,” she said, referring to allegations of racial discrimination within the police department that received national attention in January 2006 with the resignation of police Chief David Wray. “It was in the paper. People across the country if they want to know something about your city, will know something about your city. I was there to get as much information as I could, to get a resolution for us. I don’t buy any of that, in that this was a terrible thing to do, this hoopla.” Barber, who has said he does not plan to run for reelection and has ruled out a mayoral bid, said he thought some of the black officers might want to drop out of the suit. “Their purpose for joining this suit was not a grab for money but to shine a light on what they believed to be an institutional problem,” the councilman said. “However, now that much of the old staff leadership is gone in the police department, our manager’s office and our legal department, they want the suit to end. The problem is there remains a handful that do not. I’m here today to publicly ask all those officers that have civil actions against Greensboro to dismiss your lawsuit. Your efforts and interests in making impactful institutional changes have not been ignored. We have changed hiring policies, grievance policies….” Barber described many of the black officers as being “pure of heart,” but added that “there are two or three plaintiffs that are leaders that want to exert pressure on the others that want to step away and get on with their lives…. And this is creating a great deal of divisiveness.” Lawyers for the 39 plaintiffs could not be reached for comment before press time. Barber said if the black officers were to drop their lawsuit against the city he believes the Justice Department might close its investigations. “I think if we were able — if these good officers were to step away and we discussed publicly the benefits of going through this process and how we’ve changed, I think the [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] would see we’re a fine city, we treat our people right, and they might very well close their books as well.”

Amiel Rossabi, a lawyer who represents another black officer named Julius Fulmore, said he doubts the Justice Department would be influenced by any decision by the plaintiffs to drop their lawsuit. Fulmore has received a right-tosue letter from the Justice Department, and Rossabi said he expects his client to file a separate discrimination lawsuit against the city in the coming weeks. Rossabi said he spoke to the lead attorney with the Department of Justice investigation. “She is very intelligent, very deliberative and she has a lot of experience in this area,” Rossabi said. “She may find those 39 do not have a valid basis for their claims or she may find that they do have a valid basis. She is not going to be swayed by anything other than what her job is.”