Charges of corruption put GPD under scrutiny
Protester Eric Ginsburg confers with Assistant City Manager Michael Speedling (back turned) and City Manager Rashad Young while Mayor Bill Knight (second from right) visits with political consultant Bill Burckley. (photos by Jordan Green)
A week after back-to-back protests in which college students and area ministers committed civil disobedience to highlight what they characterize as a culture of corruption and double standards in the Greensboro Police Department, the state president of the NAACP announced he was seeking an outside review by state and federal agencies.
“The Greensboro Police Department is deeply embroiled in a culture of corruption and a pattern of unequal application of the laws,” said the Rev. William J. Barber II, the state NAACP president, in a letter sent to NC Attorney General Roy Cooper, US Sen. Kay Hagan and US Rep. Mel Watt. “These members of the community, in Greensboro, believe that the Greensboro Police Department is out of control.”
Concerns about practices within the department center on the treatment of Officer AJ Blake, alleged harassment of the Latin Kings by the gang unit, a pending federal discrimination lawsuit filed by 39 black officers and closedsession discussions by the Greensboro City Council about settling a separate suit filed by former Chief David Wray.
Students calling themselves Spirit of the Sit-In Movement Initiative had converted the 30-minute speakers from the floor segment at the beginning of city council meetings into a social justice seminar, with a handful at each meeting using their allotted three minutes to outline various aspects of their case and to explain the philosophical underpinnings of civil disobedience.
While the council decided by majority vote on May 18 to move speakers from the floor to the end of the meeting in an attempt to deny the protesters a platform, Shaina Anderson promised that the students will maintain pressure on the city with Greensboro Justice Summer, an effort modeled on the Mississippi Freedom Summer campaign of 1964, that will include two public hearings, a voter registration drive, active engagement with white clergy and business leaders, and recruiting a legal team to support further protests. Along with the Spirit of the Sit-In Movement Initiative, the three other stakeholder organizations are the Pulpit Forum, the Beloved Community Center and the Greensboro branch NAACP.
Official Greensboro’s response to the calls for transparency and reform in the police department has ranged from stony silence to outright denial.
Mayor Bill Knight’s reaction has been particularly perplexing.
During his mayoral campaign last fall, Knight candidly discussed his belief that former Chief David Wray was pushed out of the department without cause. “We’ve got some serious problems in the police department that need to be addressed,” he told an audience at a candidate forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Piedmont Triad in September, before expressing the view that police Chief Tim Bellamy, who is black, was appointed to his position “primarily because of race.”
On May 14, Knight flatly stated in a cityissued press release: “There is no corruption within the Greensboro Police Department.”
The mayor declined a request by YES! Weekly to further discuss his viewpoint.
And following months of negative publicity about an alleged pattern of misconduct by black police officers, the previous council approved a resolution requesting action by the NC General Assembly to allow the city’s complaint reviewcil quietly withdrew the request.
“The reason is because we were told in the hearing that the police department was 100 percent behind it, and it was not,” at-large Councilman Robbie Perkins said recently. “That was some misinformation that the council got. As soon as the city council found out that the chief was not behind it and the department was not behind it, we backed off.”
In fact, Bellamy had addressed the council before the vote was taken and publicly endorsed the request to increase citizen oversight of the department.
“It’s going to build more trust in the community,” he said at the time, “and more trust within the department. Plus, council is always talking about being more transparent. This will be more transparent to the citizens.”
A misunderstanding that led to NC Rep. Pricey Harrison drafting language to strengthen the complaint review board caused a minor controversy about a week after the two civil disobedience actions. If the weeks of petition and protest have done anything to shake the councilman’s confidence in the department, he hasn’t let on.
“I think the department’s doing fine, and I’m not going to do anything to encumber them just to give certain segments of the community what they want,” Perkins said. “We’re not going to be distracted by people saying there’s corruption in the police department when there’s no evidence of that.”
Dianne Bellamy-Small, one of two black representatives on the nine-member council, echoed that sentiment a fortnight before five students took over the dais and then allowed themselves to be arrested outside of council chambers.
“We don’t need for citizens to think that we currently operate in a police department that is corrupt,” she said. “I don’t believe that Chief Bellamy would allow corruption to continue under his watch. Part of the reason he was brought in was because of some things that happened in the previous administration.
“I just want to ask the city manager that if we can get specific times, dates and accusations that can be addressed, then I think that we as a responsible body would address those. Am I correct, Mayor?” “Yes, ma’am,” Knight replied.
Where’s the corruption, city leaders have asked, as the pastors and students have reviewed the travails of Blake, the Latin Kings and a host of black officers who are plaintiffs in the discrimination suit for the umpteenth time.
“It’s more than just double standards,” said Greensboro branch NAACP President Cardes things that seem to be inconsistent.”
The chief argued back that if the protesters are citing Blake, the Latin Kings and the federal discrimination lawsuit, “then I don’t think that constitutes the term ‘corruption.’ My term of corruption is if we have officers shaking down drug dealers, taking money, money laundering, selling drugs, doing drugs, committing criminal violations and those kind of things. And if that’s corruption, then no, I don’t think the three things that they have outlined as corruption fits the standard of corruption.”
Jorge Cornell, 33, is an ex-felon of Puerto Rican descent from New York City. Last year, he made an unsuccessful bid for city council, although he came within two votes of outpolling Perkins in a precinct that covers the neighborhood of Glenwood in the primary contest.
Cornell came with his wife, Alana, to Greensboro in 2002, and for the first three years his life here was mainly consumed with work and family. They have two daughters. The disintegration of Cornell’s marriage propelled him into the nightlife. It was an incident at a bar catering to Latinos near the Greensboro Coliseum that prompted him in 2005 to gather a group of young men together under the name of the North Carolina Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation, he said. A car accident had taken place and four Spanish-speaking kids had fled the scene. Cornell said he watched the police come into the bar and charge four Latinos who had nothing to do with the accident, two of whom did not even know each other.
Considered a street gang by law enforcement, the Latin Kings’ criminal history is intertwined with a longstanding legacy of ethnic selfdefense and social justice.
The bitter campaign of the Greensboro Police Department’s gang enforcement unit to suppress the Latin Kings is a distinct outgrowth of the Bellamy years. The gang unit’s hatred of the Latin Kings dates back to May 2006, four months after Bellamy was appointed interim chief. Three Latin Kings, Robert Vasquez, Daniel Vasquez and Randolph Kilfoil, had been arrested in connection with an assault. Cornell appeared at the magistrate’s office and began yelling that the jailers were assaulting his three cohorts. Cited for contempt by the magistrate, Cornell was placed in handcuffs as the other three briefly refused to cooperate with two police officers by jumping about.
If anything, the Latin Kings’ problems with the gang unit appeared to compound after Cornell and a handful of his members appeared in June 2008 at a press conference with the Pulpit Forum, a group of African-American pastors whose jeremiads for social justice have
black gangs, although the ALKQN has had at least two white members and works closely with white college students, including future members of the Spirit of the Sit-In Movement.
About a month after announcing the peace effort, Cornell was shot by a yet unknown assailant in the breezeway at Cedar West at Cedar West Apartments on Boulevard Street. Sgt. Ronald Sizemore, supervisor of Squad B of the gang unit, would later acknowledge that he told another Latin King member that he would have liked nothing better than waking up in the morning and reading in the newspaper that Cornell had been killed.
With the support of the Pulpit Forum, the Latin Kings were able to file formal complaints against the police through the city’s human relations department.
“There were a lot of times when we were harassed, but we were never taken into jail,” Cornell said. “Before we met Dr. [Anthony] Wade and the human relations commission we were denied access into the building to file reports with internal affairs. We said we had rights. They said we don’t have rights because we were gang members.”
Since the North Carolina ALKQN’s founding in September 2005, Cornell has accumulated a total of 20 charges in the Guilford County court system, including 13 felony charges. The charges have yielded four convictions — all for misdemeanors, including the contempt charge, two charges of resisting an officer and one for disorderly conduct. He has beaten 11 felony conspiracy charges related to a false allegation by a girlfriend of a Latin King member that the organization was engaging in extortion by forcing her to embezzle from the store in which she was employed at Four Seasons Town Center, along with charges of felony abduction of children and drug dealing.
An analysis by YES! Weekly of charges against Latin Kings members since late 2005 shows that the Greensboro Police Department has achieved a 19.6 percent conviction rate. When narrowed to felony charges, the Latin Kings’ conviction rate declines to 10.8 percent. In comparison, an analysis of the most recent statistics available from the NC Administrative Office of the Courts in Raleigh indicates that the conviction rate for all felony charges filed in Guilford County Courts is 65.4 percent.
“Behind these numbers is the actual experience of dozens of individuals who have been arrested and humiliated, having to post bond, coming to court numerous times and they and their families’ lives being disrupted, as well as occasionally losing their jobs,” said Chris Brook, a lawyer at the Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice who has represented Latin King Russell Kilfoil in a civil matter, “all for charges which are much more frequently than not dismissed by the DA because they are without merit.”
The four felony convictions acculumlated by Latin Kings’ members include conspiracy robbery with a dangerous weapon and possession of a stolen firearm. Among those dismissed by the district attorney’s office were felony charges for altering a serial number on a firearm and attempted first-degree murder. Of 16 traffic charges brought against members, two have resulted in convictions, both for failure to notify the DMV of address change.
“There’s extreme inefficiency and poor judgment, if not intentional targeting,” said Lewis Pitts a local lawyer sympathetic to the aims of the Pulpit Forum and the Latin Kings who is employed with NC Legal Aid. “It could be considered criminal justice misfeasance and misusing taxpayers’ money.”
Officer AJ Blake, a black officer of Honduran descent who was assigned to Sizemore’s squad throughout the latter half of 2008, said he complained to fellow gang unit officer Eric Sigmon that it seemed Sizemore only wanted to investigate Latino gangs.
“If the goal is to gather evidence so we can send them away to prison,” he would say later after appearing at press conference organized by the Pulpit Forum, “it doesn’t make sense to have them looking over their shoulders all the time because we’re arresting them for things like throwing a cigarette on the ground. If you look at Chapter 20, the statute book for traffic violations, you could almost charge them with anything. I said, ‘We’re going to give them the indication that we’re harassing them.’ Nobody’s that perfect, everybody messes up if you watch them long enough, and nobody’s that unlucky that they get arrested practically every day.”
The Greensboro Police Department Directive manual addresses this type of behavior.
Directive 1.8.1 on Arbitrary Profiling states, “The purpose of this directive is to establish a prohibition against any police action based solely on arbitrary stereotypes or profiles. The Greensboro Police Department is committed to equal and fair treatment of all citizens, and will act responsibly in every capacity to continuously enhance public trust and support the ideals of a democratic and free society.”
After coming out publicly about the gang unit’s practices, Blake said that he had filed two complaints against other officers for displaying racial prejudice against Latinos. In one incident, Blake said another officer made a comment during a nightclub stakeout describing Latinos as “wetbacks,” that the patrons looked like “illegal immigrants” and that “he was disgusted that a blond-haired, blue-eyed woman would degrade herself with illegal immigrants.” In a separate incident, Blake said another officer joked that since Blake was from Honduras he must be a gang member, and that he considered everyone from Honduras to be a gang member.
Chief Bellamy responded last June that the complaints had been investigated by supervisors, and appropriate action had been taken.
Blake is also a plaintiff in the federal discrimination suit brought by 39 black officers that addresses departmental practices during the Wray era.
“We protect folks raising issues in their agencies,” said City Manager Rashad Young, who was hired by the city last October, during a March 12 press conference. “This is not a culture that I would tolerate or the chief would tolerate, is retaliation against an officer for bringing concerns to us.”
On a frigid night in January 2009 as a drunken party held at the Greensboro Police Club on Air Harbor Road wound down, Officer AJ Blake fell into an argument with his fianc’e, Sandra Sanchez. Blake would later testify that he called Sanchez a ‘whore,’ but denied a fellow officers’ claim that he derided her with the racial epithet ‘spic.’ He admitted that in his anger he kicked Sanchez’s car door, snapped his cell phone in two and threw his police ID card down in the parking lot.
Cpl. RR Neal testified that Sgt. Sizemore, Blake’s immediate supervisor, was too intoxicated to give a statement during the initial investigation.
Departmental directives on private life hold that “a police officer’s character and conduct while off duty must always be exemplary, thus maintaining a position of respect in the community in which he or she serves. The officer’s personal behavior must be beyond reproach.”
Blake was charged with assault on a female based on a complaint by Lorraine Galloway, an employee of the NC Justice Academy in Salemburg who attended the party as the date of Greensboro police officer Craig Myrick. Galloway said Blake extended his hand and shoved her back when she confronted him about attacking Sanchez with a running kick. In a jury trial months later, no one else at the party would testify to seeing the alleged assault on Sanchez, and the jury would also acquit Blake of assaulting Galloway.
The department had received a long run of adverse publicity surrounding what appeared to be unending internal investigations of black officers accused of misconduct. Revelations of Blake’s arrest would prompt a surge of indignant comment in the pages of the conservative Rhinoceros Times and on local blogs. An anonymous commenter on the Troublemaker blog asked, “Will all the other officers that saw something stand up and do the right thing or will they coward [sic] to the pressure from the ‘Black Mafia’? Please guys and girls stand up for what is right! Ethics, morals is there anyone out there with any? You all know this dirt bag, he’s a repeat offender of this nature, do the right thing. Someone witnessed [sic] will tell the truth.”
Officer AJ Blake (facing camera) speaks with the Rev. Cardes Brown during a break from his trial last summer for assault, while his lawyer, Ken Free, takes a cell phone call.
Detective James Schwochow testified in trial that Sanchez told him the morning after the party that Blake had not assaulted her in any way. Crime scene investigator Christa Leonard testified that she saw no marks on the white coat Sanchez had worn, nor marks on her exposed back. Schwochow testified that he had not wanted to bring the second assault charge against Blake, but did so at the order of his supervisor, who confided that police commanders conferred with the Guilford County District Attorney’s office about the case.
“Detective Schwochow testified under oath.
Other than that, I’m not going to comment on it,” Assistant District Attorney Howard Neumann said. “I don’t think the decsion-making process up here is subject to public review necessarily.”
Neumann said the district attorney’s office routinely confers with law enforcement agencies about investigations.
“We can’t order the police to do anything; they’re an independent agency,” Neumann said. “We have no control over them, just as they have no control over us. We can suggest they do something. We can say, ‘If you do this, we’re not going to prosecute this.”
Bellamy did not respond to requests for clarification of several matters for this story. Questions remain unanswered about whether the police department and the district attorney’s office caved in to community pressure to expedite discipline against black officers perceived as being engaged in misconduct, or about whether elements within the two agencies acted to capitalize on a perceived opportunity to discredit plaintiffs in the federal discrimination lawsuit.
The Pulpit Forum asked in a Jan. 21 letter to Chief Bellamy: “Does the act of ordering a detective, trained in gathering evidence (who presumably has more information than anyone else), to file charges against anyone, when that detective feels there is insufficient basis for criminal charges, raise any ethical or legal issues for you?” No answer has been forthcoming. Blake was terminated by Chief Bellamy about 10 days before his case went to trial in superior court, in which a jury would acquit him of both assault charges. In contrast, the department waited until after a trial in which white officers Scott Sanders and Tom Fox were acquitted of felony charges to begin the administrative process. They were both restored to regular duty in November 2009.
“Were there compelling, legitimate reasons in the cases of Officer Fox and Officer Sanders to wait until after their superior court trials were completed before holding their administrative hearings?” the pastors ask. “If so, what are the reasons, and what made the circumstances different from AJ Blake’s case? Are you concerned about double standards within the GPD? Is it not reasonable, in your opinion, for officers of the GPD to be concerned about double standards?” Following Blake’s acquittal, the terminated officer appeared at a press conference at the Beloved Community Center with Jorge Cornell, at which the Rt. Rev. Chip Marble, assisting bishop for the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, gave the invocation.
Bellamy’s decision to terminate Blake was overturned by then-Acting City Manager Bob Morgan, prompting protests from rank and file officers. The Greensboro Police Officers Association sent a letter to Morgan and members of council stating that Blake had violated numerous departmental directives, including “baseless accusations against fine officers as well as consorting with a convicted felon and known gang leader.”
Directive 1.5.10 on Association With Criminals states, “Employees shall not associate with persons whom they know or reasonably should know to be criminals, prostitutes, gamblers, suspected felons, persons under criminal investigation or indictment, or have a reputation in the community for present involvement in criminal behavior, except as necessary in the performance of official duty or where unavoidable because of family relationships.”
Blake said when he returned to duty, Capt. John Wolfe, who supervises the gang enforcement unit, demeaned him in the presence of his fianc’e as a “sorry sack or shit.” Another officer was reportedly quoted as saying that he would not provide assistance to Blake if called to do so. The pastors allege that a flier was posted on the wall of the Western Division Substation calling Blake ‘unfit’ and criticizing the acting city manager for making “uneducated decisions.”
Directive 1.5.2 on Conduct Toward Public and Employees states, “Employees shall be respectful, courteous and impartial when dealing with the public and other employees. Employees shall not harass, use coarse, violent, profane, derogatory, insubordinate, or insolent language or gestures.”
Michael Speedling has come into the spotlight since his appointment in February as assistant city manager for public safety and human resources, while police Chief Tim Bellamy prepares for retirement this summer.
Directive 1.5.13 on Required Assistance states, “Officers shall take appropriate police action to aid a fellow officer or citizen exposed to danger.”
“A Latino officer, AJ Blake, has gone through more than a year of horrendous experience for what boils down to being a whistleblower concerning anti-Latino discrimination and prejudices,” said the Rev. Barber of the NC NAACP.
“The situation has reached a volatile point. The lack of faith in the integrity of the system has deteriorated the social conditions that promote effective law enforcement and the partnerships that encourage public safety.”
Michael Speedling, assistant city manager for public safety and human resources, said the alleged mistreatment of Blake after his return to duty has been investigated, and in one case action was taken against a supervisor.
“People that bring allegations forward have a right to bring them forward,” Speedling said. “We do hear the case. People are held accountable to ensure that they continued to treat employees with dignity and respect.”
Blake will appear before the NC Criminal Justice Education and Training Standards Commission in Apex on Friday to determine whether his law enforcement license will be suspended.
Last December, Officer Roman Watkins, a member of the gang unit, visited the Greensboro Coliseum, where Latin King Wesley Williams was employed through a temporary labor service setting up mats for a professional wrestling event. Hector Garcia, branch manager at Patriot Services, confirmed to YES! Weekly at the time that his staff had been informed by the police department that Williams was banned from city property and could no longer work at the coliseum. Deputy City Manager Bob Morgan later contradicted the police assertion, stating unequivocally that there was no such ban.
The incident remains under investigation, Speedling said. City Manager Rashad Young said recently that he doesn’t think Officer Watkins was necessarily dishonest, and that if an officer lied to make a civilian lose employment it would not necessarily constitute corruption.
“Have you considered that this kind of activity might push the members of the ALKQN and others toward criminal activity?” the pastors ask the chief.
Members of the Latin Kings have filed 18 complaints against the Greensboro Police Department, the latest on May 20. The organization has been filing complaints faster than the complaint review committee can resolve them. Speedling said he has been meeting on a weekly basis with Human Relations Administrator Yamile Walker to try to get a backlog of cases cleared out. He has told internal affairs that he
wants investigations into citizen complaints to be completed within 90 days.
US Rep. Mel Watt, who represents North Carolina’s 12th Congressional District and serves on the House Judiciary Committee, said he has received Rev. Barber’s letter.
“We’re in the process of reviewing it to get more familiar with what has been transpiring,” he said. “We’re talking to people in the community to find out what has been transpiring.”
While incidents involving members of the Latin Kings have garnered the most public attention, allegations of police misconduct have mounted across the board. “The volume and complexity of the complaints coming to us has increased substantially, said Wayne Abraham, then chairman of the human relations commission, last June. “In 2008, the committee had 14 complaints appealed to it. This year, by the end of May, we already had 20 complaints.”
One person the congressman might hear from is 85-year-old Eva Foster, a retired educator.
Foster told the city council on May 18 that Chief Bellamy reneged on a promise to make sure she was reimbursed for medical costs in the aftermath of a traumatic experience with police officers that caused her to suffer from insomnia. The incident took place at Oriental Market on Coliseum Boulevard on Sept. 21, 2009.
“A group of vice-squad members entered the place with guns drawn and told everyone to get on the floor immediately,” Foster said. “‘Put your hands behind your back.’ I attempted to do so, but failed to act fast enough. Once I was stretched out on the floor, a white police officer roughly handled me as he placed me in handcuffs. During this episode, I screamed for someone to help me. A black officer came over and helped me get off the floor. I screamed so loud that they finally let me put my hands in front of my body. I was released after they discovered I was not guilty of any crime.”
“The rest,” she said, pausing for dramatic effect, “is black history.”
Do you believe you have been treated improperly by a Greensboro police officer, or do you have an outstanding complaint filed with the city’s complaint review committee that you would like to tell us about? If so, please call 336.316.1231, and ask for Jordan Green or e-mail jordan@ yesweekly.com. We encourage you to also file a complaint with the complaint review committee to give the city the best opportunity to uphold its responsibility to its citizens. For more information about the city’s complaint review process, visit www. greensboro-nc.gov/departments/Relations/ complaint/ or call 336.373.2038.