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Chief holds community meetings across Greensboro as critics question PD’´s professionalism

by Jordan Green

Chief Ken Miller (right) engages in a terse dialogue with community organizer Joseph Frierson at Smith Senior Center earlier this month. (photo by Jordan Green)

 

Back to back community meetings related to the Greensboro Police Department told a tale of two cities in citizens’ trust and confidence in the department.

 

Former Capt. Charles Cherry and former Officer Joseph Pryor, along with a handful of supporters, showed up at Chief Ken Miller’s community meeting for residents and business owners in the Eastern Patrol Division on Nov. 10. The following night the chief held the third in a series of four community meetings for the Western Division, and a loosely-organized coalition of pastors, students and other citizens held their own community meeting at Bethel AME Church for the chief purpose of collecting citizen complaints about police misconduct to submit to the US Justice Department.

A routine public safety meeting

Miller won applause and compliments from a group of east Greensboro residents and business owners who indicated through their comments at Smith Senior Center on Nov. 10 that they are largely positive about his leadership since his appointment in September.

“I’ve seen a difference in East Market Street since you’ve come here, and I commend you for that,” said Isa Abuzuaiter, who owns a gas station near NC A&T University.

About 60 people, roughly split between white and African-American and skewing elderly, attended the community meeting. They also applauded Mayor Bill Knight, at-large Councilwoman Mary Rakestraw, District 2 Councilman Jim Kee and Assistant City Manager Michael Speedling when the chief introduced them.

The chief fielded questions about drug interdiction, and discussed the various ways drugs fuel crime. He addressed a plea from a woman who lives in an annexed area of Greensboro near McLeansville for more police patrols in her neighborhood. (“Greensboro is starting to get shaped like an octopus,” the chief said.)

Miller responded to another citizen’s plea to get guns out of his neighborhood.

“I can’t stem the flow of weapons into any city,” the chief said. “The government can’t. They’ve even enacted bans on weapons of mass destruction, such as Chinese assault rifles. It didn’t work. All we can do is continue to police.”

Another resident asked the chief about street vendors, noting that she doesn’t like people to try to sell her food when she’s trying to go to an auto parts store. Miller noted that, for the most part, the issue does not fall under the police department’s responsibilities. The Greensboro Legal Department is researching options for increasing regulation of street vendors. Kee said the matter is expected to come before council in coming months.

Miller discussed plans to revamp the department’s disciplinary process. As an example, he said that when an officer is caught conducting an illegal search and seizure, discipline would depend on whether the employee knowingly violated the law or made an error of judgment in good faith. He said it would be understandable though not technically legal if an officer were to break down a door under the hot pursuit doctrine if he saw someone running down the street with a TV but didn’t specifically see the person enter the house. In contrast, the chief said he would not look kindly on an officer breaking down a known drug dealer’s door without probable cause out of frustration that evidence could not be developed against a known offender.

“You can never hijack the Constitution,” the chief said. “And I won’t allow my staff to do that. They’re trained not to do that.”

Miller and Lt. Mike Richey, acting commander for the Eastern Patrol Division, also discussed the department’s priority offender strategy. Miller said he and Assistant Chief Dwight Crotts plan to meet Guilford County Chief District Court Judge Joe Turner, District Attorney Doug Henderson and Wheaton Casey of pre-trial services to try to gain their support for keeping repeat offenders in jail until their trials come up.

Richey said the department has found that offenders charged with burglaries were bonding out and committing additional crimes before their court dates. Richey said police recently arrested three individuals who were responsible for numerous burglaries. After the police went before a judge and obtained an order to deny bond, the number of burglaries in the area dramatically dropped, he said.

The lieutenant said that about three areas in the Eastern Patrol Division have experienced the highest number of residential burglaries: Phillips Avenue behind Claremont Courts public housing and the King’s Forest neighborhood; the area around Dudley High School; and the Lees Chapel Road area near Northwinds Apartments.

“I imagine in King’s Forest you’ve seen a lot of police cars,” he said.

In the past 40 days, the department has made 32 arrests for in-progress burglaries in the Eastern Patrol Division. Some of the arrests have resulted from proactive policing while others have come about because of residents making calls after observing suspicious activity.

Having engaged in a tense exchange with Cherry at a community meeting for the Southern Patrol Division a week earlier, Miller warned that he would not discuss any past personnel decisions.

A complaint filed with City Manager Rashad Young on Monday indicates that Pryor had seen a group of officers huddled up near the senior center, which led him to believe they were preparing to stage an arrest. Cherry said he was also told by an unidentified police supervisor that he was worried the police were going to arrest him and to be careful. The two former officers did not attempt to ask any questions.

Some of the officers’ supporters did speak, but in general terms rather than about specifics of personnel decisions.

Lewis Brandon, a retired public school teacher and veteran of civil rights struggles in Greensboro dating back to 1960, said three reports published since 1970 had recommended that Greensboro have a police review board with subpoena power.

Miller said he does not favor giving subpoena power to a police review board “You hold me accountable,” he said. “When you create an outside panel to decide matters of discipline, what you have done is effectively stripped me of my authority to match the responsibility you’ve given me.”

Miller went on to express the opinion that the complaint review committee currently in force is adequately equipped to provide an independent review.

“When they believe something’s wrong on a disposition, they challenge us on it,” he said. “I just handled my first one. They told me they didn’t think the disposition was right, and I agreed with them and reversed it. A complaint that was unfounded should have been exonerated.”

After the meeting, Miller said the appeal made by the complaint review committee did not make it clear whether the disposition should have been lighter or more severe; he just knew that they thought it was wrong.

Miller also responded to a question from Beloved Community Center community organizer Joseph Frierson about whether police administration is willing to learn from the past where it concerns social justice. The chief answered by discussing the 1979 Klan-Nazi shootings.

“The allegation was that the police department was conspicuously and deliberately absent from a conflict situation,” Miller said. “So, if there is anything for me to learn from past mistakes, my commitment to you and my commitment to everyone is that we will not be conspicuously or deliberately absent from conflict.”

Cherry said in his recent complaint that after the meeting that after the meeting he approached Mayor Knight and Councilman Kee. He said he asked Knight what was going to be done about allegations against police command staff. When Cherry told the mayor that several had been made by him, Knight reportedly said, ‘I don’t agree with you,’ and hurried away.

Public safety turned upside down

A community meeting at Bethel AME Church the following night drew at least twice as many attendees as the police-sponsored forum, and painted a starkly different picture of how citizens view the department’s integrity and professionalism.

Four African-American citizens detailed allegations of excessive force by Greensboro police officers, after which they were promptly ushered into a back room where a team of NC A&T University students helped them fill out official complaints to lodge with the US Justice Department.

Organized by a loose multiracial coalition of clergy and activists, the meeting was held to gather complaints alleging discrimination under the provisions of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which holds that local agencies such as police departments that receive federal funding may not discriminate on the basis of race, color or national origin.

The city manager’s office released a statement earlier this month to the effect that “the city does not tolerate discrimination against any class of persons by city employees and the management fully enforces the policy against discrimination.”

One young couple said they had been driving home after obtaining a money order at Great Stops on East Market Street to pay their rent when an African-American officer followed them home, placed a gun to the young man’s head, threw him against the ground and placed his knee against his back and neck. The young woman said she was Tasered while in handcuffs when she did not comply with the officer’s commands quickly enough, and no longer has full use of her arm as a result.

Another young man who said he has epilepsy described a roadside incident on US Highway 29 in which an officer allegedly knocked out his passenger window and similarly forced him to the ground when he refused to be taken to the hospital after suffering from a seizure that caused him to black out behind the wheel.

An elderly woman named Eva Foster relayed an experience that she has already detailed before the Greensboro City Council in which she said an officer injured her wrist by forcing her down on the floor while handcuffed during a police raid last year at an Asian food market on Coliseum Boulevard. Foster alleges that former police Chief Tim Bellamy broke a promise to her that he would make sure her medical bills were covered.

Among those attending the meeting were five volunteer members of the Greensboro Human Relations Commission and former Mayor Carolyn Allen. Vice Chair Marikay Abuzuaiter said the human relations commission has scheduled a meeting on Dec. 8 at 5:30 p.m. at city council chambers that will include a speakersfrom-the-floor segment. In the past, the meeting has been held in the middle of the day, but the commission changed its meeting schedule to make it easier for people who have difficulty getting time off work to attend. Abuzuaiter said the commission is asking the city to allocate funds to televise meetings.

Earlier this month, the North Carolina Latin Kings led by Jorge Cornell filed a Title VI complaint with the Justice Department, with assistance from a Durham-based social justice organization.

Cherry and Pryor attended the meeting, along with another fired officer, AJ Blake. Two actively employed officers, Robert Reyes and an unidentified female officer, were also present.

The pastors are making a push to compile as many complaints as possible to amplify the petitions of both the Latin Kings and officers facing adverse action within the department. Volunteers passed out brochures published by the Justice Department explaining the discrimination prohibition, along with official complaint forms.

Pastors urged people attending the meeting to distribute the complaint forms in their churches and pass them along to friends.

“It’s important to add as many individual voices as possible to the story of Jorge Cornell and the black officers,” said the Rt. Rev. Chip Marble, assisting bishop for the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina.

At about 9 p.m. the lone reporter at the meeting was asked to leave to accommodate an unidentified representative from the Justice Department’s community relations service who reportedly wished to speak with citizens outside of the presence of the news media.

Frierson, with the Beloved Community Center, said a representative of the Justice Department’s civil rights division was in Greensboro for a “roundtable discussion” on a recent Saturday morning that included Cornell, Foster and the Rev. Clarence Shuford, among others.

The Greensboro Police Department holds its final community forum, for residents and business owners in the Central Patrol District, on Nov. 22 at 6:30 p.m. at the Greensboro Historical Museum. Chief Ken Miller and his staff will discuss functions of patrol work groups, call prioritization and changes to disciplinary process.

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