City accused of hindering DOJ probe

by Jordan Green

Since the resignation of Greensboro police Chief David Wray more than three years ago, city staff have endured relentless and sometimes shrill criticism for lending too much credence to complaints of racial discrimination by black officers, pushing out police leadership and reassigning white members of the special intelligence section.

The balance of power shifted decisively in city government when a divided council voted to fire City Manager Mitchell Johnson in March. Now, the city is accused of trying to hinder an investigation by the US Justice Department into complaints about racial discrimination by 39 black police officers who are suing the city. The Department of Justice complained in a recent letter that during a visit to Greensboro lawyers retained by the city restrained people brought in for interviews with federal investigators from speaking about employees who had not signed releases. “The department believes that the city’s interpretation of North Carolina’s Privacy of Employee Personnel Records Act is unreasonable and incorrect, and that the city is improperly using the [act] to hinder this investigation,” wrote Toni Michelle Jackson, a senior trial attorney with the department’s Employment Litigation Section. She added that the Justice Department “may be forced to construe the city’s refusal to permit reasonable interviews of witnesses as an indication that the information those witnesses would have provided would be favorable to the charging parties.” Jackson and a colleague cut their visit to Greensboro short, with the explanation that “it was clear that no productive interviewing regarding relevant information could occur.” Lawyers for the city responded defiantly. The case is being handled for the city by Alan W. Duncan and Julie C. Theall of Smith Moore Leatherwood law firm. Duncan serves as the chairman of the Guilford County School Board. “At several points in the last two weeks,” the two wrote in a May 5 letter to the Justice Department, “you have stated that it was your intention to ‘build a case against the city.’ Consequently, we have concern about whether an unbiased assessment of this matter is occurring. If the Department of Justice is assessing the facts and law relevant to this matter with a predisposition against the city at this time, it seems ill advised to spend the city’s resources to comply voluntarily with your requests.” City Attorney Terry Wood told reporters the city had advised the Justice Department to get a judge to approve an administrative subpoena to speak candidly with city employees and review internal affairs files. An April 22 letter from Theall and Duncan to Jackson outlines the city’s position: “The city does not consent to interviews of current or former supervisory personnel outside the presence of the city’s counsel.” The letter complains that the Justice Department has provided “no indication… about what, if anything, remains a concern,” and notes that “for much of the past twenty years — and currently — the police department of the city of Greensboro has been privileged to be led by respected chiefs who happened to be African American.

“It is difficult to determine what goal is being accomplished by spending the city’s revenue, most of which comes from its taxpayers, on continued efforts to investigate a matter that, for all practical purposes, has been resolved,” the letter concludes. The city correspondence with the Justice Department echoes remarks made by Councilman Mike Barber, a member of the faction that prevailed in ousting the former city manager. “I don’t want the feds coming in and evaluating Greensboro for anything,” he told reporters at a press conference on May 4. “I want our city to manage our city, I want our state to support our city, and I want the feds to stay in Washington, because in my opinion nothing good can come of that.” Not all members of council have been happy with the city’s defiance of the Justice Department. “I think the city’s obligated to fully cooperate with the Justice Department,” said Councilman Robbie Perkins, a frequent adversary of Barber and a staunch supporter of the deposed city manager. “I kind of respect it when the real estate commission or the IRS comes, or the Justice Department comes in. These are serious people who are doing a serious job. I certainly don’t think you want to prejudice the case by not giving them what they need. I certainly want the attorney and the city staff and the council to cooperate with whatever investigation is going on. It disturbed me greatly that the Justice Department packed up and went home, and followed the action up with a letter. I try to give those types of investigators what they need. The last thing I want to be accused of is trying to get in the way of a federal investigation.” At his press conference, Barber had noted that the former police chief, the former city manager and the former city attorney were no longer in office, and said that the city had changed hiring practices and grievance policies at the police department. “I’m here today to publicly ask all those officers that have civil actions against Greensboro to dismiss your lawsuit,” the councilman said. “Your efforts and interests in making impactful institutional changes have not been ignored.” He added that “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 [Justice Department] would see we’re a fine city, we treat our people right, and they might very well close their books as well.” Meanwhile, the Justice Department has requested a comprehensive set of documents from the city that is might conclusively resolve the question of whether a pattern of racial discrimination existed in the department under the leadership of David Wray — something that the army of lawyers, journalists and bloggers has so far failed to do. The Justice Department asked for the following documents:

• “Copies of the complete personnel files, including personnel evaluations and any disciplinary files, for all charging parties;

• “A copy of any documents or records, including e-mails, memos, letters, journals or notes, etc. that pertain or relate to other formal or informal race discrimination complaints against the GPD or its employees;

• “Copies of other ‘Black Books’ alleged to have been maintained by the GPD, in addition to the one cited in the Risk Management [Association] Report and produced to the EEOC;

• “Copies of any GPD policies regarding internal affairs investigations and transfers that have been in effect at any time [from January 2004 to the present]… ; and

• “Complete copies of all internal affairs investigation files of black GPD officers from 2003 to the present.” An additional request could potentially determine whether the so-called “Black Book” was used as a legitimate investigative tool or created under a false pretext, the Justice Department’s lead investigator wrote: “As to the alleged sexual assault that precipitated the ‘Black Book,’ we request a copy of any records, such as any computer assisted dispatch reports, that relate to the underlying complaint.” The Justice Department also requested the opportunity to interview 26 people, including Chief Tim Bellamy, Assistant Chief Gary Hastings, former Chief Wray, the former city manager, former Deputy Chief Randall Brady, Officer Scott Sanders, Officer Brian Bissett, Officer Tom Fox, and former Officer Randy Gerringer. “Where an employer is found to be in violation of Title VII [of the Civil Rights Act of 1964], it is the responsibility of the Attorney General to take appropriate action to eliminate that violation, including the presentation of the matter to the appropriate court forcivil proceeding,” Employment Litigation Section Chief John M.Gadzichowski warned in a Feb. 17 letter to the city.

A second investigation

Twomonths after the first federal investigation of the city and its policedepartment was opened, Gadzichowski notified Attorney Terry Wood thatthe Justice Department would undertake a second investigation to lookinto possible civil rights violations. “The Department ofJustice has information indicating that the percentage of blacksemployed in the Greensboro Police Department in entry-level positions,and the percentage of blacks and Hispanics employed in entry-levelpositions in the Greensboro Fire Department are significantly lowerthan their percentages in the city’s relevant civilian labor force,”Gadzichowski wrote on April 22, adding that the Employment LitigationSection would try “to determine whether the city is engaged in apattern or practice of discrimination” against blacks and Hispanics. Blacksmade up an average of only 25.3 percent of entrylevel recruit classesfor the Greensboro Fire Department recruit classes in the years 2005,2006 and 2007, according to figures released by the fire departmentwhile the US Census estimates that blacks made up 39 percent of thecity’s population over the period of 2005 through 2007. Only twoHispanics participated in entrylevel classes in those three years,comprising 2.7 percent of the group, while the city’s Hispanicpopulation stood at 6.5 percent. Blacks and Hispanics aresimilarly underrepresented in the Greensboro Police Department’srecruit class, with blacks making up an average of only 21.1 percent ofthe last four classes and Hispanics only 3.9 percent for the sameperiod. Spokesman Alejandro Miyar said the Justice Departmentdoes not normally comment on the impetus of an investigation, but thelack of clarity has not prevented speculation from at least onepowerful official player in Greensboro. “There is a concernthat the second Department of Justice inquiry was commenced after thepublic appearance by our mayor and our police chief,” Councilman Barbersaid at his press conference. “Both of them traveled to the KennedySchool of Government and participated in a round-table discussion,which included the facts surrounding our recent challenges in our citygovernment. We will never know if that is true, but we can use this asa learning experience.” The councilman acknowledged that hehad no evidence to support the allegation, but referenced “a videotapeof it apparently that people have.” A digital video running about anhour and 15 minutes obtained from investigative reporter Ben Holdershows Mayor Johnson participating in a panel discussion with twoHarvard University professors and the director of the Los AngelesCounty Human Relations Commission. During her remarks, which run forabout 10 minutes, the mayor discusses a human relations studycommissioned by the city, the Impact Greensboro project and theGreensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission. At no time does thevideo show the mayor discussing employment practices with the city’spolice and fire departments. Marea Beeman, a senior researcherat the Kennedy School of Government and the project coordinator for thesession that Johnson and Bellamy attended, declined to comment on whattopics were discussed. Chief Bellamy said that there was nodiscussion of the underrepresentation of blacks and Hispanics in thepolice and fire departments in a session about police citizen reviewcommittees that he attended with the the mayor. “I didn’t doanything to prompt any investigation,” he said. “When I went to theKennedy School of Government, there was a series of conferences. I wasinvited on the last meeting. It was about, was there a way wecould improve the citizen review committee. This was something YvonneJohnson wanted to do. I went up and just listened.” Johnsonsaid she spoke only in general terms about the controversy that hasbeset the police department since the departure of David Wray, anddiscussed information that had been widely covered in national andlocal news media. The seminars took place over an extendedperiod from January 2006 through September 2008. Whether comments bythe mayor and the police chief prompted a Justice Departmentinvestigation or not, their participation in the forum has provokedbristling protectiveness of the city’s national image and reawakened aninjured sense of federal meddling reminiscent of Southern politicians’defiance of the federal government during the civil rights struggles ofthe 1950s and 1960s. “It is important that we not treat thechallenges we continue to face as some social experiment that we candiscuss in an academic setting for personal benefit,” Barber scolded,“but instead recognize that this severely damages the way other peopleperceive our great city. This can also cost us millions of dollars inbusiness, lost opportunities and the extremely high cost to accommodatefederal government inquiries. We do not need any more inquiries. It is my hope that we decline any further invitations to discuss the problems of Greensboro in a national public forum.”