Concerns about GPD surface during consultant’s visit

by Jordan Green

In three public input sessions and 16 meetings conducted to help shape criteria for choosing Greensboro’s next police chief, executive headhunter Ted Plattenburg’s understanding of the city’s police department might have evolved a bit.

During the first meeting at noon on May 10 at the Greensboro Coliseum, exactly one person showed up. In an effort to encourage his informant to open up, Plattenburg commented, “There are a lot of positives about Greensboro and the police department. I see not a lot that’s broken here.”

Twenty-eight hours later, Plattenburg was standing before the city council and giving this assessment: “There’s some instability there. The instability is causing some frustration. That’s affected morale somewhat.”

Council members took note of the disappointing turnout at the first two public input meetings. District 1 Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small had been at the first meeting, and would attend the third meeting on May 11. District 4 Councilwoman Mary Rakestraw said she attended the second meeting on the evening on May 10.

“What you’re going to have to rely on is you’ve got nine people,” District 3 Councilman Zack Matheny told Plattenburg. “We’re going to be your community involvement relying on what we’re hearing on the streets versus your community input.”

About 25 people attended the final public input meeting tonight at the Simkins Pavilion at Barber Park in Bellamy-Small’s district.

No less than three people in the majority African-American group spoke about the problem of racial profiling. Olga Morgan Wright, a paralegal who has run for state office twice on the Republican ticket, said her son was recently stopped by a police officer on the basis that there was a stolen car in the neighborhood. An elderly African-American lady said she had been falsely accused by a young police officer of running a red light one night while returning home from church.

“I was not going to pay for that ticket,” the woman said. “I would have gone to jail…. This is the type of racial profiling we cannot put up with.”

Plattenburg said he plans to use the woman’s story in his interviews with candidates to gauge their sense of fairness and honor. A candidate who gives a flippant response will be screened out, he said.

Kathy Hartsell, a community watch leader from southwest Greensboro, said she would like the next chief to create more community watch groups to enhance the department’s effectiveness and to maintain community resource teams to provide flexibility as the department becomes increasingly spread thin to cover additional areas absorbed through annexation. Hartsell also said she wants the gang enforcement unit to be left intact.

Other residents variously said the new chief should be sensitive to the growing homeless population, should be willing to enforce federal immigration law, should take a stance against the use of Tasers by school resource officers, should demonstrate a more dynamic leadership style than the current chief and should be someone who is “strong on social justice.”

During the council briefing, Matheny’s articulation of the qualities he would like to see in the next chief went more to internal leadership than community outreach.

“We need someone that has a proven track record,” the councilman said. “The track record goes not only to how they handled departments, [but] how they handled financial budgets, how they handled their promotions, how they handled, I’m going to say race relations within their departments, but I’m going to say it goes much greater than that. Promotions — that’s been something of a sticking point in our department. The person needs to be someone anybody would want to hire throughout the country…. We want someone who has absolute integrity and can do the job.”

Matheny expressed anxiety about a group of African-American activist pastors and students influencing both the selection and performance of the new chief.

“There’s a concern you’re talking about instability and leadership,” he said. “If we decided to choose somebody from outside this region, it gets tough when you get put in a position where you might be swayed by political alliances.

“I became increasingly concerned in this search when you’ve got a group that’s protesting outside our police department and they’re stakeholders,” he added. “In my book, if you’re getting arrested you probably shouldn’t be someone who’s helping us select our next chief.”

After the briefing, Matheny confirmed that his remarks were intended to include six ministers who were arrested in front of the police department on May 5 and five students who were arrested the previous evening at city hall after disrupting a council meeting and asking the council to look into what they have termed “a subculture of corruption” within the police department.

Matheny might have been dismayed to learn that some of those who were arrested in the two incidents of civil disobedience and who played supporting roles did participate as ordinary citizens in the public input process to select a new chief.

Eric Ginsburg and Jordan Auleb held a banner outside the Simkins Pavilion reading “We demand police accountability” and another person handed out fliers itemizing qualities the group would like to see in the next chief. They included an ability “to handle the existing racial tensions within the city and the police department,” an “ability to work with street organizations,” willingness to meet “with people despite political or personal differences” and sympathy for the idea of a civilian review board.

What the city doesn’t need in the new chief, the flier states, is “someone who will continue to shift blame and responsibility for persisting problems within the department,” “someone who is unable to control the subculture of corruption within the police department” and “someone who is unable to lead the department in a new direction focused on justice and community trust.”

Joseph Frierson, one of the ministers who was arrested in front of the police department on May 12, was one of at least two people who said the city needs a police review board with subpoena power to handle complaints about interactions between officers and civilians. Frierson said the number of complaints filed against the department doubled from 2008 to 2009, adding, “I have yet to see a chief who is out front in saying, ‘What is going on that the citizens are crying out so?’” The Rev. Cardes Brown, who was arrested with Frierson, described the kind of character he would like to see in a police chief — a quality that in some measure corresponds to the articulated desires of council members Matheny and Rakestraw for someone who demonstrates an absolute sense of fairness and consistency in promotions and discipline decisions.

“I’d like to see a chief of police as opposed to a police chief,” Brown said. “Let me explain the distinction to you. The police chief does the things the police department feels is imperative; they defend each other. The chief of police makes sure that all of his officers observe rules.”