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Culture of impunity: Unresolved grievances in the GPD

by Jordan Green

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Pronouncements of confidence in the city’s police department made by Greensboro leaders buttress a flimsy illusion of accountability that hides a dismaying reality of unfair and arbitrary administration, and impunity and reaction against dissent.

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Refusal by police leadership and city officials to acknowledge discriminatory acts has resulted in a pattern of treatment that appears to constitute retaliation and harassment against officers filing grievances.

Fed by public passions and political pressure, department employees up and down the chain of command have demonstrated a pattern of persecution against one officer in particular:

AJ Blake. Since his arrest in January 2009 on trumped-up charges of assault on a female, Blake has been the subject of a seemingly arbitrary series of disciplinary decisions and the target of severe ostracism within the ranks that appears to be retaliation against his public criticism of the gang enforcement unit and complaints about anti-Latino racial slurs used by other officers.

City Manager Rashad Young has insulated himself from a flurry of grievances alleging discrimination, intimidation and retaliation by delegating authority to his assistant city manager for public safety and human resources, Michael Speedling.

“At this point, the city manager is the one person who has not taken a position that discredits him,” said the Rev. Nelson Johnson in a recent press conference on June 24. “He’s simply taken no position. Others have taken positions, we think, that will show that they are biased and that they’re not treating these grievances fairly. And that’s part of the double standard and corruption that we are raising here.”

The city manager has vigorously objected to any intimation that the police department is troubled.

“Generally, your questions assume a context that I don’t believe to be accurate,” Young said in an e-mailed response to a series of inquiries from YES! Weekly.

Speedling insisted that, contrary to the suggestion of irregularity in mounting questions about administrative practices, the city is upholding the highest standards of fairness.

“We’re committed to taking care of employees and being fair,” he said. “When I was hired for this job, the city manager said he expected me to be firm and fair. I always said, ‘You must act with integrity, and if you break the public trust you don’t belong here.’” Young said he received six individual grievances between May 17 and June 8, following a May 12 press conference led by NC NAACP President William Barber II calling for a federal investigation into alleged corruption in the department.

According to both police department directives and city policy, two types of grievances may be appealed past the chief: those dealing with alleged discrimination and those dealing with retaliation as a result of reporting alleged violations of city, state or federal law. City policy holds that the city manager must respond to complaints within 20 days or give notification that the investigation will take more time.

“Yes, several of them have been on my desk for longer than 20 days,” Young wrote. “The reason they were not responded to within 20 days is because of the rapid succession in which I received them.”

Young said he has consulted with the legal department about the grievances, and the process has been further slowed by the fact that the grievances landed on his desk in the midst of city budget discussions.

Most, if not all of the grievances that have risen to the level of the city manager have benefited from the assistance and protocol expertise of Capt. Charles Cherry, who commanded the Eastern patrol division up until June 7, when he was placed on administrative leave pending a fitness-for-duty evaluation.

“When you look at the relevant department regulation, I don’t think any discerning mind could conclude that he meets any criteria that set forth in those regulations for being placed on fitfor-duty status,” the Rev. Johnson said. “All of this is manufactured. And it’s a little circle of people that affirms the distortions and falsehoods, so the police department is obviously going to say he does. But we have the documents, and we have the regulations, and it just doesn’t fit.”

Cherry is also a plaintiff in the federal discrimination lawsuit. “He is a command-level officer, 23 years of excellent service, rated a Level 4 in April,” Johnson said. “And since April, somehow they are now alleging that he has gone crazy.”

In a June 17 e-mail to dozens of officers assigned to the Eastern Division explaining his administrative status, Cherry signed off with an itemized list of his principles of good law enforcement: “Police with compassion; be fair and consistent; make decisions based on right and wrong (don’t let other things such as friendships, dislikes of individuals, etc. sway your decisions).”

A former member of the gang unit and vice-narcotics, Blake is now on administrative duty and has been stripped of his uniform and weapon. Blake is at the heart of claims that the department is maintaining an ongoing pattern and practice of discrimination.

Chief Bellamy made the decision, almost 12 months ago, to fire Blake, who had been charged twice with misdemeanor assault on a female. Blake appealed the termination decision to then-interim City Manager Bob Morgan, who overturned it. Blake was subsequently acquitted of both charges, and his criminal record was expunged in May. The incident that led to Blake’s charges occurred while he was off duty. The officer has had to undergo a lengthy state-level administrative adjudication process to determine whether he will be allowed to keep his law enforcement license. Blake reported himself to the state agency, as is required by law. Blake is a black officer of Honduran descent.

Officer Andrew Costigliola, a similarly situated employee, pled guilty to misdemeanor driving while impaired in May 2008. The incident that led to Costigliola’s charge took place while he was off duty. Costigliola remains on the force. He apparently never underwent the state-level administrative adjudication process to determine whether his law enforcement license would be suspended, although it is impossible to know for sure because the NC Justice Department does not disclose the details of its investigations. Costigliola is a white officer.

Rebecca Bennett said in an affidavit that she had been in bed asleep with her husband at their home on Pleasant Ridge Road in Summerfield at about 1:50 a.m. on the night of March 8, 2008 when she was awoken by the sound of a car engine. When she got up and pulled the drapes back, she found herself looking directly at Costigliola, who was alone in a car attempting to back it up. The wheels were spinning in the mud and Costigliola had a cell phone up to his ear, Bennett said.

Bennett got dressed and went outside. “I spoke with the defendant and noticed that he reeked of alcohol,” she said in her affidavit. “After talking to and observing the defendant, I formed the opinion that he was impaired by alcohol. He talked a lot. He acted very nonchalant. He was acting like he stopped by for a visit and not at all like he had just been involved in a severe car crash. It was like none of this mattered to him. In fact, he was joking at one point and we were all laughing together.”

Costigliola told investigators and witnesses that a girl he had picked up at a bar had been driving the car, and that she had run away after the accident.

Guilford County Sheriff Deputy Jeffrey D. Murphy said in an affidavit that after Costigliola gave him his drivers license, he slid out his Greensboro Police Department ID card.

“Come on,” Costigliola reportedly said. “I’m with the police department.”

State Highway Patrol Sgt. Douglass Garland, who administered the breathalyzer test to Costigliola at the Greensboro jail, characterized the man as “arrogant,” and said, “It was noteworthy that the defendant was able to unlock the coded locked doors at the jail with the code he recalled from memory.”

Sgt. Garland listened as another state trooper, William Porter, questioned Costigliola.

“After the defendant denied driving the vehicle, Trooper Porter asked the defendant what he was doing spinning tires in an attempt to leave,” Garland said. “The defendant got a serious look about himself, stopped laughing, and stated, ‘I don’t think I want to answer any more questions.’” Costigliola could not be reached for comment for this story. The Rev. Cardes Brown, who is one of a group of pastors that has been raising questions about fairness within the department, said he understands that Lt. Pam McAdoo-Rogers made the decision to allow Costigliola to keep his job. McAdoo-Rogers could not be reached for comment for this story.

In January, Young convened a task force to make recommendations on improvements to the city’s disciplinary process across all departments. He received a formal presentation of those recommendations from Speedling on July 1. The most significant change involves having the legal and human resources departments vet disciplinary decisions.

“If there’s going to be punitive action, it has to be run through legal and human resources, so we can look at the history and see if there’s a like case we can compare it to,” Speedling said. “You don’t want to have one person suspended for misuse of a vehicle and one person reprimanded. We’re trying to have like punishments for like offenses.”

The task force also recommended limiting the authority to fire to the city manager. Previously, department heads, including the police chief, could fire an employee, although the employee had the right to appeal the decision up to the decision up to the city manager.

Meanwhile, Blake has continued to undergo harassment. In August 2009, Blake appeared at a press conference with Latin King leader Jorge Cornell to protest the decision by Chief

Bellamy to fire him, and to protest the loss of his pay during his suspension. While waiting for his day in court to have his case heard by a jury, Blake stated that he believed the gang unit, of which he was formerly a member, had abused its authority in its actions toward the Latin Kings. He also disclosed that he had filed complaints against fellow officers for anti-Latino racial slurs prior to his transfer to the gang unit.

He had already complained about alleged employment discrimination during a press conference two months earlier.

“I have been suspended without pay since January 17 th ,” he said. “I have had no way to care for my family. Several years ago, Officer Tate, a white officer, was charged with assault against his wife. He was tried in district court and found guilty. He appealed the case to superior court. He was suspended, but Officer Tate was suspended with pay. The district attorney dismissed the charges against Officer Tate; so he never went to superior court. I ask why was Officer Tate, who was charged with assault, suspended with pay when I was suspended without pay and made to suffer from the very beginning for flimsy, false charges brought against me by drunk, vindictive people at a drunken police party. This seems wrong on its face.”

Blake alleges in a recent grievance filed against Assistant Chief Anita Holder that an officer ordered him into a police vehicle while he was off duty and brought him to Holder’s office, where the assistant chief threatened him with termination for waving at Cornell, the self-proclaimed leader of the North Carolina Latin Kings and someone the department has designated a validated gang member. Blake had been walking to a protest in front of the police department in which his pastor, the Rev. Brown, and several other clergymen sought to highlight what they characterized as a “culture of corruption” within the department. As it turned out, Cornell had been turning in a 360-degree rotation and waving at all the plainclothes officers in the area, a practice he has initiated as a result of being under nearly constant surveillance by the police, and later said he never saw Blake. Holder contended that Blake’s wave was a violation of the department directive prohibiting officers from associating with known criminals.

In early June, Chief Bellamy presided over a grievance hearing in which Blake read aloud from the grievance in the presence Brown. Capt. Cherry had assisted in the drafting of the grievance. The chief said after the recital of complaints that he would respond at a later date to the relevant questions.

“In my opinion, the officers kidnapped him,” Brown said.

“He was not on duty. He was not violating anything.”

Because of Blake’s dissatisfaction with Bellamy’s response, the grievance has now reached the desk of the city manager.

The EEOC Compliance Manual, which is posted on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission website, outlines three elements of retaliation: opposition to discrimination, adverse action and a causal connection between the protected activity of complaining about discrimination and the adverse action. The manual states that complaining to anyone about alleged discrimination constitutes opposition, and specifically references employees speaking to the news media as an example of opposition. The manual explains, “Such a protest is protected opposition if the complaint would reasonably have been interpreted as opposition to employment discrimination.”

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The Rev. Nelson Johnson (left), shown with the Rev. Cardes Brown, discusses frustrations with administrative decisions in the police department as a stack of employee grievances lays on the table. (photo by Jordan Green)

According to the EEOC manual, it doesn’t matter if the discrimination is actual or not; it’s enough that the employee has a “reasonable and good faith belief that the opposed practices were unlawful.”

While the most obvious types of retaliation are suspension and discharge, other types of adverse actions include threats, reprimands, negative evaluation and harassment.

Direct evidence of retaliation is rare, the manual states. A violation might be established through circumstantial evidence “if the respondent fails to produce evidence of a legitimate, non-retaliatory reason for the challenged action.”

The manual continues, “Even if the respondent produces evidence of a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the challenged action, a is a pretext designed to hide the true retaliatory motive. Typically, pretext is proved through evidence that the respondent treated the complainant differently from similarly situated employees or that the respondent’s explanation for the adverse action is not believable.”

Did Holder treat Blake differently from similarly situated employees?

Blake was taken before Holder for a lecture after approaching the area of a public protest staged by a number of pastors to highlight Blake’s situation, among other facets of an alleged culture of corruption. Similarly, dozens of uniformed officers attended a special city council meeting in October 2009 to express displeasure about interim City Manager Bob Morgan’s decision to overturn the chief’s decision to fire Blake. Chief Bellamy said in a July 1 letter responding to dozens of questions posed by the pastors that he was not aware of the officers’ plans and that “officers off duty in the past have worn their uniforms to city coucnil meetings and other official meetings.” Blake was dressed down for associating with a known criminal by the act of waving at Jorge Cornell as a matter of courtesy. One wonders how many police officers would be found in violation of the directive if they were subjected to the level of intense scrutiny as Blake. By the standard applied by Holder, almost any casual gesture of recognition during chance encounters with convicted felons, say, in front a violation.

“It is standard practice that when we identify a behavior that any employee is doing that is improper and not according to our policy that we bring that to the employee’s attention and explain the consequences of their behavior,” Holder said.

“Our officers are held accountable for their behavior, on or off duty,” she added.

The irony of the situation is that Blake and Cornell’s relationship is anything but close.

“He doesn’t like Blake at all,” the Rev. Johnson said of Cornell, laughing. “We had a prayer meeting at Genesis [Baptist Church], and he refused to come up and join in the prayer circle when we were praying for Blake. He said, ‘It’s ridiculous that this would be even raised.’ And what it shows is the magnitude of the cultural mindset that governs the police department.”

Now, Capt. Cherry has joined Officer Blake on administrative duty status. The reasons Cherry has been recommended for fitness-forduty evaluation are not entirely clear, but the pastors suspect the episode falls within a pattern of retaliation.

In his June 17 e-mail to officers in the Eastern Division, Cherry quoted from the recommendation: “During the past two months, Captain CE Cherry has submitted and/or written seven grievances. He has also submitted and/or authored additional responses to the responses he has received. The manner in which the documents are constructed, his inability to accept reasonable responses, his physical reactions in front of subordinate employees (sworn and non-sworn) during this time period gave rise to concerns for his emotional stability.”

The Rev. Brown said the incident that prompted concerns about Cherry’s physical reactions involved the captain going to retrieve a personnel file for a subordinate officer who was in the midst of a grievance hearing with Chief Bellamy. Cherry told Brown that the person in possession of the file thought his manner of trying to obtain it was overly insistent.

Greensboro Police Department Directive 8.2.3 states, “If a psychological fitness-forduty assessment is deemed appropriate… the employee will be advised of the specific circumstances that prompted the action.” Psychological review is mandatory for employees involved in a use-of-force incident or an action resulting in death or serious physical injury. Circumstances that might warrant fitness-for-duty evaluation include critical incident stress, alcohol or drug abuse, “unusual behavior,” supervisory problems in which attempts through performance review and discipline appear to have had little effect, and excessive use of sick leave or workers’ compensation claims.

None of these circumstances are referenced in the recommendation memo, as quoted in Cherry’s June 17 e-mail. If Cherry’s account is inaccurate or incomplete, the city manager’s office has made no effort to publicly challenge it. Young and Speedling both said they were prohibited by state law from commenting on the circumstances of Cherry’s administrative status.

Senior command staff’s reaction to Cherry’s handling of his administrative duty status appears to be contradictory and geared towards isolating him from the officers whom he supervised as recently as a month ago.

At 6 a.m. on June 9, Cherry met with the Eastern Divison A Squad to explain the circumstances of his administrative status.

Cherry wrote in his e-mail that he had informed the bureau commander, who is Assistant Chief Anita Holder, of his intentions. Cherry said she had told him he could proceed if he wanted. Cherry said he also told the bureau commander he would read from the fitness-for-duty recommendation.

Two hours after meeting with the Eastern Division Squad A lineup, Cherry said he received a phone call from the bureau commander. Holder wrote in a memo that until further notice Cherry is banned from all division lineups and from the Maple Street police substation, where the Eastern Division is headquartered.

“A police captain does not need permission to speak with their personnel,” Holder said in reference to the banning. “They simply make their own choice for how and when they do that.”

Some of the grievances on the city manager’s desk are against Chief Tim Bellamy himself.

“Prior to his becoming chief, he was one of the leading officers in pushing the EEOC complaint, and once he dropped it, all of a sudden he became chief,” Brown said. “I don’t think we’ve really given a lot of investigatory research to that reality…. Based on many of the officers, he was really the fire of desire that was fueling the EEOC suit.”

During a May 12 press conference, in which city officials reacted to allegations made by the NAACP, Bellamy was asked if he believed there was racism and corruption in the department.

“No, I don’t,” he responded. The chief did not return phone calls for this violation will still be found if this explanation of a video store or in a park, would constitute story, seeking an explanation for his seeming about-face.

On June 24, Brown made a gesture to Mayor Bill Knight that has quickly become controversial.

“I think I want to apologize to Mayor Knight,” he said. “I want to apologize to him because he made a statement sometime ago, and I challenged the statement. He made a statement that the chief was only the chief because he was black. And I stood up against that statement. And I have to really apologize to Mayor Knight because the more I research this the more I’m inclined to agree that, in part, he was right. He was only made chief because he was black and would show favor to the majority of officers on the force.”

Knight appears to have had a change of heart of his own.

Shortly after his election, last November, the mayor-elect was quoted in the News & Record as saying of Bellamy: “He can get a job done and do it very well. But he’s a good numbertwo man. He’s a good number-three man. He’s not a number-one man.”

Last month, in remarks during a city council meeting, Knight briefly expressed support for Bellamy.

Capt. Cherry filed a complaint against Bellamy alleging that after the May 12 NAACP press conference the chief stated in a command review meeting that if anyone in the room thought there was corruption in the department they could file their papers and “get the hell out.” The room reportedly erupted in applause. Cherry characterized the statement as intimidating, discriminatory, hostile and retaliatory.

The grievance naturally went to the person next in command, and Speedling investigated it as Young’s designee in the city manager’s office. Speedling interviewed Bellamy and confirmed that the chief had made the statement, but concluded there was nothing inappropriate about what Bellamy had said.

Speedling told YES! Weekly that he doesn’t see the chief’s remarks as a form of intimidation.

“The chief is expressing to folks that if they have such a lack of confidence in the department, then he has a problem with it,” Speedling said. “And we have a problem with it. He’s putting across that if you have that kind of firm belief that the department is corrupt, you need to back it up with facts. There’s a right way and a wrong way to go about that. We haven’t seen any evidence of corruption. He passionately believes the police department is a fine department that doesn’t have corruption in it, and he wants his senior staff to support the department.”

Responding to Cherry’s grievance, Speedling wrote that an assertion made by the captain that the chief had specifically mentioned the NAACP in his remarks was contrary to what the chief had told him, and that the statement would be investigated to determine whether it was truthful. Speedling confirmed that the police professional standards division is currently investigating the statement.

“One of the two did not tell the truth,” he said. “Is it possible that one of the two misspoke? Yes.”

Speedling said he doesn’t see anything chilling or retaliatory about directing an investigation to see if information in a grievance was accurate or not.

“We hold officers to the standard of truthfulness,” he said. “If you lie on a report, you’re accountable…. When things of this nature are raised at my level, we have to do an investigation. Just like an officer cannot perjure himself on the witness stand.”

Speedling also said it doesn’t matter to him whether the reference to the NAACP was central to the grievance or peripheral.

“Let me ask you a question,” he said. “Do you believe there’s any difference between a big lie and a small lie?” Public opinion in Greensboro has largely resisted the notion that the police department suffers from systematic troubles that require bold intervention to correct. A key difference between this episode and an earlier and related outcry five years ago is that the chief today is black, while former Chief David Wray is white.

“I think it’s a major mistake to assume that all black people will not be compliant with the pressure from a racist culture, to go along with it,” the Rev. Johnson said at the June 24 press conference. “I think when you frame it as, ‘This individual couldn’t do this because this is racist and he’s black,’ that omits the very point we’re trying to make. This is a culture. It’s bigger than the chief. And the chief actually, obviously resisted it and fought against it until he became chief.”

Bellamy is scheduled to put in his last day on July 31, when he officially retires. Dwight Crotts, who currently serves as assistant chief, was named interim chief last week and will take command of the department on Aug. 1 until Young hires a permanent replacement.

During the most recent press conference, Brown remarked that he and Johnson have sat through some of the grievance hearings as representatives of the officers. Brown said that they have observed a pattern of attempts by the command staff to discredit the officers bringing the grievances instead of dealing with the substance of their concerns.

“It’s just, at this point, the escalation of resistance rather than dealing with the problems that, we believe, have been in this department for a long, long time,” he said. “To be very honest with you, many of the command-level officers are implicated in these, so it’s like a conspiracy within the department. We can say this very candidly: It’s not going away. It will be eventually dealt with, and it’s better sooner than later.

“It’s better now, really, than later.”

Related story:“Charges of corruption put GPD under scrutiny” (May 26, by Jordan Green)

Related and supporting documents:

Pulpit Forum questions for Chief Bellamy

Members of the Pulpit Forum address dozens of questions to Greensboro police Chief Tim Bellamy about discrimination claims, Officer AJ Blake and the Latin Kings.

Officer Blake statement, June 2, 2009

Officer AJ Blake states that he has been treated differently than a similarly situated white officer in a disciplinary matter.

Officer Blake statement, Aug. 12, 2009

Officer AJ Blake outlines an allegation that Councilman Mike Barber offered to help get assault charges dropped in exchange for Blake dropping out of a discrimination suit against the city.

A Paradigm Shift, proposed by the Beloved Community Center and the Pulpit Forum

The Beloved Community Center and the Pulpit Forum propose a multifaceted approach to nurturing “low income youth and children of color.”

Chief Bellamy response to Pulpit Forum

Greensboro police Chief Tim Bellamy responds to questions posed by the Pulpit Forum about alleged discrimination, the gang unit and Officer AJ Blake.

Audit of GPD’s use of US Justice Department “cold case” grant

The Greensboro Internal Audit Division found police employees were paid in excess of actual hours recorded “in several instances” on federal grant project for solving cold cases with DNA.

Capt. Wolfe response to Pulpit Forum re: GPD gang unit

Greensboro police Capt. John Wolfe explains the top-down enforcement strategy employed by the GPD gang unit against NC Latin King leader Jorge Cornell, and argues the unit has proven effective.

Disciplinary task force recommendations and actions

A recent change recommended by a disciplinary task force is to require that someone from the human resources and legal departments review disciplinary matters to ensure fair and consistent treatment.

Letter from the Revs. Cardes Brown and Nelson Johnson to Mayor Bill Knight

The Revs. Cardes Brown and Nelson Johnson warn Mayor Bill Knight that “a process is well underway to declare ‘unfit for duty’ some of the very best officers of the Greensboro Police Department.”

E-mail from Capt. Cherry to members of the Eastern Division patrol command

Greensboro police Capt. Charles Cherry explains why he has been recommended for fitness for duty status.

July 6, 2010 city of Greensboro press release on Complaint Review Committee

A city of Greensboro press release discusses case management of complaints filed by citizens alleging improper treatment by Greensboro police officers.

Citizen complaints referred to GPD for investigationComplaints by citizens of improper treatment by GPD officers that were referred for internal investigation leapt from nine in 2008 to 38 in 2009.

Complaint Review Committee case breakdown

23 out of 80 cases reviewed by the Complaint Review Committee since 2005 remain open. Violations were sustained in only four out of 57 cases closed.

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