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DOJ representative visits Greensboro following community delegation to Washington

by Jordan Green

 

Capt. Charles Cherry, who awaits a determination from City Manager Rashad Young, speaks to a group at Bethel AME Church. (photo by Jordan Green) Charles E. Phillips, a conciliation specialist with the US Justice Department Community Relations Service’s Atlanta office, met with Greensboro City Manager Rashad Young and police Chief Ken Miller earlier this month. His day ended with a community meeting at an east-side church where he heard about allegations of police corruption.

 

“We were formed as part of the ’64 Civil Rights Act to get involved in situations where there’s tension related to race, color, national origin,” Phillips said during the meeting at Bethel AME Church on Oct. 12. “That has been extended to sexual orientation, gender, religion and disability due to the Hate Crime Prevention Act that was passed in October of last year. We don’t get involved with criminal issues. What we get involved with are situations where there is tension. So there might be an investigation going on, but we’re not a part of that investigation — rather working between the community and city government, between the community and police department where there’s some sort of tension.”

Phillips said he has been to Greensboro “about a half-dozen times now over everything from comic strips in various newspapers to — there was an issue here several years ago that raised quite a bit of controversy — of course, all of the black book issues and all those things. Our agency is no stranger to Greensboro. We were here back in ’79 as well.”

A delegation of black and Latino Greensboro police officers, members of the North Carolina Latin Kings street organization, pastors and other citizens visited the Justice Department in Washington on Sept. 31. The Rev. Nelson Johnson said they had hoped to wrangle 20 minutes out of a department representative. Instead, 15 employees from different agencies within the department listened for an hour. When Johnson remarked that the delegation didn’t want to presume on the officials’ time, but the feds reportedly asked questions for another hour.

Johnson said the fired police officers and their supporters believe they have grounds to file a Title VI civil rights complaint against the city.

“There are negative impacts on people of color within this city growing from the police department,” the pastor said, “and Title VI very simply is, if you don’t treat people right on the basis of their color, the folk will take your money back.”

Johnson said the group of officers of color, along with their supporters, wants to formally enter into negotiations with the city, and asked for Phillips’ assistance. Another pastor, the Rev. Gregory Headen, said the Justice Department specifically asked the delegation to document complaints about police misconduct and forward them to the agency. Later, Johnson encouraged those at the meeting to file complaints with the city’s human relations department and then provide a second copy to the local NAACP chapter.

Seated at the front of the room during the community meeting were a quartet of black and Latino current and former police officers, including two whose terminations were recently upheld by the city manager, a captain whose termination appeal is long overdue and a fourth officer who was reinstated to duty after the results of a set of polygraphs were thrown out in an internal investigation into whether he had violated the department’s truthfulness directive.

The meeting also drew two members of the Greensboro Human Relations Commission, who serve through appointment by city council, along with two city employees. Assistant City Attorney Jamiah Waterman and Human Relations Administrator Yamile Walker sat quietly through the meeting.

One of the human relations commissioners, Michael Roberto, also asked questions.

After clarifying that he was not speaking on behalf of the commission, Roberto asked police Capt. Charles Cherry, whose termination is on appeal to the city manager, if it had been legal for his commander to order him to undergo a psychological evaluation.

Cherry related a complex sequence of events, explaining that he could not refuse the order, but outwitted police administration by referring himself to his own psychologist, resisted pressure to submit his personal medical records to the city-appointed psy chologist and received an evaluation finding him fit for duty. Then, he said, he was investigated to determine whether he had been truthful in his grievances. Cherry was eventually terminated by Assistant Chief Dwight Crotts for violation of the department’s general conduct, malicious criticism and gossip, and discretion directives. Department brass faulted Cherry for violating a confidentiality agreement by disclosing comments made at a command-level meeting by a fellow captain to the effect that he didn’t trust officers who are plaintiffs in a federal discrimination lawsuit and by sending an e-mail to officers under his command explaining why he faced a fitness-for-duty evaluation.

At one point, Cherry addressed a question to Waterman, asking him to verify that he’s seen internal complaints filed within the police department that have not been answered.

Waterman declined to acknowledge the question, murmuring, “I’m not able to comment.”

Joseph Pryor, who attended the meeting, confirmed that he was informed on Oct. 12 that the city manager upheld his termination for a sustained violation of the department’s truthfulness directive. AJ Blake learned that his termination had been made final on Oct. 1.

Blake was terminated for malicious criticism and gossip based on remarks made during a press conference at New Light Missionary Baptist Church in June 2009 in which he compared his disciplinary treatment — charged with assault for extending his hand to stop a woman at a party from advancing on him, and ultimately acquitted — with that of a white police officer who was determined to have acted appropriately by District Attorney Doug Henderson after shooting and killing an unarmed black man. The white officer was not charged, based on the district attorney’s determination. Blake said at the time that the charges against him “grow from an anti-Latino and anti-peopleof-color-prejudice and hostility within certain quarters and among certain officers in the Greensboro Police Department.”

The Rev. Cardes Brown, who is the pastor at New Light Missionary Baptist Church and president of the Greensboro NAACP, said after the meeting that City Manager Rashad Young told Blake in turning down his appeal that he concurred with the finding that the officer violated the department’s directive against malicious criticism and gossip.

Brown quoted Young as writing to Blake:

“Your statements, taken alone, were factually correct, but were devoid of the context that could only be provided by one with knowledge of the event of that night.”

Young also justified the termination, as quoted by Brown, by saying, “Your statements were irresponsible given that the use of deadly force is perhaps the most debilitating and decisive issue that can affect a community and its police department. This is especially true if such authority is not exercised in accordance with the laws. It does not mean that the shooting serves any real comparative example to your situation, as you have admitted you had no real material facts regarding what actually occurred.”

The June 2009 statement was made about three months after interim City Manager Bob Morgan overturned a decision by then- Chief Tim Bellamy to terminate Blake for his behavior during a drunken police party in January where the assault was alleged to have taken place.

Blake’s supporters contend that the city manager’s decision to uphold Blake’s termination fits a pattern of discrimination and retaliation. Young did not respond to a phone message and e-mail seeking his comment.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC, outlines three elements of retaliation on its website: opposition to discrimination (specifically including speaking to the media), adverse action and a causal connection between the two. Whether the discrimination is actual or not is irrelevant, in the agency’s view; it’s enough that the employee has “a reasonable and good faith belief that the opposed practices were unlawful” — in other words, a violation of the constitutional guarantee of equal protection under the law.

In the absence of a written or verbal admission that the adverse action was taken as retaliation for opposition to discrimination, cause may be found by the EEOC, according to the agency manual, “if the reason advanced by the respondent is a pretext to hide the retaliatory motive.”

The manual states, “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. Pretext can also be shown if the respondent subjected the charging party’s work performance to heightened scrutiny after she engaged in protected activity.”

The Revs. Brown and Johnson, along with other pastors, noted in a letter to Bellamy that a group of Greensboro police officers released a statement to the News & Record last year expressing disagreement with Morgan’s decision to reinstate Blake, stating that they found it difficult to do their jobs when “uneducated decisions such as this put people who are not fit to serve back on the police force.”

The pastors asked Bellamy whether the statement violated the directive against malicious criticism and gossip and whether any action had been taken against the officers responsible.

Bellamy’s response, heavily vetted by the city’s legal department, read, “Any proceedings, findings and conclusions of administrative investigations are protected by personnel privacy laws; city employees have certain rights to address matters of public concerns and any issues in the workplace.”

Federal law prohibits retaliation on the part of an employer against any employee in response to a complaint of discrimination.

Blake and Pryor are consulting with a lawyer about filing suit against the city. In a related matter, members of the Latin Kings have been in talks with the Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice about taking some kind of legal action and seeking federal intervention against alleged civil rights violations. Blake was formerly assigned to the police department’s gang enforcement unit, and has criticized its tactics against the Latin Kings.

Gesturing toward Cherry during the community meeting, Johnson suggested defenders of status quo in the police department will go to any lengths to discredit those calling out alleged misconduct.

“They try to say he was crazy; he was a Latin King,” Johnson said. “Rev. Brown is trying to promote the NAACP. I’m just off the chain. And everybody who hangs out with us, something is wrong with them. And I just want you to know that all the change that has ever come in the world, somebody had to sacrifice for it. Somebody had to be the voice in the wilderness.”

Johnson added that he is encouraged that the group’s organizing efforts will result in constructive change in the police department.

“When you have that kind of spirit washing over a community,” he said, “a change is gonna come.”

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