E-mails indicate officer used discretion to let councilwoman go with warning
A Greensboro police officer’s decision to issue a verbal warning to Dianne Bellamy-Small, who was caught driving 15 miles over the speed limit after a city council meeting earlier this month, has brought down a shower of public reproach on the councilwoman, even as questions about whether the police bend the rules for elected leaders and whether those officials expect preferential treatment remain unresolved.
As detailed in an e-mail from Sgt. Dale Allen to Lt. George Holder and Capt. Mike Oates, commander of the department’s central division, Bellamy-Small disputed Officer MJ Calvert’s claim that she was speeding and threatened to go over his head to remedy her displeasure.
“Officer MJ Calvert had occasion to stop Dianne Bellamy-Small at approximately 2315 hours last night for speeding on Lee Street,” Allen wrote in an e-mail dated Feb. 7 and subsequently released by the city. “He paced her at 50 mph in a 35 zone and gave her a verbal warning for her speed. She made it a point to tell him that she was coming from a council meeting and after the stop she requested one of his cards and stated she was going to call Chief Bellamy in the morning about the incident. She maintained she was not speeding.”
A log report, also released by the city, indicates that Calvert gave Bellamy-Small special consideration based on her status as an elected official. A text message exchange with fellow officer L. Albert at 11:23 p.m. on Feb. 6 begins with Calvert writing, “Councilwoman… I just pulled over… not good.”
Albert: “Yipes! Why you pull her over for?”
Calvert: “50 in 35.”
Calvert: “I think I better let her off on this one.”
Capt. Anita Holder, commander of the division of information and technology, declined to release the section of the department’s Standard Operating Procedure that provides guidance on when it is appropriate for police officers to issue written tickets. She said that while she believes it is a public record the city’s legal department had not reviewed and cleared the document as of late Monday.
She declined to comment on whether the incident was handled appropriately.
“I don’t have enough facts about this particular situation to answer that question, but I can tell you that officers do have discretion to determine whether they will or will not make charges for specific traffic violations,” Holder said. “Guiding criteria are in the standard operating procedure and as soon as we determine whether legal will allow us to release that document we will or will not release it.”
It is unclear whether Bellamy-Small followed up on her threat by contacting the police chief about the traffic stop the next morning. Neither she nor Chief Bellamy returned phone messages requesting comment on the incident.
“I suspect there’s a lot of traffic stops throughout the day where no tickets are issued,” said Mayor Keith Holliday in an interview with YES! Weekly. “My instincts tell me that’s a pretty large number of miles over [the speed limit]. I’m not trained in the borderline between issuing a verbal warning and a written ticket. That seems pretty excessive.”
He added that he was unaware of any incident in which members of city council have been granted preferential treatment by the police.
“I can tell you that in the seven years and two months that I’ve been mayor I know of no incident where any council member has been given any leniency in a traffic violation or any law enforcement matter,” Holliday said. “The good news for slow-moving Keith is I’ve never been stopped.”
No preferential treatment should be expected by any elected official, Holliday said.
“Personally, I would expect absolutely no change from normal procedure regarding any citizen,” he said. “There should be absolutely no difference.”
Holliday added that as a voting member of the city council with equal standing to Bellamy-Small he has no plans to formally investigate the incident.
About an hour and a half after learning about Officer Calvert’s encounter with Bellamy-Small, Sgt. Allen apprised his superiors of the incident, writing to Capt. Mike Oates and Lt. George Holder: “I am hoping she did not attempt to intimidate a young officer from doing his duty and that she would not attempt to use her political position to try and adversely affect a young and impressionable officer’s career.”
At 8:21 a.m. near the beginning of the following business day, Oates forwarded the e-mail to City Manager Mitchell Johnson and Chief Bellamy, adding his own message: “Mitch, Please see the below e-mail. I wanted to make sure that you were not caught off guard by a possible complaint.”
Johnson responded to both Oates and Bellamy about an hour later: “Thanks for the heads-up. Please handle this as you would any other. If she contacts me I will certainly tell her the same.”
Four minutes after sending his initial text message to Officer Albert, Calvert contacted his superior, Sgt. Allen. Rather than discussing the relative merits of issuing a verbal warning or a written ticket, they talked about the implications of the young officer being the subject of a complaint.
“Did you have your recorder on?” Allen wrote in a text message.
Calvert: “No. I didn’t even think about that.”
Allen: “Live and learn.”
Calvert: “Too early in my career to start getting complaints.”
Allen: “Telling the truth is challenging for that person.”
Then Allen added: “That’s no problem. Complaints come with the territory sometimes. Just want you to use every tool to protect yourself against frivolous ones.”
To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at firstname.lastname@example.org