Familiar pattern: Black officer outlines basis for discrimination suit

by Jordan Green

“Help us to own the diversity that we have in this community,” prayedthe Rt. Rev. Chip Marble, assisting bishop for the Episcopal Diocese ofNorth Carolina, at the opening benediction for a press conference heldby terminated Greensboro police Officer AJ Blake.

The controversial saga of Blake, a Honduran-American of African descent who was acquitted last month by a Guilford County jury of assaulting two women at a drunken party held at the Greensboro Police Department last January, adds yet another racial discrimination claim against the department and has implicated an outspoken city councilman, whom the fired officer has accused of outright lying. Blake said he had three conversations with District 4 Councilman Mike Barber in January and February seeking assistance with getting his pay reinstated while on suspension pending trial for the assault charges. “At that initial meeting, Councilman Barber asked what my stand was on the lawsuit by 39 officers of color against the city,” Blake told reporters last week. “He said if I dropped my name off the lawsuit, he would help me get the charges dismissed. At no time did I raise the lawsuit with Councilman Barber.” Barber has denied the allegation. “At no time did we get into his EEOC claim, anything related to that; his interest was the leave without pay,” Barber said from dais during a city council meeting in early June. “It would be illogical for me to talk about that, because, one, it wouldn’t matter if one of the 39 or 40 dismissed their claim. And secondly, these charges were brought by the state of North Carolina, and I have no relationship with the DA’s office except as an adversary because I, too, am a defense attorney.” Blake’s allegation that the councilman tried to arrange a deal for him was initially made public in early June, a month after Barber asked the 39 plaintiffs in the discrimination complaint to which Blake is a party to dismiss their lawsuit. “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 EEOC would see we’re a fine city, we treat our people right, and they might very well close their books as well,” Barber said at the time. Blake said that at a second meeting in early February, Barber called Guilford County District Attorney Douglas Henderson “from his office and placed him on speakerphone so that I could hear the conversation. He asked the DA if there was any way to mediate the charges. The DA said no and that the case was going to trial.” Henderson did not return calls seeking verification of the conversation on Monday. Blake’s ordeal has unfolded amidst an ongoing US Justice Department investigation of racial discrimination allegations within the police department and a pending lawsuit, in which another council member, Trudy Wade, is accused of leaking the names of Blake and other claimants to scuttle a settlement. Adding to the politicization of the dispute, the council fired City Manager Mitchell Johnson, who was considered sympathetic to the black officers’ claims. “I think in this case we need to look at the liability portion of this deal: That we have a manager that basically made a decision to stand up and listen to some African-American police officers’ complaints about the police situation,” at-large City Councilman Robbie Perkins said during the closed-session portion of a March 3 city council meeting. “What type of exposure do we have as a city, as a police department to a DOJ investigation? And is that exposure enhanced or increased by us removing the person that voluntarily opened that investigation up? And my concern is that we have quite a bit of exposure. That, that exposure is measured from acredibility standpoint of our community in terms of how we’ll beperceived statewide and nationally, as well as dollarwise.” From thestart, members of city council and the district attorney’s office havetaken a special interest in Blake’s case. And the police department hastaken a tough line against its former employee, suspending him withoutpay — unfairly, according to Blake — and firing him a week before ajury was to determine his culpability.

Barberhimself alluded to Blake’s charges in a council debate about the meritsof a proposal to create a citizen-led civil service board to considerdisciplinary matters for police officers. “I said Friday thatour police department has 500 fantastic sworn officers, but they’veclearly got a handful of problem folks. Within 24 hours there was adrunk police party at the police club and a warrant was issued for oneof our policemen.” The district attorney’s office was alsomonitoring the case. Testimony in Blake’s July 29 jury trial wouldlater reveal that the district attorney’s office was dissatisfied thatBlake been charged only with assaulting Lorraine Galloway, thegirlfriend of a white police officer, and not with assaulting hisgirlfriend, Sandra Sanchez. Galloway would testify in court that sheconfronted Blake after seeing him kick Sanchez. Defenseattorney Kenneth Free Jr. asked police Detective James Schwochow duringthe trial whether he was told to take out a second warrant againstBlake for the alleged assault against Sanchez. “Yes, it is,”Schwochow said. “Is it fair to say you did not want to charge him?”Free asked. “It is,” Schwochow said. “I was advised by my supervisor,Sgt. James Marshall, that there had been a discussion between mysupervisors and the district attorney’s office.” Blake hassuggested that the false allegations against him were motivated by adesire to cover up behavior ranging from sharing multiple sex partnersto racism. And the department’s handling of those allegations hasprompted him to file a second complaint with the Equal EmploymentOpportunity Commission. (Blake was a claimant, along with 38 otherblack officers, who subsequently filed suit earlier this year.)“Councilman Barber asked why I thought people were making up liesagainst me,” Blake said. “I told him I was not sure but that it mightbe related to the prevalence of ‘swinging’ among some officers,including the exchange of wives and sex partners. I told him that Ibelieved that the individuals lying against me were all sexually andintimately connected and were trying to cover things up at my expense.”Asked to elaborate, Blake said, “It’s a well known fact in thepolice department that there is an entity of people involved inswinging. It’s been going on for 20 years.” Later, Blakeoffered another variation of the cover-up theory. “Sgt. [Craig] Myrick,who is the boyfriend of the lady that I pushed, is great friends withanother sergeant, Sgt. Hafekeneyer,” Blake said. “And I had beentransferred in 2006 from Hafekeneyer’s squad to Sgt. Myrick’s squad dueto the fact he made comments about Hispanics being ‘wetbacks,’ andwe’re ‘all illegal immigrants.’… I think they felt I would file acomplaint. And this was a preemptive strike to filing a complaint priorto me filing one.” Blake said that in his final encounter with Barber,before his case went to bench trial, he informed the councilman that hewas filing a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commissionalleging disparate treatment over the department’s refusal to pay himduring his suspension. Blake had described the basis for thediscrimination claim in an earlier press conference. “Several yearsago, Officer Tate, a white officer, was charged with assault againsthis wife,” Blake said. “He was tried in district court and foundguilty. He appealed the case to superior court. He was suspended. ButOfficer Tate was suspended with pay. The district attorney dismissedthe charges against Tate. So he never went to superior court. I ask,why was Officer Tate, who was charged with assault, suspended with paywhen I was suspended without pay?” Blake challenged Barber’scredibility on another front at the recent press conference. Barberhad said in early June that Blake apologized to him through his counselfor the allegation that the councilman had tried to arrange a deal.Last week, Blake said, “Let me say as clearly as I can that CouncilmanBarber is lying. I have made no such apology. My lawyer, Ken Free, toldme that he has conveyed no such apology.” Barber did notreturns calls for this story. Blake said a tape has surfaced containingevidence of efforts within the department to frame him for the purposeof getting him to withdraw from the discrimination lawsuit. “Ithas come to my attention that a tape, involving police Officer ScottSanders and another unnamed person, discussed their desire to get somecharges on me to get rid of me and get me off the department lawsuit,”Blake told reporters. Chief Tim Bellamy declined toacknowledge whether he is aware of such a recording. “There are volumesof tapes that we’ve got up here,” he said last week. “I’m not going todiscuss any of it because it’s part of an internal investigation, andit’s being investigated by the Department of Justice.” Blakewent before an administrative panel in mid-July, and the policedepartment informed him that he had been terminated about a week beforea racially mixed jury acquitted him of the two assault charges. InterimCity Manager Bob Morgan heard an appeal earlier this month, and isrequired to render a decision by Aug. 27. “I have been without a steadyjob for more than six months,” Blake said. “I have lost my home, and mycredit has been ruined. I am in the process of trying to get my jobback and to receive the back pay that I believe I am due.” The Rev.Cardes Brown, Blake’s spiritual advisor, has seen his patience wearthin. “You have a city councilman, Mike Barber, who lied. A DA wholied: he’s the man who insisted that the man be charged. You’ve got apolice chief who has no clue what he’s doing.” Brown said at the press conference: “I would that this whole community would say, ‘No mas, no more.’ It does not take this long to determine that this man deserves his back pay.”

Officer AJ Blake (third from right) held a press conference withLatin King leader Jorge Cornell (fourth from right), where he announcedthat he has filed an EEOC claim against the Greensboro PoliceDepartment. (photo by Lewis Brandon)