Greensboro leaders remain circumspect about police recordings

by Jordan Green

In April 2006, following the controversial resignation of police Chief David Wray, the Greensboro Police Department issued a press release stating that “a non-sworn police employee attended some meetings with members of the community, and recorded those meetings without their knowledge.”

The new interim chief had notified those who were recorded, most of whom turned out to be African-American civic leaders. The disclosure sent shockwaves through Greensboro, and added to an atmosphere of racial tension and distrust already on low boil with recent allegations of racial profiling within the police force and with the refusal of the white majority on city council to embrace a truth process to look into the 1979 killings of antiracist labor activists by Klansmen and Nazis. Among those notified by the chief were the Rev. Nelson Johnson, who led the fateful 1979 march against the Klan, and Jill Williams, executive director of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Others were lawyer Joe Williams, opthalmologist Dr. Thomas Brewington and the Rev. George Allison. In the absence of contextual information, many community members leapt to a natural conclusion that the police targeted black leaders and at least one select white ally in a surveillance campaign driven by sinister motives. That was not the case, but the new administration clamped the door shut on further inquiry by closing the press release with the notice that “no further information regarding this will be released by the Greensboro Police Department until the investigation is concluded.”

“I think there was a rush to judgment and people became inflamed,” District 4 Councilman Mike Barber said at a recent council meeting. “And I think we’re finding out that what was represented might not have been true.” Adding to the sense of unease, the police press release stated that “the circumstances surrounding these incidents are unclear at this time and are under investigation.”

Efforts by blogger Ben Holder and others to have the facts surrounding the tapings officially aired have so far been thwarted by the police department’s refusal to release any additional information. Chief Tim Bellamy wrote in a Jan. 29 memo to City Attorney Terry Wood that “this matter is an administrative investigation which is being completed at this time. Per departmental directives, at the conclusion of this investigation any involved employee will be notified of the findings in writing. This information is protected under North Carolina General Statute 160A-168.” The statute protects personnel records, and the chief has said the materials might never become public. The alternate account is that Cathleen Vance, then a non-sworn employee with the Greensboro Police Department, wore a wire to gather information in a criminal investigation his powerful presence to help ex-offenders that targeted Delilah Summers, a fellow Violent and convicted felons get acclimated back into Crimes Task Force member from High Point. society.

Vance contends that she recorded various “Speaking with members of the community African-American civic leaders while the two to solicit their participation in our task force women made the rounds to solicit support for program was a big part of my responsibility the task force was incidental and not central to as the violent crimes task force resources the operation. The Rev. Nelson Johnson’s description of a meeting with Summers and Vance at his office suggests the conversation, about whether he would consider participating in the task force, was innocuous. “I think the person was saying I should be part of it,” the Rev. Johnson recalled shortly after learning of the tapings from Bellamy. “I was saying I didn’t see how I could add anything else to my plate.” In a December 2006 interview with YES! Weekly, City Manager Mitchell Johnson said that Summers was the target of the tapings rather than those who were recorded during the meetings, but the notion that the police conducted surveillance on black leaders for sinister motives persists. A detailed account of the circumstances surrounding the tapings had previously been published by Holder, and author Jerry Bledsoe would later contribute additional information in an article in The Rhinoceros Times. The two newspaper accounts and Holder’s blogging activity appear to have done little to puncture the myth. Reminded of that December 2006 interview, Johnson retracted his statement that the recordings had targeted Summers and not the various African-American civic leaders. “I think it would be beneficial for the actual investigation to be made public, but there are legal limits that I have no control over,” the city manager said, adding that he would be the first one to sign a statement pledging to not sue over the release of information if the various parties entangled in lawsuits over the police controversy would do the same. Official Greensboro was confronted with Vance’s version of the tapings in a Feb. 2 e-mail to Councilman Barber. “Delilah Summers and her associates were the focus of these investigations,” Vance wrote. “Most often I did not know where she was going to take me. In one instance you will hear Delilah Summers and I go into attorney Joe Williams’ office, chit chat with hello’s and how are you, then speak with him about returning to coordinator,” Vance continued. “Delilah Summers knew I had access to police as well as FBI files on convicted felons, some of which she told me were her very close friends. These conversations with Delilah Summers and her attempts to gain what was considered classified and restricted information was the only reason this investigation took place.” City Manager Mitchell Johnson said Vance did nothing wrong. The accepted version of the taping-episode story appears on a website maintained by the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., which houses information about a seminar attended by both Chief Tim Bellamy and Mayor Yvonne Johnson. “Executive Session: Human Rights Commissions and Criminal Justice” is described as a meeting of “leaders of human rights commissions from across the United States together with civil rights and police leaders and Harvard faculty for a series of six intensive meetings over two and a half years.” A photograph posted to the website shows Mayor Johnson and Chief Bellamy posed with other seminar participants at the Kennedy School last April. A case study on police misconduct in Greensboro posted on the Kennedy School website states that “it was later discovered he had secretly tape recorded meetings between police personnel and predominantly African-American civic leaders,” in support of a conclusion that the police department is plagued by mistrust the information that following Wray’s resignation, The source of the information in the Greensboro case study remains unclear, but the item suggests that it was drawn from a discussion that included Greensboro officials. “This project involved members of the Executive Session with city officials, the police department, the Human Relations Department and Commission, and Greensboro citizens,” a passage reads, “to develop a police complaint review model that the public, particularly African-American citizens, will view as credible.” Project coordinator Marea L. Beeman did not the ‘call ins’ and stepping up to the plate using 

return phone messagesfor this story. Chief Bellamy could not be reached for comment, but hisexecutive officer, Lt. Hope Newkirk, acknowledged that the chiefparticipated in a roundtable discussion at the Kennedy School. “Thereis no record by the police department or the city about that,” shesaid. “We’re not sure whether the Kennedy School of Government has atranscript.” Mayor Johnson seemed to have difficulty recallingthe contents of discussion. “I don’t remember that I did [discuss thetaping episode], but I can’t say concretely,” she said. “I don’trecall. We can’t remember any conversation about it.” City Manager MitchellJohnson said he questioned Bellamy about the seminar. “Ihave absolutely no idea what was said or not said,” Mitchell Johnsonsaid. “I asked Tim, and he said he didn’t say it. I haven’t asked themayor.” AnthonyWade, the city’s human relations director, also denied providing theerroneous information. “I had no involvement in this,” he said. “I hadno conversation with the Kennedy School. I have not communicated withthe Kennedy School on this issue, and the only involvement I’ve had isthe local discussion, the furor surrounding this unfortunate episode inGreensboro’s history.” Maxine Bakeman, chairwoman of theGreensboro Human Relations Commission, said she also had noconversations with anyone at the Kennedy School of Government. “TheGreensboro Police Department would like you to think that theyuncovered a conspiracy amongst white officers in the now defunctspecial intelligence division to undermine and thwart the efforts ofblack community leaders as a power group in the community,” CathleenVance wrote in her email to Councilman Barber. “That is not true!” Vancecontradicts the assertion in the department’s April 2006 press releasethat “the circumstances surrounding these incidents are unclear at thistime.” She said in her e-mail that she met with Detective Norman Rankinto discuss the motivation for the tapings on March 30, 2006. Vance saidshe told Rankin about how the investigation of Delilah Summersinadvertently recorded Nelson Johnson. Vance said Rankin suggested shehold onto the recording device and asked her if she would “considergoing back to talk to Nelson Johnson with the recorder.” Vancesaid she consulted with Detective Scott Sanders, a trusted colleaguewho is under indictment for obstruction of justice, and the twoarranged a meeting the same day with Capt. Gary Hastings, who has sincebeen promoted to assistant chief, and told him of Rankin’s request. Lessthan three weeks later, the chief began notifying those who wererecorded and issued a press release disclosing the recordings. City Attorney TerryWood said he believes the recordings are protected as a personnelrecord because they are “a part of an employee’s duties.” As such, therecordings could only be released with an affirmative vote of citycouncil upon recommendation by the city manager. City Manager MitchellJohnsonsaid he would make such a recommendation, and Mayor Yvonne Johnson saidshe would vote to release the recordings to those who were recorded,but Mitchell Johnson said the release would require preparation by thelegal department and he did not think he would be ready to make arecommendation at the city council meeting on Tuesday. Those who were purportedly recorded have expressed a mixture of desires about whether the recordings should be released. AssistantCity Manager Denise Turner received an e-mail from Jill Williams onFeb. 4, stating, “If it is possible for me to get a copy of whateverconversations the GPD may have recorded with me, I would like to do so.Please let me know how to make that happen.” The Rev. NelsonJohnson expressed interest in receiving a copy of the recording made ofhim earlier this month, and indicated that he would be willing to shareit with the public, but could not be reached for comment for thisstory. “There are individuals who were recorded who made itabsolutely clear to us that under no circumstances did they want thoserecordings to be released,” Mitchell Johnson said. “Tim

Bellamymet with them. They did not want the fact that they were recorded to bepublic.” Joe Williams, the lawyer who was recorded, indicated no desireto pursue the matter further. “I heard what was on the tapes,” he said.“I heard it from a person who heard the tapes. I believed the person.” Headded, “The mere fact that they recorded me is wrong…. It’s a privatematter between me and those who did what they did to me. I’ve forgiventhose people and gone on.” Others are not inclined to let it go. “Whydoes the city of Greensborocontinue to ignore the truth surrounding the ‘secret recordings,’having full knowledge that they were made in the course of a sanctionedand legitimate criminal investigation?” Vance asked in her e-mail. “Whyis it that almost three years after this came to light I am stillwaiting to have my good name cleared along with Detective ScottSanders?”

A photo posted on a website maintained by the Kennedy School of Government shows Greensboro Mayor Yvonne Johnson (bottom left) and police Chief Tim Bellamy at an April 2008 seminar. The website erroneously states it was discovered that Bellamy’s predecessor “had secretly tape recorded meetings between police personnel and predominantly African-American civic leaders.” (courtesy photo)