Officer alleges retaliation in grievance about hand wave
Officer AJ Blake (third from right) says Assistant Chief Anita Holder threatened him with termination for waving at Latin King leader Jorge Cornell. (file photo)
These have been difficult days for Greensboro police Officer AJ Blake.
The officer is in the midst of a state disciplinary process that could result in the loss of his law enforcement license for five years. On May 26, a state criminal justice committee under the auspicesof the Justice Department made a decision to allow his case to go forward. Blake is awaiting word from the state about when he will go before an administrative judge.
Meanwhile, the officer looked diminished as he waited in frontof police headquarters on a recent Friday afternoon for a grievancehearing with Chief Tim Bellamy. Stripped of his uniform and relativelynew flecks of gray showing in his hair, the only hint of authorityin the always-diminutive officer’s presence were his pronouncedbiceps. Recent events bear out that much of the command staff and Off cerBlake’s rank-and-file colleagues would like nothing better than to seeBlake gone. Consigned to administrative duties, the one-time vicesquad and gang unit officer has found himself shunned and treatedwith hostility within the department. He has begun to worry about hissafety.“As a pastor in conversation with many of the officers, they arevery concerned with not only hazardous work environments, butphysical harm,” said the Rev. Cardes Brown, Blake’s pastor and thepresident of the Greensboro branch NAACP. To the state NAACP, Offi cer Blake is a whistleblower. A blackoffi cer of Honduran extract, Blake is one of 39 plaintiffs in a federaldiscrimination lawsuit and has fi led complaints against other officersalleging that they have made statements derogatory to Latinos. Tosome of his fellow officers, local elected officials and members of thepublic who avidly read about his role in an altercation 16 months agoat a drunken police party, Blake is little more than a rogue officer.When then-acting City Manager Bob Morgan overturned a decisionby Chief Bellamy to terminate Blake, outraged council membersdemanded an explanation during a special closed-session meeting. A particularly sensitive issue within the department is remarksby Blake about the gang enforcement unit’s aggressive suppressionefforts against the North Carolina Almighty Latin King and QueenNation. A formal grievance fi led by Blake and obtained by YES! Weeklyfrom Brown indicates that Blake was threatened last month withtermination by Assistant Chief Anita Holder for allegedly associatingwith Jorge Cornell, the leader of the North Carolina Latin Kings,which has been under near constant surveillance by the gang unit forthe past four years. Following his reinstatement after the acting city manager overturnedthe chief’s termination decision, Blake was served with amemo from Assistant Chief Gary Hastings stating that he is forbiddenfrom associating with Cornell because departmental directivesprohibit associating with convicted felons. Cornell was convictedof a gun-related felony in New York State before he moved toGreensboro. Blake indicated his disagreement with the memo in anotation next to his signature confirming receipt of the document.Blake’s recent grievance indicates that he learned that five membersof the Spirit of the Sit-In Movement Initiative had been arrestedat a city council meeting while working in the watch operations centeron May 4. Off duty the next day, Blake received a press releaseabout a subsequent protest in front of the police department. With theunderstanding that the students had called attention to the discriminationsuit in which he is a plaintiff, Blake consulted with his lawyerand then drove to the demonstration to see what the protesters weresaying about the department. Getting out of his vehicle in the parking lot across the street frompolice headquarters, Blake said he saw several members of the LatinKings. Blake called the Rev. Brown, who would later allow himselfto be arrested that day while charging the police department with aculture of corruption, and the officer reportedly told his pastor he wasconcerned about being in the presence of Latin Kings members. Hesaid Cornell spotted him, made eye contact and waved at him.“Instinctively and politely, I waved back at Mr. Cornell,” Blakestates in the grievance.Blake said he walked back across the parking lot away from thedemonstration and observed it from a distance. After Blake andBrown concluded their phone conversation, the grievance states thatthe officer’s cell phone rang. “Sergeant Davis stated, ‘What are you doing?’” the grievancestates. “Almost simultaneously, Lt. GA Hunt pulled up with anotherlieutenant in the vehicle. Lt. Hunt stated,’ ‘Assistant Chief Holder needs to speak with you. Get in.’” Blake said Holder confronted him that she had evidence he was associating with Cornell because the two had been observed waving at each other, adding that if he were caught again he would be suspended without pay and she would recommend him for termination.
Then, Blake said, Holder ordered him to leave the department and the general area. Rather than go out the front door and pass by his pastor and others who were in the midst of a demonstration, Blake said at Holders’ instruction he went out back and rode with Lt. Hunt back to his vehicle.
Blake contends that the incident appears to be a violation of his civil rights.
The grievance outlines a second incident in February in which an employee in the department’s resource management division allegedly deducted hours from Blake’s paycheck without cause, resulting in his paycheck coming up about half short. Blake said the captain with command control over the resource management division backed the decision to short his pay. Another captain disagreed and reportedly took the matter up to Assistant Chief Holder. Blake said he had to wait seven days before his full earnings were restored.
“Both incidents are retaliatory, discriminatory, unfair and place me in a hostile work environment,” the grievance reads. “I was clearly intimidated, harassed and threatened. Please investigate these actions to determine whether they were improper. Once you find out if they were improper, you must find out why they occurred. Therein lies the discrimination, retaliation, unfair, hostile working environment.
Then, please take corrective action.”
While Blake and Brown sat in the administrative office, Chief Bellamy poked his head in and said, “AJ, you and your representative can come on back.”
In the chief’s office, Blake read the grievance verbatim and then read from a list of written questions. Most of the questions dealt with the two incidents outlined in the grievance, but one questioned whether Bellamy considered himself a victim of discrimination before being appointed chief.
“Chief, much of this is carryover, I believe, from the fact that I am a part of the EEOC lawsuit with the 39 minority officers, and made complaints against GPD officers, as it relates to discriminatory action by the former Chief David Wray administration,” begins the
preface of Blake’s questions. “Chief, were you part of that lawsuit at anytime? Why did you withdraw from the lawsuit?” Among Blake’s most pressing questions:
Considering that the chief has had his grievance for 20 days, has any investigation been initiated?
After the meeting, Brown said the chief offered no response, but said he would respond to the “relevant” questions at a later date.
Brown said Blake’s misdemeanor charges stemming from the drunken police party similarly situate him with a handful of white officers who have also been charged with criminal acts. Some of the white officers have been charged with misdemeanors, others felonies. Some, like Blake, have been ultimately acquitted; others convicted. Why is it, Brown asks, that only Blake has been hauled before the state’s Criminal Justice Education & Training Standards Commission and stripped of his law enforcement license.
Wayne Woodard, director of the Justice Department’s Criminal Justice Standards Division, said in an e-mail last month that “whether an individual officer is presented to the probable cause committee is dependent on notification to the standards division that a potential rule violation has occurred and whether an investigation by the standards division indicates that evidence exists to support a potential rule violation. Blake reported his charges to the standards division, as required by state law. Brown questions whether white officers who were charged with crimes under Bellamy’s watch also reported to the standards division. He also suspects fellow Greensboro police officers “bombarded” the division with requests for Blake’s punishment. Woodard declined to discuss whether his agency has investigated other, white Greensboro police officers, citing the state’s personnel privacy law.
Reciting a litany of charges against white officers and their outcomes that did not result state hearings, Brown asked, “If there’s no racial discrimination, what’s the reason?” The chief did not respond for a request for comment for this story.
“The chief had a private meeting with me and Blake a couple months ago,” Brown said. “He said, ‘Keep fighting until you get your due process.’ Then, a couple weeks ago he said on camera, ‘There is no discrimination in the police department.’ You were one of the officers claiming discrimination. Now that he’s the chief, he’s saying there’s no discrimination.”
UPDATE: Jorge Cornell, leader of the North Carolina Latin Kings, says that he did not wave at Blake, and in fact did not even see him at the rally. Rather, he said, he was waving at several police officers in the area, including two across the street who appeared to be hiding in the street, to let them know that he knew the demonstration was under heavy police surveillance.’
NOTE: The original version of this story has been revised to correct a reporting error.