On investigations: incomplete, ignored and imperative

by Eric Ginsburg

Even from the police chief’s vantage point, which holds that the department has turned a page and abides by the strictest standards of professionalism, Greensboro police are fraught with allegations of misconduct. As an impressively thorough and lengthy document from the Beloved Community Center on “double standards and corruption” points to, there are some serious questions that lack answers from the department.

Hoping to sidestep some of the criticism, the department recently rolled out fancy video cameras that all officers will wear and that Chief Ken Miller said would help allay complaints of police misconduct. Not so fast — apparently it is up to the individual officer to record a given interaction, and the officer must upload it at the end of a shift.

The department is still finalizing its policies on the cameras and couldn’t say whether the video would be public record or what, if anything, would be the consequences for failing to record or turn in footage of an incident.

Let’s suspend disbelief for a minute and assume that an officer records themselves or a coworker mistreating a civilian, and let’s go ahead and say the video is properly uploaded after a shift and a the mistreated resident files a complaint. Then what?

The police are responsible for investigating themselves, and according to the Beloved Community Center document, sometimes officers are tasked with judging their own acts and assigning fault. Unless the complainant takes the case all the way to court, the video will merely be another piece of evidence that isn’t reviewable by an impartial body to determine what happened.

You really need to read the case studies in the Beloved Community Center’s report. For yourself. Beyond the names that have become more familiar in conversations about racism in the department, like Charles Cherry or AJ Blake (which are still worth reading), there are some particularly damning and concerning points. Like the story of Lamonte Armstrong, who spent 17 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted. The center asserts police illegally withheld evidence, coerced a false witness statement and framed Armstrong for murder.

The report breaks down several specific cases for those who may not have followed each saga closely, and a related letter posted to outlines 36 examples of alleged discrimination or unfair treatment related to the department. The narrative outlines a clear pattern, where claims of racism and discrimination aren’t investigated in the first place, and even when they are, the results are inconsistent with the truth, other cases or both.

The letter and report detail students being falsely accused of intoxication despite no breathalyzer or test being administered, points to undisciplined use of racial slurs within the department and alleges that whistleblowers were terminated for reporting other officers’ misconduct.

This is serious stuff. When a sworn officer claims that another officer confessed to an unprovoked shooting of a civilian and no investigation occurs — as recent court testimony indicated — the problem runs deep. The report isn’t exhaustive — in the last year, I’ve written about two mothers grieving their lost sons, mothers who blame the police for mishandling the investigation or for their sons’ untimely deaths. Regardless of whether you believe the mothers, the reverends or community organizers decrying police actions, one thing is clear: There is a tremendous gap in trust.

The public should not inherently trust the police department, and no amount of new cameras or internal review mechanisms will repair past damages when people continue to be wrongfully imprisoned, fired and mistreated by officers who operate with impunity.

Before arguing that there are appropriate review procedures in place, read the Beloved Community Center’s report. It’s long, but it’s necessary. Then, read Michelle Alexander’s piece in the New York Times entitled “Why police officers lie under oath,” and consider that maybe, just maybe it isn’t a conspiracy theory to believe that there are real pressures on officers to lie.

Lawyer Lewis Pitts spoke at last week’s city council meeting demanding an investigation into whether someone in the police department hacked Councilwoman Marikay Abuzuaiter’s e- mail account to “frame” her as a police informant — given the broader context of allegations of police corruption made by ministers at the same meeting, and a pattern of claims of police misconduct receiving inadequate or no investigation, it is imperative Pitts’ demand be met.

The pressure to arrest and convict people regardless of whether it is based in truth, as Alexander’s article lays out, is evident in Lamonte Armstrong’s wrongful conviction. It is also clear in the more recent case of Jorge Cornell, whose trial was riddled with contradictory testimony and whose treatment by Greensboro police was abhorrent.

It may seem easier to dismiss people raising concerns as fringe activists, bloggers or naysayers rather than to fully examine their claims and determine if there is legitimacy to them. At the absolute least, the depth, severity and persistent nature of these cases is more than enough to warrant an independent investigation.

A full examination of Armstrong’s case led to his release, and the same would hold true for Cornell. Information in a public records request with the city cast serious doubt on the prosecution’s narrative in Cornell’s case, so the US Attorney’s office requested the city withhold the other half of the related public records. The city obliged.

These issues can’t be ignored into oblivion — ultimately the truth surfaces. The ministers and residents clamoring for justice and honesty will not give up as long as the problems and lack of trust persist. Neither will Cornell. Awaiting sentencing at the Forsyth County Detention Center, he’s successfully rallied inmates to convince the administration to allow televisions to be set on a Spanish-language station on Thursdays. Cornell is also pushing for legally-mandated healthy food, against abusive treatment from a guard and rising commissary prices.

“I feel like my right to freedom from discrimination based on race and national origin is being violated,” he wrote in one grievance in mid-January.

A movement cannot be ignored, beaten down or locked up until it submits.

The police department and others may be as sick of hearing about complaints as I am (though for different reasons), but not as fed up as people are of being marginalized, maligned or brushed off. Want these problems and complaints to subside? Then get at the root.