Police misconduct allegations continue, officer fired

by Eric Ginsburg

What began as a college graduation party devolved into a disturbance, resulting in two arrests Chief Ken Miller said were “unnecessary,” and ended with an officer being fired and complaints against two others sustained after an internal review.

After a month-long internal investigation, the Greensboro Police Department held a press conference last week to address the incident at a Bennett College graduation party and an unrelated incident at the same apartment complex less than two weeks earlier that also lead to complaints of police misconduct.

The department fired rookie officer JR Payne after an internal investigation determined he was untruthful about what happened after he responded to a noise disturbance call. Four student leaders were arrested and face various misdemeanor charges The incident, as well as a robbery investigation at the Sebastian Village apartments, generated complaints and public attention at what some community advocates say is a pattern of problems with professionalism and accountability within the department, particularly when it comes to residents of color.

At a community meeting called by the Beloved Community Center on June 13, residents highlighted the two cases at Sebastian Village and a few others that they said illustrated the need for a citizen review board to increase police accountability.

In complaints about the graduation party incident, four students who were arrested alleged misconduct from numerous officers, including Payne who was fired. A complaint from student Taylor Duncan said Joshua Ryan Payne arrested her for “resisting arrest” and said he “grabbed me by the back of my neck, turned me around and pushed me forcefully against the wall.” Other student complaints said Payne swore at them twice, telling partygoers to “Shut the f*ck up,” and swearing again at the magistrate’s office. Student Ashley Buchanan also said Payne “slammed” her while he was arresting her.

In a press conference last week, Miller said Payne initially responded to the scene alone without waiting for back up, a move he said was “unwise” and went against police training. Miller refuted claims of excessive force and an allegation by someone who called 911, believed to be one of the students prior to arrest, that an officer pointed a gun at her.

“There was no use of force other than to place Ms. Buchanan on the carpet to secure her arrest,” Miller said, adding that she only sustained a rug burn and minor nose scrape. “No pistols were drawn.”

An internal investigation into the incident found that Payne used profanity in telling students to be quiet and while Buchanan was processed at the magistrate’s office. Miller said the discourtesy complaints were a violation of the department’s codebook and that the complaint was upheld.

Payne, who was on the force for a year, was not forthcoming in the investigation, and was fired for violating the department’s truthfulness directive, Miller said.

“The recall changed,” he said, “and that’s unacceptable.”

At the direction of Sgt. C. Stevens, Payne arrested Duncan, a move that internal affairs determined was lawful but that Miller said could have been avoided. Stevens received counseling about the discretion decision.

“While I concur completely with this perspective of lawfulness, the evidence supports that Sgt. Stevens directed or initiated two unnecessary arrests of Taylor Duncan and Amber Coleman,” Miller wrote in a report the city manager.

Miller recommended that the district attorney drop charges against Duncan and Coleman, but said the district attorney declined, and plans to use deferred prosecution for the four students cases, which would require them to plead guilty and complete community service exchange for the charges being dropped. Assistant District Attorney Howard Neumann said his office could not comment on the situation because the cases are pending.

Another officer on the scene, Officer Scarborough, received a written reprimand after a complaint about his lack of courtesy was sustained and a one-day suspension without pay after the department determined he failed to report injuries sustained by Buchanan. The other complaints, the department said, were unfounded or the officers were exonerated.

*** The department’s press conference, held June 13 and announced late the previous day, drew a gaggle of cameras and reporters that shrunk significantly for a community meeting on the same subject that afternoon.

Posters calling for a citizen review board to oversee complaints against police adorned the wall of the church sanctuary, where several city council members and dozens of residents listened to speakers, watched a presentation about the Sebastian Village cases and two others and split into groups to discuss the issue further.

The video presenting the four recent cases said they highlighted patterns of dishonesty, excessive use of force, disparate treatment based on race, false arrest and a faulty or non-existent follow-up accountability process.

Marie Robinson and her fiancé James Fields, who attended the meeting, said in video interviews that police approached them while they sat in Robinson’s car, which was parked in Fields’ driveway. Robinson, who is diabetic, said he was helping her with her blood sugar level but that police suspected them of drug use and prostitution. In the ensuing incident, the pair said they were assaulted and arrested without cause. Fields lost his job at Wal-Mart due to the charges, according to the video.

Councilwoman Nancy Vaughan attended the meeting and talked to Robinson afterward.

“She was compelling,” Vaughan said. “I am a diabetic and I have had issues like she described and they were extremely accurate. I think that [the police] should have erred on the side of caution when it came to somebody that said they were having a medical issue.”

Vaughan said people with low blood sugar like Robinson can go into a diabetic coma if they don’t receive the appropriate attention, adding that the symptoms of low blood sugar can make someone appear to be intoxicated. Vaughan’s doctor even taught her daughter how to give her a shot if she unexplainably started acting drunk.

“I’m still not sure what they were actually arrested for,” Vaughan said. “I don’t know why this situation escalated the way it did. I still feel that we have a very good police force but I think that they need more training when it comes to dealing with segments of our population and people who are at risk.”

Miller said complaints stemming from the incident weren’t sustained in an internal review.

“The Robinson complaint was investigated and adjudicated,” Miller said, but would not elaborate on the details.

“What I can tell you is that [there] was the same level of attention to detail as the Sebastian Village ones. You’re hearing one side of it.”

The video at the community meeting also presented the case of Rufus and Devon Scales, who were allegedly assaulted by police in a traffic stop. Police allegedly told witnesses that it was illegal to film the incident and intimidated them into deleting video evidence. Chief Miller said the Beloved Community Center only presented part of the story.

“I doubt that you have heard the full scope of what took place or what actions the Scales took,” Miller said. “That was a justifiable use of force in that case based on the actions of the Scales brothers.”

Miller said community leaders like Rev. Nelson Johnson, who runs the Beloved Community Center, and Rev. Cardes Brown, the local NAACP chair, perpetuate some false claims about alleged police misconduct. Miller said that as public figures that influence people, it was incumbent on them to present truthful and accurate information, and he said they were failing to do so with information about certain cases.

“They continue to do that, and that is what serves to divide our community, and not unite it,” Miller said, “And it’s got to end. There’s no outreach, there’s only fingerpointing.”

At the community meeting, Johnson and others emphasized that they believe there are many good officers in the department but said many people in the city don’t want to face what is really happening, especially in communities of color.

“The culture of denial is significantly deep in the city,” Johnson said. “If it happens to certain people they are just left and that’s why the jails are bulging with people. It’s a tremendous power to have the authority to investigate yourself.”

Johnson said some cases, like the Bennett students, received more attention and had a better hope for justice because they were able to retain a lawyer, but said often poor people have little recourse. Johnson also said he is concerned that the department was scapegoating Officer Payne and that the problems run deeper in the department.

Several speakers emphasized the need for residents to participate actively in a movement for police accountability and professionalism, which would require recognizing racial disparities.

In the press conference last week, Miller said the department had plans to try and improve “inherent” and “historic” tensions between police and “minority communities” that extend beyond Greensboro.

Miller cited an independent community study that shows a widespread positive perception of the department. On average, black residents rated the department more poorly than white residents. On a 10-point scale where 10 means, “strongly agree,” black residents gave the department a 6.9 for treating all residents with respect and a 6.8 in “use good judgment in use of force,” while white residents averaged 8.1 and 8.3 respectively.

The lower ratings from black residents, though still leaning in favor of the department, indicate a racial gap in perception, but speakers like former Mayor Carolyn Allen said there are also disparities in treatment.

“Over the years it’s been clear that many of us in the white community don’t always realize our police don’t act the same towards everybody,” Allen said.

Chip Marble, a retired Episcopal bishop who has worked closely with the Beloved Community Center around past allegations of police misconduct, concurred.

“White privilege is one of the problems we have,” said Marble, who is white. “They cannot police themselves. They just cannot do that.”

NC A&T University political science professor Derick Smith, who has been active in the Moral Monday protests in Raleigh, hit a similar note.

“If we’re a democracy, then we need to be running the show,” he told the crowd.

Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson said at the community center’s last meeting about the police department in April that she would support the formation of a citizen review board. After attending last week’s meeting, Johnson said she still does but that she doesn’t think council would approve one with subpoena power, which would be important.

“We have an opportunity to perhaps do some things that might make a difference,” she said. “That’s what I’m hoping and praying. For a long time I have thought we need some kind of system. It’s just very difficult to do things when you can’t have records

and information that you need to make an informed and fair decision.”

Johnson said she hopes the chief will look at it as an opportunity, adding that review boards rarely work even with subpoena power unless the chief is on board.

Vaughan said the key to a review board would be making sure it was made up of an unbiased panel. The issue was worth discussing, she said, but other review boards often upheld internal police rulings.

“I would certainly entertain discussions about a review board but I think we have to be very careful about the makeup of the panel,” Vaughan said. “I hate to talk about sensitivity training because that just sounds so vanilla but I do think there needs to be deeper training on how to deal with people in general. [Police] probably have thousands of interactions a day and most go just the way they should.”

As for the incident with Bennett students, Vaughan said there should be continued discussions on how to handle things better and Johnson is left with questions.

“It’s hard to understand how you could fire somebody and say that nothing was done wrong [in the incident],” Johnson said. “We’ll talk more with the chief about that, I’m sure. That’s my alma mater. I know these young women so that makes it even more difficult. I’ve got to be fair but… it’s hard for me to believe some of this stuff.”

Disclosure: Eric Ginsburg worked for the Beloved Community Center in 2009 and 2010.