Police recordings made to monitor suspicious task force member

by Jordan Green

Interim Chief Tim Bellamy’s announcement in April that an internal investigation of administrative practices under former Chief David Wray revealed that the Greensboro Police Department recorded conversations with prominent members of the city’s African-American community might have seemed a confirmation of deep-seated institutional racism.

A 153-word news release on official letterhead disclosed that a non-sworn police department employee attended community meetings and recorded discussion without the participants’ knowledge. Among those who were informed by the police that they had been recorded were the Rev. Nelson Johnson, lawyer Joe Williams and opthalmologist Dr. Thomas Brewington.

Rev. Johnson reported that he was personally informed by Bellamy that a police employee recorded at least one meeting of the Truth and Community Reconciliation Project held at Faith Community Church where he serves as pastor, and recorded a private conversation with him in his office on a separate occasion.

The police news release concluded that because of the need to ensure the integrity of an ongoing investigation no further information would be released by the department.

In the eight months that have transpired, information about the motives behind the recordings has come in dribs and drabs, but the city and the police department have thus far resisted calls to fully explain the rationale for the recordings and the techniques used to make them.

The most detailed explanation was made by City Manager Mitchell Johnson at the Greensboro Library on Nov. 13. Johnson said an administrative investigation of Wray’s department was complete, prompting a reporter to ask for an explanation of the recordings.

“I can tell you that the rationale is that we had two individuals involved in a task force that went around talking to political leaders in the black community,” the city manager responded. “One of the individuals from High Point was doing something inappropriate. One of the persons working for the city of Greensboro was wired. What went on – it’s not illegal. Whether it was appropriate, thinking straight, I personally don’t think it was a good idea.”

Johnson added that the city and the police department thought it wise to inform those who had been recorded lest the surveillance activity be discovered later and fuel fears of racial animus.

Chief Bellamy said in a Dec. 11 interview with ***YES! Weekly*** that the recordings remain the subject of a police investigation, and for that reason he would not release them to the community members whose conversations were captured. He said no criminal wrongdoing has been discovered on the part of those who authorized and made the recordings, adding that the police violated no constitutional rights in the course of their surveillance activities.

Bellamy said the department’s internal affairs and professional standards divisions were currently investigating the police personnel who authorized and made the recordings. “We’re investigating certain other things that would tie into this,” he said. “We have talked to some people that was a part of the unit that was involved with the taping.”

The chief declined to discuss the motive for making the recordings, and indicated that he was uncertain whether any files existed documenting the surveillance activities. Bellamy said information about the reasons for the recordings might never be made public if it remains part of an internal affairs investigation.

Beyond noting that the task force member from High Point, Delilah Summers, came under suspicion from her Greensboro counterparts for some kind of inappropriate activity, Mitchell Johnson has said he is unable to comment on the specific reasons for the recordings.

Summers, who could not be reached for comment, was formerly employed as a resource coordinator for the non-profit group High Point Community Against Violence. According to a 2004 report by the Center for Youth, Family and Community Initiatives at UNCG, Summers participated in the highly-publicized High Point West End Initiative, an effort touted by former District Attorney Stuart Albright in his recent campaign for superior court judge, which paired get-tough threats of prosecution with offers of community support for violent criminals who agreed to stay out of trouble.

Later Summers would join a non-sworn employee of the Greensboro Police Department named Cathleen Vance in a collaborative effort between the two cities to arrange community support for violent criminals who agreed to turn their lives around in exchange for avoiding prosecution. Vance, who currently works in the department’s watch operations center, did not respond to an e-mailed request for comment on this story.

“Cathy Vance was our person that was involved with the violent crime task force,” Mitchell Johnson said in a Dec. 20 interview. “Her role was to try to get community support.

“It’s a federal program,” he continued. “It’s kind of a carrot-stick concept they did with these guys that are in the three-strikes-and-you’re-out situation. You bring them in and tell them, ‘We’ve got the ability to arrest you… the next time you’re arrested you’re going to pay a severe penalty. If you screw up in the slightest amount, you’re done.’ All the people that were involved in that side of it, from the DA to drug enforcement and the US Attorney’s office, are in the room. ‘However, we’re willing to give you an opportunity to straighten your life out and there’s a group of people who are here to help you.’ People like ministers, and various community advocates will help these individuals get jobs or get support.”

Mitchell Johnson said the Greensboro Police Department’s part of the violent crime task force was overseen by Capt. Rick Ball, then commander of the vice/narcotics division. Ball retired from the force in November 2005. He declined to respond to several phone messages requesting comment for this story.

“Cathy Vance and this other lady’s role was to go out in the community and see if they could get people’s help on the support side,” Mitchell Johnson said. “They were partnered up. High Point had a program and Greensboro had a program, and they were working together.”

The Rev. Nelson Johnson said in an interview earlier this year that he recalled the two women asking him to get involved with a violent crime task force, lending credence to the city manager’s account.

Still, many details surrounding the police’s efforts to capture damning conversations with Delilah Summers remain unclear or a matter of whispered allegation.

During the public comment period of the city council’s Dec. 19 meeting, Mayor Keith Holliday hinted in response to a call for transparency that city officials know more than they’re telling about the ongoing investigation into the context of the recordings.

“We’ve asked the public to be as patient as possible,” he said. “I think there’s definitely going to be more information, not just on that issue but in totality.”