Police review board creates unlikely coalition

by Jordan Green

Greensboro City Council members (l-r) Robbie Perkins, Goldie Wells, Zack Matheny and Mary Rakestraw discuss the relative merits of creating a police review board, an idea proposed by Mike Barber at a recent meeting. As usual, the discussion was politicized by members’ opinion of City Manager Mitchell Johnson. (photo by Jordan Green)

The Greensboro City Council voted by a narrow majority on Jan. 21 to request the NC General Assembly to give the council the authority to appoint the city manager — a power that currently rests with the city manager. The two swing voters — Mayor Pro Tem Sandra Anderson Groat and District 3 Councilman Zack Matheny — joined the conservative bloc of at-large Councilwoman Mary Rakestraw, District 4 Councilman Mike Barber and District 5 Councilwoman Trudy Wade to pass the resolution. A second measure to place the police chief under the direct authority of the city council stalled when Barber attempted to attach provisions to create a police review board and a civil service board that would respectively investigate citizen complaints and handle disciplinary decisions. “I said Friday that our police department has five-hundred fantastic sworn officers, but they’ve clearly got a handful of problem folks,” Barber said. “Within twenty-four hours there was a drunk party at the police club and a warrant was issued for one of our policemen. And that is a matter of public record. We currently have sixty lawsuits where we are the defendant related to our police department. As far as things working well, I would not define it that way.” Officer Ahmed Blake, a plaintiff along with 38 other black police officers in a discrimination lawsuit against the city and someone who has worked with the police department’s gang enforcement unit, was charged with simple assault on Jan. 20. Predictably, Barber’s call for a police review board and civil service board has become politicized in the running battle between council factions that support City Manager Mitchell Johnson and empowering staff on one hand, and that want to rein in Johnson and exert more control over staff on the other hand. “It is not a good idea for that board to have subpoena power,” said District 1 Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small, who belongs to the pro-city manager faction. “I talked to the chief recently, and he said that he is working very cooperatively with the citizen review board we have now. And I don’t know why we’re trying to fix stuff that’s not broken. We haven’t heard any complaints from citizens who have gone through that process and not gotten the kind of responses that they needed to get.” Barber has been meeting with Wayne Abraham, the chairman of the complaint review committee, which is part of the Greensboro Human Relations Commission. “The human relations commission over the last year and a half they’ve reached a point where they have to come to me, and I had to say publicly, and ask our attorney publicly, so I could say, ‘Yes, police department, you must give them reports,’” Barber said in response to Bellamy- Small’s remarks. Barber said he had spoken to the Rev. Cardes Brown and lawyer Joe Williams, two prominent black leaders about his quest to bring the police chief directly under the control of the city council and to create the police review board, “and this is consistent with their thought process.” Brown is the president of the Greensboro National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a member of the Pulpit Forum. Williams is a prominent lawyer who is active with the George C. Simkins Jr. Memorial Political Action Committee. After the council meeting, District 2 Councilwoman Goldie Wells noted that the idea of a police review board enjoys strong support in the black community. One of its most vocal proponents has been Earl Jones, who previously held the city council seat now occupied by Bellamy- Small, and who now serves in the NC House. “Mike Barber mentioned that he talked to these two guys,” Wells said. “I said, you just mentioned those names to get votes in the black community. He said, ‘You think so?’ I said, ‘Yes, I do.’” Barber, who describes himself as a “small government guy,” said he is confident people on the other side of the ideological divide will embrace the concept on its merits, and put aside strongly held viewpoints on the city manager’s job performance. “I’ll tell you what Joe Williams told me, when I brought this up,” Barber recounted. “He said, Mike you’re the perfect person to propose this because your certainly not known for being hypersensivitive and touchy feely. “In our minds, we all wish to accomplish something but one thing we will accomplish for sure is to give greater power to the citizens,” he continued, “and the more responsibility we share with the citizens the better our city will be.” Barber is widely considered a possible candidate for mayor, but said recently that he has not decided whether to seek the city’s highest office or run for reelection in District 4. Wells said she is not inclined to support a police review board with subpoena power “because people don’t tell the truth.” “What we’ve got is working; just use that,” she said, adding, “The pact that certain groups have, they stick together. Police

stick together. Firemenstick together. That’s the way it’s always been, and that’s not goingto change. As long as they protect us, that’s all I care about.” MayorPro Tem Sandra Anderson Groat, a swing vote on council, said she wasopposed to the idea of a police review board operating with subpoenapower. District 3 Councilman Zack Matheny, who has straddledthe divide on the host of controversies plaguing the police department,said he was leaning towards not supporting the police review board withsubpoena power. Mayor Yvonne Johnson, a conciliator by inclination,said she was skeptical of the effectively of subpoena power, butindicated, “I probably will support it.” “As we enter more openness andso forth,” she said, “I think it could change, and it could pass.”District 5 Councilwoman Trudy Wade joined Barber in calling for apolice review board at a press conference on Jan. 16.

At-largeCouncilwoman Mary Rakestraw, a member of the council’s conservativefaction, characterized herself as an unlikely convert. “Inever dreamed Mary Rakestraw would be pushing this, but look at thepolice department we have,” she said during a recess in the meeting.“We have a new complaint every two weeks.”