Police review process to be strengthened

by Jordan Green

The Greensboro City Council decided on March 20 to give an official complaint review committee more teeth to gather information from the police department that will help it evaluate appeals made by citizens unhappy with how complaints against the department are handled.

The unanimous decision directs city staff to develop a protocol for the police department to create a written report containing factual background information about the disposition of a citizen complaint, which would be shared with city staff to help the complaint review committee determine the merits of an appeal. The Police Department’s internal affairs division currently provides committee members and city staff in the Human Relations Department with an oral report on how an internal investigation was resolved.

“When a citizen appeals to us after receiving the decision rendered by internal affairs that an officer acted properly we cannot make an informed decision about that officer’s behavior if we are not allowed to see the facts relied upon in coming to that conclusion,” said Wayne Abraham, chairman of the complaint review committee, which falls under the umbrella of the Human Relations Commission. “The report generated when a citizens complains – and I mean this in the broadest sense whether it is classified as a ‘contact,’ ‘inquiry’ or ‘complaint’ – must be made available to the complaint review committee if we are to do the job you have assigned to us.

“How can we reassure our fellow citizens that they can have confidence in our police department if we don’t have the necessary information?” he asked. “We have to sign letters to citizens telling them our answer to their appeal. We put our name and good reputation on the line just as any officer does when we sign and send off a letter. Therefore we want to be sure we are making a fully informed decision.”

Members of the police department from newly appointed Chief Tim Bellamy down through the rank and file showed up to express sharp opposition to the resolution, and council members indicated they had been deluged by phone calls and faxes from police officers and their supporters.

“I felt like I’d been hit in the gut,” said Mary Lou Zimmerman. “I am a widow of a non-sworn officer. I’m currently married to a retired officer. I do have personal knowledge of what goes into those files. His whole family gets investigated. Your children get investigated. To open any file to general public viewing is opening a Pandora’s box you will never be able to close. Personnel files are just what they say…. To open those files to the general public – sorry, I’m going to pour some fire – we already know what happens to files that are shared, even with the city council.”

Police officers who spoke before council, including Greensboro Police Officers Association President Eddy Summers, expressed a variety of concerns with the notion of providing written documentation to the complaint review committee. Confidential information might be leaked by the committee to members of the public, they said. A criminal might use the information to retaliate against an officer handling their case.

“The issue of personnel information getting out to the public is very, very real to us,” said Officer A. Moos. “The penalty for someone leaking this is a civil penalty. The penalty to us could be our life.”

Council members turned down the original resolution brought by the Human Relations Commission because of language requesting that state law be changed to allow the complaint review committee and its designated city staff person to read “personnel records and police reports regarding citizen complaints without restriction.” The council resolved their concerns by mandating that a second report be created to satisfy the citizen committee’s needs.

“I would be very concerned if we were to look in personnel files,” said at-large Councilwoman Yvonne Johnson.

Abraham said after the vote that he was happy with the outcome.

“From our perspective, being able to see what a person’s words were ourselves is important,” he said. “There’s evidence relied upon to draw a conclusion. The (oral) explanation would give you facts, but it’s not the same as reading the information, thinking about it and forming questions.”

Abraham said the number of appeals from citizens unhappy with the police’s handling of complaints is on the rise, but the trend may reflect a growing awareness of the complaint review committee’s existence rather than an increase in abuse by police officers. Asked why the citizen review committee and the Police Department were unable to resolve their dispute without coming to the council for a vote, Abraham laughed and shrugged his shoulders.

Summers, president of the Greensboro Police Officers Association, said he plans to ask his members to lobby the council to require members of the complaint review committee to attend a citizens academy to better understand the day-to-day experience of police officers.

The police union opposed the creation of the complaint review committee in 2001, Summers said, and does not support any requirement that the police provide additional documentation to the oversight group.

“The members see that it’s a slow erosion of our personnel rights,” he said.

Housing inspections

In other developments, the council voted unanimously to extend a deadline for a random sampling program set up to ensure that multi-unit rental apartments pass the city’s housing code. The original deadline for landlords to come into compliance with the Rental Unit Certificate of Occupancy program was July 1, 2007, and the council’s decision pushed it back to Jan. 1, 2009.

The city’s engineering and inspection department has collaborated with the nonprofit Greensboro Housing Coalition on the effort.

“We felt we could be seeing a crisis here come July,” said Councilman Tom Phillips. “While we have been getting the word out we have had people involved in low-income housing saying there are landlords that just don’t know the rules.”

Beth McKee-Huger, executive director of the housing coalition, said she believes the number of unsafe housing units in the city is “coming down dramatically,” but she cautioned against the deadline extension.

“A lot of the condemned units used to be rental units,” she said. “I am concerned that by pushing the deadline from July 1, 2007 to Jan. 1, 2009 it could slow the momentum for rental property owners.” She added: “I am really pleased with this program. For it to have maximum impact we need to not slack off at all.”

Mayor Keith Holliday said derelict landlords should not doubt the city’s resolve in cleaning up substandard housing.

“We have taken it from a critical perspective from owners saying that ‘this is not a good thing and it’s going to create costs for us,'” he said. “To the extent that we have stood by our guns and said, ‘No, we’re going to do this,’ I’m real proud of this council. Common sense – we just cannot pull it off by July. We need the extra time.”

Phillips to leave council

“Two years ago when I was an at-large member I gave strong consideration to not running against the thundering herd for the at-large seats, but when Robbie Perkins announced that he would not be running for reelection I moved over to his race because I knew it would be an easy campaign,” District 3 Councilman Tom Phillips told his colleagues. “I wanted to stay on the council to provide some continuity.

“My responsibilities at my day job have increased dramatically in the past six months and I don’t think I can continue to serve on the city council,” said the 60-year-old Phillips, who works in the financial services industry. “So I will not be running for reelection.”

The announcement caught Mayor Holliday off guard.

“You will certainly be missed,” he said. “Wow. Okay. Now what do I do now?”

First elected in 1989, Tom Phillips is the longest serving council member.

The next morning, Zack Matheny, a financial consultant with AG Edwards & Sons Investments, announced that he plans to run for the vacant seat in District 3, which runs north from West Friendly Avenue up to the Lake Jeanette area and is bracketed by Battleground Avenue and North Church Street. A member of the city’s zoning commission, Matheny is also active with the United Way of Greensboro, the Community Foundation and the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce.

Phillips’ announcement is the first in the upcoming municipal elections. Holliday has yet to reveal whether he will run for a fifth term as mayor.

Yvonne Johnson, the sole African American elected to an at-large seat on the council, said March 21 that she is considering a run for mayor.

“I will be calling you hopefully next week about a press conference,” she told YES! Weekly. “I was trying to wait and see what Keith will do, but who knows. I guess I need to figure out what I’m going to do and do it.”

At-large Councilwoman Florence Gatten has said she won’t announce whether she is a candidate before May 1. Mike Winstead, a real developer who currently serves on the Guilford County Commission, has been floated as a possible candidate by the conservative weekly Rhinoceros Times. Speculation has also abounded about the political aspirations of Joey Medaloni, owner of Much Restaurant & Bar.

The recent political controversies surrounding Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small have generated some interest in the race for District 1, but no challengers have yet stepped forward.

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