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Police treatment of Bennett, A&T students leaves sour taste

by Eric Ginsburg

eric@yesweekly.com

Finishing college is usually something people reflect on fondly, but for four student leaders at Bennett College, the experience has been marred with criminal charges. Greensboro police arrested four students after responding to a noise disturbance at a graduation party at Sebastian Village apartments, the second incident between police and college students in the complex in a few weeks that has led to complaints with the city.

The students aren’t the only ones left wondering how the situation escalated so far; community members such as Bennett alumni and Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson, speak out.

“I do believe there was excessive force used,” Johnson said. “You [should] handle them in a way and you talk to them in a way that exhibits they are human beings and you are going to deal with them as human beings. You can’t treat people disrespectfully and have them just love it.”

Johnson, Councilwoman Nancy Vaughan and Mayor Robbie Perkins met with student Ashley Buchanan, one of four facing misdemeanor charges stemming from the party on April, after Buchanan and the three other Bennett students filed complaints with the city alleging police misconduct and overreaction. Representatives of the Beloved Community Center — who had already scheduled a meeting with the council members to discuss police issues — and Buchanan’s mother accompanied her.

Police responded after a resident called twice with noise complaints, reporting people running up and down the stairs and at least 10 people outside. Partygoers said apartment complex security initially arrived at the party. They said people were leaving and the music had been turned down when police arrived.

A security guard also called 911 and described 20-30 people “drinking” and being “rowdy.”

“They’re refusing to shut down,” the officer told the operator.

Chief Ken Miller said the situation qualified as a “disturbance” by the time police responded rather than just a noise complaint call. Miller asked for patience while the department investigates what happened and determines if any officers acted out of order. The department expects to have a report to the city manager and the city council by early June.

Buchanan and other complainants said police strong-armed them unnecessarily and injured them, and in her complaint Buchanan said her arresting officer fabricated a story that she had slapped him in the face.

“I don’t really believe [the story],” Johnson said. “You’ve got to be out of your mind to slap a cop. She’s tiny.”

Buchanan could not be reached, and the Beloved Community Center staff declined to comment. Vaughan and Perkins both said the incidents between the police and students at the complex require investigation but said they wanted to wait until the police department finished looking into the matters.

“Of course we were only listening to her side of the story but I thought that she was very compelling,” Vaughan said. “The saddest thing is, especially where the Bennett women are concerned, is this started out as a noise complaint for a graduation party. I am sure we all want to look back at important days, and graduation being one, and having one marred like this is a shame, but with that being said I don’t know what all the facts are. I don’t think anybody knows what all the facts are.”

Perkins said he would try to withhold judgment but said he is paying attention to the issue and continuing to have meetings about it, including one with senior city staff and Chief Miller.

“At this point the police department is still interviewing folks,” Perkins said. “I tried to have a meeting with the other of the four students but we had a scheduling mess-up.”

Perkins and Vaughan met with council members Tony Wilkins, Zack Matheny, Marikay Abuzuaiter and Nancy Hoffmann, along with Deputy City Manager Jim Westmoreland to discuss the issue on May 9, according to a city report.

Two of the students’ complaints say they were arrested for “resisting arrest” and question how this is possible without an initial reason for arrest. Another, Amber Coleman, wrote that she was charged with public disturbance, failure to disperse on command and seconddegree trespassing after leaving the party.

Coleman wrote that she gave officers the middle finger on the way out and called them “pigs,” leading them to arrest her. Coleman said she regularly spent the night at her friend’s apartment, where the party was held, and that she had a right to be there and exercise free speech.

Racquel Bethea, who said she left the party when the police arrived and who wasn’t charged, said an officer pulled his taser out almost immediately. Buchanan and Delrisha White’s complaints backed up this assertion, adding that 14 police cars “bombarded” the apartment. Bethea said many attendees left when complex security initially arrived but that the situation was calm and friendly until police showed up. She left before anyone was arrested but said police were immediately hostile.

“What they did was wrong and I know that they scarred a lot of those girls for life,” Bethea said. “This group of girls, they really followed the proper protocol.”

Delrisha White, a graduating senior and the student government association president, said the incident is affecting her plans to teach in the fall.

“Not only did I experience an incredible amount of stress at that time, it sort of overshadowed the feeling of success that should have had at the time,” White said. “I’ve kind of been at a standstill because I’m waiting for this incident to be resolved and it really is affecting how I get to move forward with my life after college.”

White and the other students facing charges are represented by Daryl Atkinson of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, a nonprofit that also represented White Street landfill opponents in their battle to keep the facility closed to municipal solid waste. Atkinson advised White and his other clients not to talk about any specifics related to the incident or to comment on how it impacted their views of police.

“Everything that they worked [towards] for four years is in jeopardy now,” Atkinson said, adding that the incident could negatively impact their opportunities for gainful employment. “It just seems like such an overreach and miscarriage of justice…. Our police officers, I’m sure, have more serious matters to attend to than overreacting to a college party.”

Atkinson, who got involved after the Beloved Community Center contacted his organization about the case, said his primary objective is dismissal of the charges.

While he has a lot of experience representing people in cases like this, Atkinson said his clients have usually done something more inflammatory to elicit an overreaction from police than this case.

Bethea, like Johnson and Bennett journalism professor Yvonne Welbon, characterized the women as student leaders who would handle any interaction with the police respectfully. They noted that the student body president, vice president and other campus leaders were present. Welbon, who heard about the incident from students, said it has stirred conversations about why police would handle a noise complaint this way.

“I’m concerned about this behavior criminalizing African-American youth,” said Welbon, who has a fellowship at Duke University for the next academic year. “One of the students said to me: ‘We don’t know our rights’ and I’m wondering, ‘Why do you need to know your rights when your just having a party?’ It saddens me actually that this will be part of what it means to be a black college student in America.”

Two other Bennett students and two A&T students are also upset about the way Greensboro police treated them in an earlier unrelated incident on April 16 in a Sebastian Village apartment. Guns drawn, officers entered the apartment without a warrant, an April 26 complaint from the four to the city says. A&T student Maurice Smoot wrote that police said he was being detained for a robbery, holding him in a police car in his underwear for an hour.

A police report claims police were look-ing for someone who had robbed Domino’s Pizza of $54 at gunpoint. The complaint says police told the Bennett students they needed to search the house for guns and drugs, and though the students said police didn’t have a warrant, the complaint says they relented under pressure and duress.

Miller would not comment on whether drugs were part of the investigation but said the police action was focused on an armed robbery investigation and that police were led to the door by a police dog following a fresh scent from the scene of the crime. None of the four students were arrested, and Miller said no arrest has been made in the robbery investigation.

In both investigations, police will have to sort through facts and fabrications, Miller said.

“Things that are espoused in complaints sometimes turn out to be statements that aren’t anchored in facts,” Miller said, also citing inconsistencies in a 911 call. “Our processes are pretty good about figuring that out.”

Guilford Metro 911 called back White’s cell phone, and Miller said the person who answered falsely claimed that an officer pointed a gun at her.

“A police officer just tried to kill me,” the caller can be heard saying in a recording of the call. “You better send somebody other than these white police officers. He told me he was going to shoot me in my face.”

In accordance with public records law, the recording of the phone call provided by the city does not include the clip where the caller gives their name, but a call log from the incident lists the caller as “Ashley.” Miller said Ashley Buchanan was in handcuffs at the time. Atkinson, who represents White and Buchanan, said that he couldn’t comment on the phone call because of the pending cases. Welbon said more investigation into what motivation police could have for acting they way they did in both scenarios is necessary to help prevent similar situations in the future.

“There are lots of models on how to deal with this situation and there are a lot of successful models but I would basically say that something needs to be implemented,” Welbon said. “How does the police department benefit from this behavior? They’re benefiting somehow and until the balance shifts and the benefits are no longer greater than what they would lose it’s not going to change.” Bethea, Welbon and Johnson said police officers likely thought they could pick on some black college students without any repercussions but Bethea said they guessed wrong.

“I just feel like they messed with the wrong group of girls,” she said.

Vaughan said the police’s reaction seemed like an unnecessary outcome for a noise complaint.

“I know that race certainly seemed to be an issue but maybe it’s also that they just didn’t handle young people well so I’m not sure,” she said.

Read the police misconduct complaints for both incidents at yesweeklyblog.blogspot.com

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