Racial profiling: The hard reckoning or easy status quo

by Jordan Green

The traffic stop took place exactly a week after the notorious nightclub shooting on South Elm Street in downtown Greensboro last November. You remember shooting: Two groups of revelers left the N Club and a shooter opened fire in the street before being stopped by a Greensboro police officer. The incident prompted an outcry from downtown property owners and quick action by the city council.

Gian Spells and Carlyle Phillips, two NC A&T University students, were driving through downtown, coming from the Randleman Road area and heading to an apartment near campus on the night of Nov. 14. In a complaint to City Manager Rashad Young, the two contend that Sgt. TA Long pulled alongside their car and looked in, then dropped behind them and activated his blue lights.

The mostly unspoken subtext of the incident was race: The shooter was black. So are many of the club-goers who throng downtown late-nights from Thursday through Saturday.

If the students’ story is true, it should disturb everyone. They pulled over on Greene Street, and they contend Sgt. Long started yelling at Spells, the driver, that he had cut them off and he was drunk. They allege that they were ordered out of the car in violation of their Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure. Both were arrested and charged with resisting a public officer. Naturally, as they tell the story, they were concerned about the attitude displayed by Sgt. Long and other officers who had gathered on the scene, and they believed they had done nothing wrong.

Next, they were taken to the Guilford County Jail and held overnight. You don’t have to believe a word Spells and Phillips say to see the problem there. It’s in the documents — or lack of documents.

The Conditions of Release form for each states “due to intoxication,” hold until 8:30 a.m. Yet, neither was charged with driving while intoxicated or any other alcohol- or drug-related offense. The students say they never went before a magistrate; someone would have had to tell the magistrate, most likely untruthfully, that they were intoxicated.

The investigation of Spells and Phillips’ complaint was turned over, according to protocol, to the police department. Lt. Joel Cranford, Long’s supervisor, never obtained statements from the two students. The police rejected the students’ proposal that they meet at the Beloved Community Center. The students rejected Cranford’s suggestion that they meet at the police department or at the downtown branch library. The students also declined to give statements over the phone on grounds that they weren’t confident that they would be accurately quoted.

It’s regrettable that either side imposed conditions on such a simple matter as an investigative interview. It’s the police’s job to investigate, and they should take every opportunity to do so. At the same time, the complainants have done everything they could have to allow the investigation to succeed.

In early February, the students received a letter from Capt. Wayne Scott informing them that Cranford had “thoroughly investigated” their complaint. After reviewing the investigation, Scott said he found “no evidence to substantiate your complaint against Sergeant Long for racial profiling and truthfulness.”

Last week found Spells and Phillips in court for a second appearance on the resisting public officer charges. To, the likely annoyance of the district attorney’s office, a YouTube video posted on the Beloved Community Center’s website posed the question, “Is it a crime to drive while black in Greensboro?” and featured footage of Phillips urging college students to show up in court to demonstrate support. The students turned out, filing in to the large courtroom on the first floor and briefly draping banners over a wall outside the courthouse.

Late in the morning, after most of the supporters had left, the students’ defense attorney signaled for them to meet outside the courtroom.

Lawyer Keith Black huddled for a conference with the students and Spells’ mother, who told me she wasn’t exactly thrilled about her son being at the center of a public cause. There was talk about community service, possible expungement, putting the matter behind them so the young men could move ahead with their futures. The students looked dubious. Black placed his hand on Spells shoulder and offered reassurance.

It’s unclear if there’s a deal that could be struck in which the students admit some measure of responsibility for the alleged offense, do some community service and make it as if the whole ordeal never happened. That would certainly save the lawyer and his clients time and money in preparing for a trial. It would save face for the Greensboro Police Department and finesse an awkward situation for the network of police officers, prosecutors and defense attorneys who maintain the machinery of the local criminal justice system. It would be a win-win, as cliché would have it.

The case has been continued. A new court date has been set for June 10. Black has told his clients they should not speak to the press about the matter.

By a fluke of scheduling, the recent court appearance and a Black History Service of Justice program at Bethel AME Church near A&T took place on the same day. Phillips was at the service of justice program, but Spells had to be in class. At least two other people gave anguished and hurt testimonials about being treated unfairly by the Greensboro Police Department because of their skin color. Phillips gave his story, too. Internal conflict, betrayal and frustration were etched into his words. “I’m not supposed to be here speaking to you all about certain things right now,” he said, “because certain people don’t want me to speak about certain truths.”

Then Phillips spoke his truth: “They told me and Gian that we can do 20 hours of community service and get our charges dismissed. I’m not taking no plea with nobody because I didn’t do nothing.”

These young men, both preoccupied with graduating from college and getting careers underway, are under immense pressure. Unfortunately, more is at stake than their individual lives.

The moment is critical for Greensboro. This city can either face down the source of its divisions, or let it slide. If it’s the latter, each side will retreat into its certainties, the white majority comfortable in its belief that its police department is effective, while fair black and brown folks who have had negative encounters with the police resign themselves to the fact that there will never be justice.

That would be dangerous for us all.