Speakers urge citizens to mobilize against police abuses

by Jeff Laughlin

Amidst prayers and passionate speeches, a plan of action came to the forefront of the Beloved Community Center meeting on alleged police misconduct.

Beloved Community Center board chair Pat Priest and community organizer Joseph Frierson asked for participation the entire night of April 4, and they got more than they might have expected when Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson said she believed the Greensboro City Council could muster five votes to create a citizens review board to provide independent oversight of the police department.

After an audience member asked how to go about getting a review board, Johnson replied, “All you have to do is bring a request to city council, and we’ll vote on it… I think you probably have five people who will vote for it.”

The night centered on Our Democratic Mission, a Beloved report released in January detailing 14 separate cases of police misconduct. The document was referenced throughout the night as a way to mobilize the community to address concerns raised in the report. The first speaker of the night, the Rt. Rev. Alfred C. Marble, assisting bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina and board member at Beloved, commented on the necessity of community involvement.

“Greensboro is predominately a black and white community, but it is an international community,” Marble said. “We need everyone to get involved.”

After speeches from Marble, and the Rev. Nelson Johnson, executive director of the Beloved Community Center, and case reviews from Bennett College student Imani Wilburg-Folds and Brian C. Sims of NC A&T University, Beloved conveners opened the floor to questions. The first inquiry stirred the crowd as an A&T asked how she could get involved . A series of answers led to the greater idea, brought forward by lawyer and civil rights activist Lewis Pitts.

“The most patriotic thing we can do is stand up and fight,” Pitts said.

Later, Pitts hit at the heart of the issue. “Who do we allow to wear guns and lock up citizens?” he asked. “We must be able to hold them accountable.”

Guilford College associate professor Sherry Giles agreed. She stated more than once a need for a citizens review board to hold the police accountable. Working with her students, she said they most often came to a recurring question: “How do we give power back to the citizens?” The question rang true throughout the meeting. Before a video showing some of the more harrowing cases in Greensboro’s troubled past with police brutality, Beloved board Vice-Chairperson Dale Tonkins introduced three former Greensboro police officers, Joseph Pryor, Charles Cherry and AJ Blake, who are characterized in the report as having been wrongfully terminated.

While those cases dominated the night, the meeting’s framework built around a cry for citizen involvement. Bishop Marble called for Greensboro leadership to sit with Beloved staff and board members to discuss the past and the future.

“List every error in our publication so we can talk about this,” Marble said. “The council wants to blame it all on Nov. 3, 1979 and though no justice was found for that day, the problem continues.”

Marble referred to a case detailed in Our Democratic Mission involving Greensboro police. According to the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report on the incident, “the majority of commissioners find the single most important element that contributed to the violent outcome of the confrontation was the absence of the police.”

The Rev. Johnson echoed Marble’s sentiments during the question-answer period. He called for a meeting with the police department about Our Democratic Mission before saying, “I know there is corruption because I have seen it. The internal police mechanism is flawed.”

Johnson called for organization at every level, “every campus, every neighborhood and every church,” to bring forth the change Beloved desires.

City Manager Denise Turner Roth said the issue of a citizen review board has not come up in awhile. She said the state legislature would have to approve any citizen review board with subpoena power.

Roth also said the city supports the system in place already.

“The complaint review committee is the best place to go,” she said. “The police and human resources worked together to create a responsive system and it seems to be working well. Are we meeting expectations? I think that’s exactly why the CRC works.”

Since all complaints run through an internal review, the committee reports to the chief and if further complications arise, the city manager makes final decisions.

Police Chief Ken Miller said, “We’ve reviewed all complaints to see that the police department made all the right decisions. We overrule disposition, run additional investigations and make sure departmental rules are followed. I’ve overturned them myself.”

“People want to take power away from the police, but we really only have so much power,” Miller said. “If you are looking for an independent disciplinary organization, that makes for huge problems in the community. Basically, a review board politicizes police. Look throughout, not only American history, but world history, and you’ll see that this kind of politicizing doesn’t work.”

Speaking to Beloved’s concerns, he talked about problems throughout Our Democratic Mission.

“The document is riddled with errors,” Miller said.

“They have conclusions presented as facts. Nearly every case provides a litany of errors.”

Miller talked extensively about the case of Eva Foster, an elderly woman injured by Greensboro police during a raid on a convenience store. The city awarded Foster $15,000 dollars to settle a complaint against the police department in December 2012.

Our Democratic Mission details her case as the police harming an innocent citizen by being too rough on her by handcuffing her and shoving her to the ground.

Miller described his first meeting with Foster, her lawyers, city lawyers and members of the Beloved board.

“The story she told me was that an officer cuffed her, helped her to the ground and then she rolled around on the ground,” he said. “That just makes handcuffs tighter. For several days after the incident, we got no injury reports. None. That’s just one example of how the story is different from the publication and the reality.”

“That’s just one example,” the chief continued. “They demand integrity from our side, and they are demonizing the police as an agenda.”

Foster was unavailable for comment by press time. Neither Roth nor Miller are particular enthusiastic about the idea of an independent review board.

“There is a gap in education,” Roth said. “If people need to know how to use the CRC, then we need to make that more apparent.”

Miller expressed similar caution. “Dependent on the level of public concern, that drives our response,” he said. “We don’t want to add concern.”