Structural changes possible for police review committee

by Jeff Sykes

Who gets to police the police department is a spectator sport almost as popular in Greensboro as the annual basketball frenzy that blows into town each March. But unlike the ACC Tournament that draws in thousands of fans for an extended weekend of action on and off the court, this drama never seems to reach a climax, let alone afford a sense of fulfillment and release with a satisfying denouement.

To a vocal few the Greensboro Police Department, despite having a diverse command staff, is a hotbed of racial discrimination with bigots run amuck behind the power of the badge. To the powers that be that vocal minority represents a portion of the population that will never be satisfied with the police department because of the nature of their power.

And so the two sides are drawn up again, with city officials going through the motions of explaining police power and procedure to a mostly disinterested community while those vocal few demand the power of a public police review board.

This, in essence, is the drama that is the Complaint Review Enhancement Committee, chaired by Mayor Nancy Vaughan.

Changes could be in the works, however, but not the level demanded by the activist community seeking a police review board external to city oversight.

What’s likely to change is the appointment process to the existing Complain Review Committee, as evidenced by comments from Greensboro City Council members at a meeting last week. It was the second of three scheduled public meetings of the review process.

At the first meeting in February there were three public speakers, two of which were existing members of the complaint review committee that, obviously, lauded the veracity of the work being done.

At last week’s meeting there were again three speakers, albeit this time with a very different message.

Veteran civil rights attorney Lewis Pitts used a basketball analogy to explain his rationale for continually calling for a different model of review. “You can’t have Duke students and Duke University graduates refereeing the Duke-Carolina game,” Pitts said. In his view the current complaint review process, though extensive, is biased toward the department because city staff trains committee members based on an understanding of law enforcement’s perspective. A former law enforcement officer is even mandated to be on the committee, Pitts said. “I don’t particularly quarrel with that,” he said.

“What I am worried about is the lack of the other perspective. There is another side in this.”

Pitts began to educate the four members of council – Tony Wilkins, Mayor Vaughan, Yvonne Johnson and Jamal Fox – on the state constitution’s balance against police power and then began to evidence a long train of abuses by the Greensboro Police Department when Vaughan asked Pitts to wrap up his comments given that his three minutes had expired.

Pitts, a well-known activist in Greensboro who won a civil lawsuit against the city related to the 1979 Klan-Nazi shootout, respectfully begged to differ.

“In all the meetings that I go to we hear extensively from the chief and (the city’s) perspective and I’m barely getting started on this other perspective and the time is up,” he said. “You’ve got to have some other perspective and you’ve got to have the citizens, more than anything, involved in this process.”

Pitts thus took his seat and was replaced at the podium by retired Episcopal Bishop Chip Marble, who again advanced the request for a citizen’s review board that was different from the existing structure. Marble said he believed the city’s current review enhancement process was evidence that the pressure activists have put on the city and Police Chief Ken Miller had been effective.

Marble has worked with the Beloved Community Center that announced in January that it had created its own Greensboro Citizens Interim Police Review Committee.

“A person, when they come to make a claim to the abuser or the systemthat has abused a person, it is pretty awkward to say the least and a littlebit of a conflict of interest,” Marble said. “People come to Beloved because they feel safe and need support. That’s how we have developed an interim citizens review committee that is going to be active. We would like to see the chief and the city embrace what we are trying to do. If you want to build relations with our black and brown and our multiple ethnic community this is one way to do it.”

Chief Miller had previously addressed the enhancement committee regarding the efforts by the department to expand community outreach, improve communication and extend training to both departmental staff and the city’s residents.

“We still understand that the role of policing can be a difficult one that leaves people feeling unhappy with their interaction with local government,” Miller said. “We recognize also that the internal affairs process doesn’t always leave people with a great deal of satisfaction. It doesn’t often times leave officers or members of the police department with any great level of satisfaction. That’s not unusual from department to department all around the country.”

Miller said that after a year of studying the current complaint review process he believes that a further option for mediation could reduce the number of complaints. The CRC handled 15 complaints against the police department between July of last year and early February, according to statistics provided by the city. Ten of those had been closed, three were active cases and two were awaiting police response.

A similar mediation program in Denver, Colo. had improved satisfaction of complaint resolution from 17 to 85 percent, Miller said.

“The mediation piece is important for us in moving forward with the community because it does improve dialogue,” he said.

One of the most effective tools in coming to an unbiased conclusion regarding police actions is the use of on-body police cameras. Miller gave the committee an overview of the department’s use of body cameras since purchasing 285 last year. Miller showed a video of an officer responding to a call involving a child armed with a knife. The child throws the knife at the officer but he is quickly able to gain control of the situation.

“You can see the value of the video because you can access the conversation and the actions of the officer before, during and after,” Miller said.

During committee member comments there were raised substantial issues regarding the committee structure and appointment process. The CRC is made up of seven members. Five members come from the city’s Human Relations Commission and two from the general public. One is required to be a former or retired police officer. All members of the committee are appointed by the chairman of the Human Relations Commission, a procedure which drew heavy criticism from Mayor Vaughan and Councilman Wilkins.

“I really don’t like the way that we have it now,” Vaughan said. “I believe that accountability should come from the city council and that they should be direct appointments. There is no accountability with the Human Relations Council, they are just our appointments and there is nobody people can express their displeasure to. There is no way for them to express their displeasure like at the ballot box where if people are unhappy with the way we are putting the commission together. It seems like we put this layer in between and I think we should remove that.”

Wilkins had earlier questioned the wisdom of having one person – the HRC chair – appoint all members to the commission. Vaughan seemed to adopt a similar view.

“When we look at it we should focus on very specific positions and skill sets, such as the retired police officer, the civil rights attorney, and to look at a variety of different slots that need to be filled and not just who you’re friends with,” Vaughan said. !