The farce of GSO police complaint review

by Jordan Green

This is the third in a four-part series about the Greenboro City Council’s votes on human relations.

Wayne Abraham, a home healthcare operator who chairs Greensboro’s complaint review committee, stood before city council in late March and told elected officials that the police department had been systematically withholding information critical to determining whether citizens’ complaints against officers could be substantiated.

North Carolina law makes specific provisions allowing the complaint review committee to access the records, Abraham argued.

“First, it says that we can have the facts relied upon in making the determination,” he said. “Those facts are in the investigative report that we would like to see. And it says that we are bound by law to keep confidential all personnel information which is not public. Which tells us that we get to see confidential personnel information, or this provision obviously wouldn’t be there.”

Speaking in measured tones suggesting exquisite reasonableness and tact, Abraham told the council his committee’s credibility was on the line with the public.

“We simply want what is, to us, common sense,” he said. “If we are charged with reviewing complaints against an officer, doesn’t it make sense that we would actually get to see the evidence? How can any reasonable person expect otherwise? How can we reassure our fellow citizens that they can have confidence in their police department if we don’t have the necessary information available even to us?”

Abraham and fellow committee member Abdel Nuriddin’s efforts to secure council’s support for an amendment to state law had prompted bitter opposition from the Greensboro Police Officers Association. E-mails and faxes from officers and family members opposed to increased police accountability numbered in the thousands, by Mayor Keith Holliday’s count.

Abraham and Nuriddin, in contrast, made their case alone. Supporters of a police review board with subpoena power – considered a more robust means of checking police abuses – either did not know about the move to strengthen the complaint review committee or did not care to support it. “Meaningless” and “a camouflage” are terms used by Rep. Earl Jones, a state lawmaker a member of the local NAACP executive committee, to describe the complaint review committee.

As Holliday and City Attorney Linda Miles noted during the March 2007 council meeting, the complaint review committee was, in fact, born of efforts to get a police review board in Greensboro. The initiative gradually took form after the shooting death of Daryl Howerton, an emotionally disturbed NC A&T University student who was killed by Greensboro police outside a barbershop on Phillips Avenue in 1994. A specially appointed task force recommended the creation of a police review board in 2000. The council voted it down along racial lines, in a decision that found Councilwoman Yvonne Johnson and then-Councilman Earl Jones in the minority.

Then, as now, the 435 member-strong Greensboro Police Officers Association, headed by President Eddy Summers, vocally opposed efforts to provide a mechanism for citizen review of alleged police abuses. When, in February 2001, council considered a compromise engineered by Holliday, Summers was there to speak against it. Included as part of a legislative request resolution, the motion asked the NC General Assembly to amend the state law to allow Greensboro, like Durham and Charlotte, to allow the release of information about investigations into alleged police misconduct.

The resolution passed unanimously. Rep. Alma Adams filed a bill in the NC House of Representatives. The final draft, adopted in April 2001, gave the police chief and the city manager the discretion to “release the disposition of disciplinary charges against a police officer and the facts relied upon in determining that disposition to the Human Relations Commission Complaint Subcommittee.”

Since then, the police officers association has maintained a vigilant lobby to guard against increased citizen oversight. Those favoring more accountability – the citizen commissioners on one side, and pastors and activists joined by Rep. Jones on the other side – have pursued different objectives, sometimes disparaging each other’s aims and refraining from mutual support.

And despite a state law being written specifically to allow the police to release information about investigations into alleged police misconduct, a Greensboro lawmaker filing the legislation and that the General Assembly approved the bill, the police department would resist such disclosure over the next six years. The dearth of information about investigations into allegations of officer misconduct, as described by Abraham, suggests an expectation on the part of the police that committee members should be prepared to take them at their word. Holliday, for one, indicated that the current practice did not match council members’ intentions when they created the complaint review committee in 2001.

“We spent a lot of time, quite frankly, rolling up our sleeves from a committee work-type perspective and trying to come up with the complaint review committee,” he said, “which at the time, from my memory – and I know that’s five years ago – my memory is that the complaint would be made, it would be investigated by [the police internal affairs division], and then a report – key word: ‘report’ – would come back to the human relations group regarding what the outcome was.”

He later added: “Quite frankly, I think what happened was a change from 2001 to today based on what the council thought was going to happen at that point.”

Abraham and members of the complaint review committee had been meeting with Chief Tim Bellamy and other members of police staff for more than a year – since Bellamy was appointed interim chief after his predecessor, David Wray, resigned under fire in January 2006.

“The essential problem is this,” Abraham told council. “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 an officer’s behavior if we are not allowed to see the facts relied upon in coming to that conclusion.”

In a tone of voice both polite and resolute Bellamy gave the impression of an impregnable fortress as he gave his account of the negotiations.

“For the last fifteen months, staff members from the professional standards division and myself have worked with the CRC to address many issues that were brought to us by the CRC to address and clarify what can be reviewed and what cannot be reviewed under North Carolina law and statutes,” he said. “And we will continue to work with the CRC in that capacity and further improve our relationship and provide information as needed.”

Under cross-examination by council members, Bellamy admitted that dispositions have been conveyed to the complaint review committee orally. He indicated that he would be willing to create a written report to hand over to the committee, but avoided making more specific commitments.

“What will be in this written report?” Johnson asked. “Will it be, ‘We’ve interviewed four witnesses’? Will that kind of thing be in there or what?”

“That’s what we’re going to work on, yes,” Bellamy responded.

Johnson probed: “A pretty thorough account of how you got to what your decision was….”

“A thorough summary and synopsis,” Bellamy said.

Councilman Mike Barber summed up what he head from Bellamy: “Currently we have a process with nothing in writing that’s being transferred, so at this point that report, until we properly send a message as a council, is imaginary.”

To resolve the dispute, the human relations commission proposed that council support an amendment to the state law to ensure the complaint review committee access to investigative reports. City Attorney Linda Miles indicated that Rep. Pricey Harrison had reserved a bill in the event that council approved the request.

Summers, speaking on behalf of the police rank and file, suggested that citizens appointed to the complaint review committee lacked the qualifications to review police work.

“Members of the Greensboro Police Department should not be singled out,” he said, “by the whims of those who wish to exert unrestrained power from appointed positions without proper training or understanding of what it is like to be a police officer working the streets of Greensboro.”

Officers accompanying Summers – two of them in uniform – argued that strengthening citizen oversight of the department would endanger police and their families. They suggested complaints filed against officers were often false, and often amounted to retaliation by persons targeted in criminal investigations. One retired officer, Jack Zimmerman, suggested that efforts to improve accountability were an affront to the department.

“Instead of trying to build our police department up it seems like we’re trying to tear it down,” he complained. “It’s time for us to get behind our police department. We’ve got a fine police department. We’re selling it to this nation that our police department is the worst in the nation. And this is not true…. I hope you will wake up and say, ‘Look, it’s time for us to support our police department.’ Because you’ve got one bad apple don’t make ’em all bad.”

Such boosterism likely runs counter to the spirit of citizen oversight efforts, whether through a complaint review committee or stronger measures.

“Trying to ascertain or obtain information from a paramilitary organization such as the police department isn’t easy,” Nuriddin said. “You have to have someone who is aggressive that’s going to ask the right questions and not be afraid of what they’re going to be confronted with as they approach the department. My real concern here is that those of us that will accept these responsibilities and people who work in the human relations department when they have to deal with the police department that they don’t have any fears that they’re going to be fired or there’s going to be some type of reprisals because they’re asking difficult questions that people may not want to answer.”

After listening to objections from police officers and their supporters, including one who said council members’ votes would be remembered at election time, Johnson and Barber were quick to pledge their support forthe department.

“I’m very concerned,” said Johnson, a candidate for mayor. “I’m not a police officer, but I would be very concerned if somebody, if we were to look into personnel files. What I want – and I want to be clear – is the best process that the human relations commission and the police department can possibly work out, and it doesn’t include looking at personnel files.”

Based on a training she received at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, the at-large councilmember also suggested that the police department create a separate disposition file that would be accessible to the complaint review committee, so confidential personnel information would not be compromised.

With Dianne Bellamy-Small and Goldie Wells absent, the rest of the council unanimously defeated the resolution requesting a rewrite of state law to allow the complaint review committee to review investigative reports. Instead, they opted to direct staff to create a protocol for the police to share information with the committee, which would include a written disposition and a factual basis.

The new structure, which requires police to provide the complaint review committee with a written disposition, remains largely untested. As of June 27, the complaint review committee was waiting for the police to return a single disposition.

“We have established written forms for them to use, and I guess were waiting on our first response using the form,” Abraham said. “We expect to have that tomorrow.”

If that seems like slow progress, Abraham said it’s partly because the complaint review committee has received few appeals from citizens who have been unsatisfied with how their complaint was handled by the police, or complaints filed directly to the committee.

“I think people are still reticent to file complaints even when they have one,” he said. “I’m sure it’s a multitude of reasons.”

Meanwhile, the leadership of the Pulpit Forum, the local NAACP and the Truth and Community Reconciliation Project still nurture the dream of creating a police review board for the city.

The Rev. Nelson Johnson, vice-president of the Pulpit Forum and an eminent figure in the Greensboro Truth and Community Reconciliation Project, said he was uncertain how coordinated supporters of a police review board were. He added that he would push for a police review board based on a recommendation made by the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2006.

The Rev. Cardes Brown, president of the local NAACP, said his group would try to help elect city council candidates who support a police review board, and look for opportunities to bring the matter before the city council. He declined to say who might sponsor a resolution to create a police review board, but said he believes Bellamy-Small and Wells would support such an initiatiative.

Two efforts to get a resolution before council failed last year.

“I’m so disappointed with the entire city council, including our black members,” Jones said. “When the NAACP and the Pulpit Forum went before the city council, you couldn’t get one member to make a motion. If we can’t pass a police review board, it’s important that people officially go on record. The council has failed even to do that. We’re going backwards.”

Jones said the recent allegations of discrimination within the department under former Chief David Wray, which are currently under review by a special prosecutor with the NC Justice Department, lend particular urgency to the need for a police review board.

“What the city needs to do in response to the police scandal is – this is the time if there ever was a time – to implement a police review board with subpoena power as a positive step,” he said. “It would substantially reduce the possibility of a scandal occurring again.”

Abraham countered that a police review board would not have prevented alleged incidents of racial discrimination under the Wray administration because police review boards, like complaint review committees, are typically not available as an avenue of redress for sworn police officers. He said he does not believe a police review board would be significantly more effective than the city’s current arrangement.

“I guess my comment is that Winston-Salem has [a police review board], and it’s less active than our complaint review committee,” he said. “I don’t know that there’s going to be a net gain to move to that.”

Yvonne Johnson said she’s open to discussing further modifications, including allowing the complaint review committee to interview witnesses.

Jones and other black leaders have expressed impatience with the current council.

“They’re just sitting around waiting for a report [from the NC Justice Department],” Jones said. “This city council hasn’t had the foresight to step out in front and show some leadership in crisis. They haven’t shown the moral leadership to step up to the plate. You’d think they would have enough guts for someone to make a motion and have someone second it, and have a serious discussion.”

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