The struggle for the soul of the Greensboro Police Department

by Jordan Green

Standing before fewer than a dozen citizens assembled in the white-painted cinderblock expanse of a meeting room at the Simkins Indoor Sports Pavillion, two human resources employees from the city of Greensboro listen attentively to comments about what qualities a new police chief should have.

They thank the participants even when their statements come across as abrasive or cast the city in an unfavorable light, scrawl their recommendations on a giant easel pad and, in the most solicitous manner possible, probe them with touchy-feely lines like, “Did that capture what you were thinking?” and, “Say more about that.”

All the while a slender African-American man who identifies himself as a graduate of Dudley High School writes rapidly in a lined notebook. He wears a starched, white shirt and glasses with heavy frames. His is a disquieting, solemn presence, and when he speaks the oblique string of words referencing former Chief David Wray, the bonds of solidarity and social chaos convey an undercurrent of apocalyptic foreboding.

“We had a murder rate going on with a high percentage,” the man says. “When Wray came in he spoke at a black church. Now it seems like we’re back to square one. This so-called brotherhood is, I’m sure, thinking of itself.”

When the city facilitator tries to focus the man by asking what he would expect from a new chief, the man blurts out: “Be concerned about the situation he’s walking into. It could be drug-related or murder. I don’t know, what are the statistics on this community?” Then he adds: “As we roll into the future we have a specific race dying out or they’re not very aggressive about coming out.”

Others, such as a woman who identifies herself as Ms. Teague, outline more specific and pointed concerns. She says the department has been in trouble for a long time, and the source is not David Wray but his predecessor, Robert White, who now leads the Louisville Metro Police Department in Kentucky. The new chief will have to be a strong person because he, like Wray, will inherit some problems, she says, adding that the low turnout tonight might be the result of citizens fearing retribution if they speak out.

Later, when City Manager Mitchell Johnson steps forward to answer questions, Teague confronts him with her distrust.

“Who would want the job?” she asks. “It’s a lot to straighten out.”

Johnson takes a deep breath and the silence of his pause hangs thick in the air. This evening his energy appears to be flagging, and at this third public input meeting of the week he has lost the look -‘ that of a confident fighter ready to dispel doubt and misinformation -‘ that carried him through the first day. When he finally speaks it’s with a measure of weariness and the hint of forced patience.

“Greensboro has a strong reputation in the law enforcement community,” he says. “A lot of people can look at these issues for what they are -‘ not press accounts, frankly.”

At all three meetings the subject of the articles written by Jerry Bledsoe for The Rhinoceros Times has come up. The articles have outlined in painstaking detail the activities of one Lt. James Hinson in a narrative sympathetic to Wray that includes detours into descriptions of an international narcotics syndicate and allusions to a powerful and corrupt black political establishment in Greensboro. By now Johnson’s response to citizens concerned about Hinson’s activities has become rote.

“If the charge against you can’t be sustained it can’t be sustained,” he says. “What you’ve read is about investigations that were done under Wray. Senior officers came in and found that no criminal charges could be sustained. Lieutenant Hinson has returned to the force and is doing his job, from what I know. If we ever found out he was doing anything wrong he would be held accountable.”

To be sure, Johnson has his fans.

Hildagene Reid, an ex-offender coordinator for a now-defunct nonprofit, tells the city manager that too often people take him for granted.

“Thank you for the fantastic job that you’ve done as city manager,” she says. “You’re always cool, calm and collected when you’re giving the citizens answers to their questions. You have a lot on your plate with 236,000 citizens and nine bosses.”

The night before at Lindley Recreation Center a retired police officer from south Florida, Glenn Andrews, has echoed that sentiment, extending his praise also to interim Chief Tim Bellamy, who was abruptly drafted to lead the department in January following Wray’s resignation.

“Everybody’s done a good job,” Andrews has said. “I think it’s been handled well up to this point. The gentleman who is the interim chief is doing a remarkable job.”

Johnson is the first to admit that with an internal police investigation concluding, disciplinary actions taking place on the force, a state criminal investigation into the administrative practices of the previous chief ongoing, and multiple civil lawsuits looming on the distant horizon, it’s hardly an ideal time to begin a search for a new chief. (“I think we’re going to be dealing with lawsuits and court cases for years to come,” he predicts at one of the sessions.)

“Nothing you’ve told me is reassuring,” Gayle Fripp, a local historian and retired city employee, tells Johnson at a session held at the central library. “The citizens out here feel they cannot trust anything. We are lost. We don’t know anybody we can trust. I don’t feel we can trust the manager.”

Later she asks Johnson how he can even think about beginning a search for a new police chief at a time like this.

“I absolutely agree with you,” Johnson says. “Trying to make a search for a chief in the middle of a process like this is not a good idea. When I first asked the interim chief to begin an internal investigation I thought it would be done in three months. If that had been the case we would have a chief today. We were not prepared for what we found. That involved a criminal investigation, which was handed off to the SBI. We made the decision that once we wrapped up the internal investigation we would begin the search for a new chief.”

Johnson adds that the police department employs about 700 people, and only eight or nine of them were implicated in the alleged wrongdoing under Wray’s administration.

The former chief resigned in January. Two other members of the command staff, Deputy Chief Randall Brady and Capt. Matt Lojko, abruptly resigned before him. In the past two months Assistant Chief Annie Stevenson, Sgt. Tom Fox and former special intelligence Detective Scott Sanders were suspended. Johnson says more disciplinary actions will be forthcoming, and now it is time to appoint new leadership to provide the department with stability.

“To hold the entire department hostage to eight or nine individuals because of this mess -‘ and it is a mess – is not fair,” he says.

The outlines of administrative wrongdoing under Chief David Wray center on allegations of favoritism, intimidation of officers who refused to go along with his wishes and double standards in discipline and promotions. The racial aspect of the latter allegation is impossible to ignore. Shortly after Wray’s resignation, Johnson stated: “Minority officers were subject to more intense scrutiny of their actions and missteps than were non-minorities and’… the authority of minority officers was undermined.”

Much of that information comes from the investigation carried out by Risk Management Associates of Raleigh in the fall of 2005. Those familiar with the city’s subsequent probes following Wray’s departure say more troubling information surfaced later that cannot be disclosed because of state law protecting the confidentiality of personnel.

Press accounts of the swirling allegations surrounding Wray and the target of his scrutiny, Lt. James Hinson, have taken on a life of their own, sometimes overshadowing the secretive administrative and criminal investigations that have targeted the former chief.

The city manager’s statements have sometimes seemed prickly, as in one session when retired Blue Bell apparel manager Jim Niver challenges him on barring Wray from his office.

“Some of you think it was kind of a silly thing to lock the door of the chief’s office,” Johnson says. “Judging by what I have read in the paper I would have to agree. Obviously, every confidential document he had has been leaked, so locking the door was somewhat pointless, wasn’t it?”

Those documents, many of them special intelligence files detailing the extensive investigations of Hinson, appear to form the backbone of Bledsoe’s sensational series of articles.

Wray’s lawyers, Locke Clifford and Ken Keller, complained in a public statement that the city was trying to smear their client “by releasing an isolated piece of information, without detail, without context, and then precluding any attempt to obtain detail,” after the police department disclosed that private citizens, many of them African-American, had been recorded.

In that April 20 statement Clifford and Keller announced a public relations offensive on behalf of Wray: “Jerry Bledsoe came to us and said he was in the process of writing a comprehensive story. He asked our permission to interview David Wray. Because of Mr. Bledsoe’s reputation for fairness and objectivity we agreed. We urge all who want to find out the truth to be patient. We feel it will take some time, but in the end, the full truth will come out.”

Clifford said on Nov. 14 that he and Wray had decided to not comment on the case until the probe by the NC State Bureau of Investigation is complete. Bledsoe did not respond to an interview request from YES! Weekly, and the editor of the series, John Hammer, also declined to comment.

From the beginning, the controversy has been propelled by media accounts. The confidential report by Risk Management Associates notes under a heading entitled “inception of investigation” that Hinson discovered a “bird dog” electronic tracking device on his vehicle in early June 2005, and information about his surveillance began appearing in local newspapers. Two weeks later Wray placed Hinson on administrative leave. Complaints from rank-and-file officers to the city manager would prompt an independent investigation of Wray by Risk Management Associates, and that investigation would lead Johnson to the conclusion that the chief had been dishonest in statements tying Hinson to a multi-agency, international narcotics investigation.

When a leaked copy of the Risk Management Associates report provided details for a series of articles in the News & Record that were published beginning in March 2006, many of Johnson’s detractors, including Winston-Salem blogger Ben Holder, concluded that the city was trying to distract the public’s attention from the investigation of Project Homestead, which focused on misallocation of funds by the nonprofit. The agency’s executive director, Michael King, would end up committing suicide. When Guilford County District Attorney Doug Henderson announced in March that charges would not be filed, many who had hoped to learn whether local elected officials who had granted city funds to Project Homestead were complicit in the debacle found themselves frustrated that the report was kept sealed and returned to the State Bureau of Investigation.

“This totally overshadowed the Project Homestead investigation,” says Holder, a 34-year-old single father whose blog writings periodically direct withering criticism at individuals in the police department and city government. “That covers a lot of asses. It’s great for these black leaders to go Al Sharpton and have some kind of fictitious monster they can fight – Earl Jones, Skip Alston, Nelson Johnson -‘ David Wray is their monster.”

He adds: “You heard all these people say, ‘Release the RMA report.’ Who was saying, ‘Release the Homestead report?’ A black man killed himself because of it. The black leaders don’t say, ‘Goddammit, this is racism.’ They wanted it to go away because all their names was in it.”

Some former members of the Greensboro City Council interviewed by YES! Weekly dispute the impression that they were bullied by black leaders who wanted to cover up Project Homestead, protect Lt. Hinson or extract other favorable treatment.

“I don’t think pressure placed on council members by influential members of the black community had anything to do with this,” says Robbie Perkins, a real estate broker who served on the council at the time the Risk Management Associates investigation began, and who decided against running for reelection. “Certainly no pressure was put on me. The police union didn’t like [Wray]. Those were the only people that were trying to get rid of Wray. It had nothing to do with the African-American community.”

Don Vaughan, a lawyer who lost his bid for reelection to city council in 2005, acknowledges that he accompanied African-American lawyer Joe Williams to a meeting with Wray in the summer of 2005. Claudette Burroughs-White, another former city council member, also attended that meeting.

“Joe had a picture of the tracking device,” Vaughan says. “We were over in court. We went over to meet with the chief. I was on city council and I didn’t know what it was about. The chief was very nice about it. He said he would look into it. Joe was very concerned about it. I didn’t meet with him again after that.”

Mayor Keith Holliday dismisses any notion that white leaders in Greensboro are intimidated by their African-American counterparts.

“We may have a reputation among some people that we’re kowtowing to black leaders,” he says in an interview in the conference room of First Citizens Bank. “I can say without a doubt, unequivocally, that that is not true. It certainly is not true in my case. What people only saw is when we said yes to Michael King. What you didn’t see is when we said no. The man asked us for something three times a month. Half the time he was standing up there in city council meetings complaining because we had said no in private session.”

Personal opinion about the two principal characters in the controversy – Chief Wray and Lt. Hinson – has become polarized, and viewpoints about police accountability and authority appear to have fractured along not privy to the details of Hinson’s private life, but he can empathize with the scrutiny placed on Hinson.

“I am very sympathetic to Lieutenant Hinson because I understand what he has been through, without thinking he is without fault or flaw,” he says. “I have taken many sisters home. They might have been prostitutes. I hope he was treating them right and I hope he was compassionate to them.”

Similarly, many of Wray’s colleagues hold the former chief in high regard.

“He was just a congenial and very nice individual,” says Larry Collins, who retired in 1990 and shared the rank of sergeant with Wray. “Super intelligent. Very smooth. I believe he could give you a speech about salt and pepper and you would come away impressed.

“This is not about racism,” he adds. “There is not a racist bone in his body. The guys became disgruntled when he put ’em back on [rotating] shifts and they weren’t happy about it.”

John Leonard, a part-time driver with the Greensboro Auto Auction who retired from the force in 1995, says of Wray: “He was a conscientious officer. He’s intelligent. I never knew him to be disrespectful and he was never abusive.”

He speaks even more highly of the interim chief, Tim Bellamy, with whom he once worked in the department’s youth division.

“He was a thorough investigator,” Leonard says. “He’s honest. He’s dedicated. Probably there were personal things between he and I, but we understood each other. If I needed some assistance on an investigation he would be the one I’d call. If he needed some assistance he’d call me.”

Ramon Bell, a Stokesdale private investigator who retired as a sergeant in 1997, says if the allegation proves to be true that he disapproves of Wray’s practice of changing disciplinary reports when findings by subordinates negatively affected favored employees. He says he is more concerned with what he called a “cancer” in the department dating back to Wray’s predecessor, Robert White.

“The thing about Wray is he’s a very headstrong, authoritative individual,” Bell says. “I think that’s what got him in trouble with this. They’re not going to get rid of the problem until you get to the root of the problem, and Wray was not the root of the problem.”

Bell and others cite the Bledsoe articles as the source of their suspicions about corrupt practices by Hinson and his friend, former Chief White. Mitchell Johnson, the city manager, has said he doesn’t have time to respond line by line to the allegations in the articles, but he has gradually shown more willingness to counter some of the allegations.

At the Lindley Recreation Center meeting he says that “outside of rumor and innuendo” he has no knowledge of Hinson shaking down restaurant owners or entertainment companies for free or discounted services.

He says that during an interview with Bledsoe he mentioned a rumor he’d heard that “officers were badging their way into strip clubs” during the White administration, but objects that the quote made it seem that the rumor was a fact and that he as a city administrator didn’t see anything wrong with the alleged practice.

Responding to one of the most troubling allegations, that Hinson signed a contract on behalf of the police department with the Grandover Resort for a charity golf tournament, Johnson tells the audience at the library: “The issue that you’re talking about, there was a contract that was executed. It was executed the same way for five years. Chief Wray was aware of it. I think it’s a practice issue. Should we make sure someone at the lieutenant level can’t execute a contract? Yes. Should he be disciplined? I think if he had done it in the past and nobody said anything about it, you would tend to think, ‘no.'”

Information about activities by Wray and his circle has slowly trickled out. The latest details come from a lawsuit filed on Nov. 8 by a former used car saleswoman named Nicole Pettiford against the city of Greensboro. Pettiford was taken to a hotel room and interviewed for six hours by Detective Scott Sanders, who appears to have taken advantage of past indiscretions to compel her to cooperate in a scheme to entrap black police officers.

Sanders declined through his lawyer to comment for this story.

Pettiford’s lawsuit alleges that Sanders approached her as she left a McDonald’s on Martin Luther King Drive on Nov. 9, 2004 and ordered her to come with him. She took her car to her husband’s workplace, rode with a female officer to her sister’s house and dropped her two children off there.

She went with members of the special intelligence squad to the Residence Inn on Veasley Street, where the lawsuit alleges Pettiford “was unlawfully held and detained for six hours, all without warrant, probable cause or any lawful cause” and questioned “about her supposed knowledge of the activities of certain black officers.”

The complaint states that Pettiford was not allowed to answer her cell phone as her husband Anthony tried to reach her. “Throughout the process, the police officers purposely ignored plaintiff Nicole Pettiford’s demands to be released and instead subjected her to a course of cruel and unusual punishment by interrogating her for some six hours without food or sleep, never reading her her rights.”

Pettiford says she was told that she was going to lose her children because she would be spending the next 40 years in federal prison.

Around midnight, the lawsuit alleges, Pettiford was allowed to leave the hotel on condition that she allow officers to search her home, and financial records were taken never to be returned.

Afterwards, Sanders allegedly carried out an “ongoing campaign of harassment,” calling Pettiford on the phone repeatedly, contacting Green Auto Sales and informing Pettiford’s employer that she would be facing prison time, and ruining her reputation with her coworkers, which interfered with her ability to sell cars and eventually forced her to quit her job.

The lawsuit, which seeks a minimum of $40,000 in damages, contends that the Pettifords’ rights to be secure against unreasonable search and seizure were violated and the city “maintained a system of review of police conduct through its departments that is so cursory as to be ineffective,” and claims that the couple was “mentally and physically sick, suffering nightmares, stomach pain, headaches, sleeplessness [and] anxiety” as a result of their experience.

City leaders have hinted that at least one departmental change may be in store.

Johnson acknowledges at the Lindley Recreation Center meeting that police “morale is not as good as it’s been. From a patrol standpoint it’s the rotating shifts. They are absolutely worn out.”

On another occasion Mayor Holliday mentions a need for a “systematic” overhaul of policy and procedures, and says, “An example is through the years plenty of complaints have centered on rotating shifts. That needs to be examined.”

Holliday says he is not inclined to consider a proposal supported by black leaders such as Rep. Earl Jones, Rev. Johnson and Rev. Brown to establish a citizens police review board.

While the city is accepting applications from candidates for the job of chief through the day after Thanksgiving and will likely extend the deadline the city manager indicates the interim chief has a good chance of getting the job if he decides to apply.

“I think Chief Bellamy is doing a good job,” Johnson tells the group at the Simkins Indoor Sports Pavillion. “Whether Bellamy is a candidate or not has to do with him. He’s certainly a candidate that I would like to have in the pool, and I’ll just leave it at that.”

As an indicator of the direction the wind is blowing, the job description posted by the city states that department’s “priorities include partnerships with the community through community policing” – concepts favored by former Chief White and Lt. Hinson.

Rank-and-file officers also deserve a more robust appeals process, Holliday says.

“When all the dust settles and we’ve got a new police chief I can see the city manager having a mass meeting and speaking to all six hundred officers at the Coliseum outlining what they can expect,” the mayor says. “He might go over fair treatment, appealing disciplinary actions, hiring practices’…. There may be some going overboard because of the damage that’s been done to let them know they’re being supported by management.”

He says citizens can expect full disclosure about the practices of the Wray administration, with the exception of the names of specific employees, after the State Bureau of Investigation completes its probe.

“A lot of trust is going to be hurt that is going to need to be restored,” he says. “You are going to see all the dirty details, but what you are not going to get is the personnel information. You’ll get the details about what went down and what was done to fix it.”

He continues: “You got nine lay people who are very privy to all the dirty details because that’s what we’re supposed to do. We are the go-betweens for the citizens and the bureaucracy. In our system these representatives get these details. I am not about to let it out. If you don’t trust us then you can elect new leaders.”

Holliday says he thinks Wray believed what he was doing was right, and that his missteps were not taken for personal gain, but that eventually he allowed laudable ends to justify dishonorable means.

“There is absolutely no way that this is a black-white issue,” he says. “At the beginning it might have looked that way with the Hinson investigation and the black book. When we started peeling the onion back, it had nothing to do with race. It has to do with pure administrative policies that you would not like to see, whether it’s a bank, government or newspaper. You’re gonna say, ‘How could this happen?'”

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