Two officers, once accused of targeting black cops, sue city of Greensboro

by Jordan Green

Greensboro police Detective Scott Sanders savors his acquittal outside of a Guilford County courtroom in February 2009. (file photo)

Two white Greensboro police officers considered members of a so-called “secret police” unit that investigated black officers from about 2002 to 2005 are together suing the city of Greensboro and a host of related defendants for deprivation of civil rights, malicious prosecution, abuse of process, civil conspiracy, defamation and negligence.

Detective Scott Sanders and Sgt. William Thomas Fox were indicted in September 2007. A Guilford County jury acquitted Sanders of a single count of accessing a government computer in February 2009. Afterwards, Senior Deputy Attorney General James J. Coman dismissed two counts each against Sanders and Fox of felonious obstruction of justice and felonious conspiracy on the basis that “fundamental fairness dictates that the charges” against the defendants “be dismissed because it is unlikely that a jury would convict” the two.

Among the defendants are Chief Tim Bellamy, Assistant Chief Gary Hastings, Officer John D. Sloan, Detective Ernest L. Cuthbertson, former City Manager Mitchell Johnson, retired Capt. Martha Kelly and Risk Management Associates of Raleigh.

Following the abrupt resignation of Chief David Wray in January 2006, then-City Manager Mitchell Johnson promoted Bellamy to the position of interim chief. Sanders, Fox and other members of the intelligence unit were reassigned, and Bellamy placed the unit under the supervision of then-Capt. Gary Hastings, who led the criminal investigation division.

Among the most potentially damaging allegations is that Bellamy, Hastings, Cuthbertson and Sloan “provided the SBI with false, incomplete and/or misleading statements and information in an attempt to discredit and bring charges against Scott Sanders and Tom Fox.” Bellamy, Hastings, Cuthbertson and Sloan were allegedly interviewed by the SBI. None of the four returned phone calls for this story.

Based on the SBI’s investigation and statements by Cuthbertson and Sloan, a North Carolina grand jury indicted Sanders and Fox for conspiring to undermine a legitimate criminal investigation by Cuthbertson, a black officer in the special intelligence section, and by Norman Rankin, another black officer in the unit. At the time, it was alleged that Sanders told Officer Sloan that they must prevent Rankin from speaking to a confidential informant and that Sanders told Sloan: “That’s what we want, we don’t want this investigation to go forward. What we want is to have them fail.”

The lawsuit alleges that “the SBI received statements, which had been suppressed by the [city], that led to all charges against Scott Sanders and Tom Fox being dismissed by the SBI.”

The lawsuit also alleges that Capt. Martha Kelly, then head of internal affairs, withdrew evidence at Hastings’ request that was destroyed. The lawsuit identifies the document in question as a memo created by Hastings that was named “Memorandum #9.”

John C. Vermitsky, a Winston-Salem lawyer who is representing the plaintiffs, declined to specify what information was false or what information was withheld from the SBI during the criminal investigation.

Among the acts itemized as part of an alleged conspiracy to bring false charges against Fox and Sanders are initiating an SBI investigation of Sanders, Fox and special intelligence despite the fact that an earlier FBI probe found no civil rights violations; providing false, incomplete and misleading information to the SBI; making false accusations regarding a “black book” in the media during the SBI investigations; and destroying and hiding exculpatory evidence.

The lawsuit contends that the defendants deprived Sanders and Fox of their rights for “the purpose of appeasing a segment of the African-American community, discrediting and discharging David Wray’s ‘good ole boys,’ furthering their own careers and as a result of a personal vendetta against David Wray.”

Vermitsky declined to offer specific evidence to support the notion that Mitchell Johnson and other defendant’s actions were motivated by a desire to appease a segment of the black community.

Following Wray’s departure and Mitchell’s Johnson’s appointment of Tim Bellamy as interim chief, the then-city manager provided a copy of a consulting group’s confidential report to the new interim chief, asking him to review it and launch an internal investigation. That internal investigation eventually led to the SBI’s involvement and criminal charges against Sanders and Fox.

The consulting report was created by Raleigh-based Risk Management Associates, a security firm headed by Michael Longmire, a veteran of the Raleigh Police Department.

Based on a review of internal police management actions by two assistant city attorneys, RMA concluded that “there is evidence that tends to support allegations made by employees of disparate treatment, possible violations of training or standards regulations, and other management failures.”

Black officers who are plaintiffs in at least two lawsuits against the city have cited the RMA report as evidence that the city itself recognized that black officers received disparate treatment under Wray’s leadership.

In response, the city filed an answer last summer in a federal lawsuit brought by 39 black officers stating that “it is admitted that given the broad scope of the RMA investigation there may be some inaccuracies. The city denies that it engaged in any illegal or improper practices.”

The lawsuit filed by Sanders and Fox contends that RMA principals and agents acted “intentionally, maliciously, willfully, wantonly and in reckless disregard” of the rights and safety of Sanders and Fox. The lawsuit also claims that the investigations carried out by the city legal department and RMA “contained numerous factual errors and unjustified conclusions, and was manipulated and controlled by defendants Johnson, Bellamy and Hastings in an effort to justify the removal of Scott Sanders and Tom Fox.”

Johnson and Michael Longmire, president of RMA, declined to comment for this story.

“We believe as a whole the document failed to take into account multiple interviews,” Vermitsky said of the RMA report.

“We believe that we have evidence that the report was written in such a way as to include interviews and evidence that would support a particular result, and to ignore or exclude evidence and testimony that would not support the desired result.”

Sanders and Fox contend that Lt. James Hinson, an officer extensively investigated by special intelligence, and other African- American officers accused the unit of using a so-called “black book” to target minority officers. “In fact, no such ‘black book’ exists, and defendants have no evidence that such ‘black book’ ever existed,” the lawsuit contends. “There is evidence that a black binder exists that was a proper investigative tool used in an authorized special intelligence unit investigation.”

A document containing photographic arrays showing 19 black Greensboro officers, each placed on a page with five control photos obtained from Division of Motor Vehicles records, was secured in the trunk of Deputy Chief Randall Brady’s police vehicle, handed over to RMA and eventually taken into the custody of the SBI. Sanders and Fox’s lawsuit contends that “only those African-American officers who were on duty at the time” of “a specific complaint by an alleged victim of a sexual assault by an African-American officer” were included in the arrays.

Following Wray’s resignation, Bellamy told Greensboro city council members during a January 2006 closed-session meeting that the department never had 19 black officers on duty at any one time, according to retroactively released minutes.

Outside of Sanders and Fox, police and city officials have never ascertained exactly why the lineup was created with arrays of 19 black officers.

In 2007, an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigator named Nina Troxler sought answers from the city about the reason for the creation of the controversial lineup in the wake of complaints of discrimination leveled at the department by numerous black officers.

“The city is not in a position to answer this question because Brady and Sanders refused to talk to the SBI, and internal affairs cannot talk to them without giving the Gardner-Garrity assurances that any thing

they say cannot be used in evidence in a criminal trial, an assurance the city does not want to give until it is sure that no criminal charges can be made,” wrote Martin N. Erwin, who has been part of a team of outside lawyers defending the city in the courts, in the summer of 2007.

Three months later, a grand jury handed down indictments to Sanders and Fox. None of the material in the indictments correlated with the findings of the RMA report or had anything to do with Lt. Hinson or the “black book.”

Under Mitchell Johnson’s leadership, the city was waging battles on two fronts simultaneously: On one hand, it took administrative action to address the black officers’ concerns and mitigate the perceived damage inflicted by the Wray administration, and on the other hand it argued against the officers’ claims in court to minimize the city’s costs. In the same letter to EEOC investigator Nina Troxler, lawyer Martin Erwin wrote, “There is nothing about the lineups that seems to me to be unfairly or racially biased in the absence of evidence that they were improperly used.”

Sanders and Fox’s lawsuit notes that in the fall of 2008, Johnson verified under oath that “based on information and belief, the ‘black book’… is a photo array or record purportedly compiled for the purpose of solving an alleged assault.” Johnson’s critics have been quick to cite the statement as evidence that the city manager encouraged the public perception that the document was used for nefarious purposes while knowing full well that its creation and use were entirely legitimate. Johnson has long contended that he never really knew the purpose of the document, hence his use of the word “purportedly.”

Johnson was fired in 5-4 vote by city council shortly after Sanders’ acquittal and the senior deputy attorney general’s decision to drop the remaining charges.

Sanders and Fox’s lawsuit seeks $1 million for each of 16 claims in compensatory damages and $7 million in punitive damages.

“Our greatest goal,” Vermitsky said, “is to get two great officers with 30-plus years of experience their reputations and dignity back with the city of Greensboro.”