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UNDER REVEW: THE BATTLE FOR POLICE OVERSIGHT

by Eric Ginsburg

The Rev. Chip Marble, a retired bishop with the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, leaned forward slightly over the podium facing the Greensboro City Council.

He is a fixture in most local conversations about equality and reform, especially when it comes to race and police.

Even to those that don’t know him well, he is easily recognizable by his white hair combed back above his soft features; his deep, soothing voice and casual Southern accent; or his signature clerical collar, purple shirt and sloping gold chain around his neck.

“I want to read an excerpt from a litany that we had yesterday at one of the services in memorial to Martin Luther King Jr.,” he said at the city council meeting last week.

“Perhaps our sin is a slow wait for justice,” he began, slowly working his way through a list of the ways society has “done precious little” to change the world or care for “the least of these.”

Marble, the closer, was one of nearly a dozen speakers addressing the council that night to announce the creation of an interim citizens’ review board to provide what they say is much-needed oversight and a check on the power of the Greensboro Police Department.

The topic isn’t unique to Greensboro — Durham has been grappling with similar issues after teenager Jesus Huerta died of a gunshot wound in police custody a few months ago — and they aren’t new here either.

The topic, which only appears to fade briefly from the public eye before an incident or an organization resurrects it, isn’t one with a simple answer, but for years the Beloved Community Center has been at the center of a call for greater oversight by way of a citizens’ review board.

It appears supporters of the idea are tired of waiting, and have launched their own, impaneling eight-member board consisting of four college professors, two religious leaders, a former human relations employee and a youth advocate.

In what has become almost a periodic ritual in recent years, the Beloved Community Center announced its critiques of the department and proposed solutions in a written declaration two weeks ago.

“There’s been no meaningful progress.” — Lewis Pitts

“In Greensboro, over a long period of time, we have witnessed a sanctioned pattern and practice of misconduct by sworn officers,” the statement reads. “It is our conviction that the single strongest factor contributing to the establishment of the negative subculture, which has harmed a number of people and tarnished the image of the city, is the concentration of power within the police culture without adequate oversight.”

Following the ritual’s pattern, people spoke during the public comment section of the Jan. 21 city council meeting the next week about why they support or are participating in the “citizens’ interim police review committee” established by the declaration.

Like Marble and at least half of the interim committee, the first speaker was a familiar face in discussions about police accountability. Lawyer and civil rights activist Lewis Pitts listed several reasons that a grassroots committee such as this is necessary, including “physical abuse of citizens followed by unfounded charges” and intimidation of people who try and file complaints with the department, he said.

“For a government to be just, it must be of the people, by the people and for the people,” Pitts said. “The police cannot and should not be allowed to police themselves. There’s been a long series of concerns, literally for decades, in Greensboro about police misconduct against what tends to be the African-American community, the Latino community, the low-income community. There’s been no meaningful progress.”

NC A&T University professor Derick Smith, who is the interim committee chair, outlined the group’s aim.

“We want to bring an investigative process from the citizens that will help the city,” Smith said, “in an advisory capacity so we can answer some of the many questions that have plagued the city for so long.”

The Revs. Randall Keeney and Gregory Headen, who have both been arrested for civil disobedience protesting alleged police double standards and corruption, are also on the interim committee and spoke at the council meeting.

“All police officers don’t act the same way where the most vulnerable live as they do in other communities,” Headen said. “When good people know something, they have to do something. There is a part of this work that the citizens have to do. We are doing what we believe we must do for conscience sake.”

Likely to nobody’s surprise, after the speakers finished, Councilman Zack Matheny stated his strong support for the department as he has in the past, adding that police are underpaid and perform excellently.

Matheny reiterated his belief that the city already has a board that provides enough oversight of the department —the complaint review committee — and said that many complaints have been cleared up in recent years.

“We are moving [forward] and we do have a review board,” he said from the council dais.

While other council members, and unsurprisingly the department itself, is quick to laud the work of Greensboro police and point to low complaint rates, not all of them quickly embrace Matheny’s attitude that discussing police issues is a waste of time.

After Matheny’s comments, Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson thanked the speakers for attending, adding that she hopes the city can reach a healing point in police-community relations.

“There have been people who have come to me and told me their stories,” she said. “Both of what you’re saying and what Zack’s saying is true.”

Johnson is one of four council members who will sit on a new council complaint review committee enhancement committee. Created by council in early January, the committee will hold four public, televised meetings to gather input and make recommendations for strengthening and improving the existing process, said Mayor Nancy Vaughan, who will chair the committee.

Council members Tony Wilkins and Jamal Fox, the other two committee members, both said they didn’t have any specific ideas for what improvements could be made or areas that the group should consider.

“I’m in a listen-and-learn mode right now,” Wilkins said. “Let me get a meeting under my belt first.”

Fox, who was elected in the fall, expressed a similar sentiment.

“Going into it, I’m very open-minded, and I think we need to be,” he said. “As to what should be considered, any way we can improve our CRC process, I’m happy with it. This is something that council believes we need to readdress and make sure we have the right solutions for the community. I’m really looking forward to seeing what we can do.”

Vaughan said the committee hasn’t set a meeting schedule yet but will likely spend its first meetings focused on public education of the current process and gathering input.

“I think the whole idea is that we’re open to suggestions, and there might be something out there that we haven’t thought of before,” she said.

Plenty of specific criticisms that have been leveled against the current process — such as its lack of subpoena power — will likely be raised, Vaughan said, adding that there isn’t anything the committee has ruled out from consideration at this point.

There’s even one idea she will be bringing to the table: Changing how complaint review committee board members are appointed. Vaughan suggested that, rather than being placed under the city’s human relations commission, it could be a standalone committee directly appointed by council. Committee members are currently chosen out of a pool of human relations commissioners, who in turn were appointed by council.

The new enhancement committee aside, the current process has already undergone a few recent changes.

Allen Hunt, a non-voting member of the complaint review committee who acts as its secretary, is also a city human relations supervisor. Since he was hired by the city seven months ago, he’s worked to formalize how the committee functions. He added that the city is stricter about confidentiality now to protect both complainants and employees.

While he is aware that some residents feel the committee isn’t impartial enough, Hunt said they do all they can to maintain independence.

“I know that we receive city paychecks, but from the minute I got on this job they were very emphatic that we make it level and fair,” he said. “We do our best to be equitable.”

Hunt said the committee’s original charge only authorized it to investigate allegations of “biased-based policing” even though it heard other complaints such as excessive force in practice. Recent revisions enshrined the committee’s right to hear any complaints of alleged police misconduct, he said, as long as the alleged wrongdoing violates something in the police department’s code of conduct directives.

Hunt also said he couldn’t offer any recommendations for improvement, though he said he expects the council committee will look at the practices of neighboring cities such as Charlotte.

There have been other changes too, said Abdel Nurridin, the District 5 representative on the complaint review committee.

“I think the police department has become more cooperative over the last several years,” he said, specifically citing transparency efforts by former chief Tim Bellamy and current Chief Ken Miller. “We’ve always felt some restraint… but this will help facilitate some changes.”

Nurridin said he could think of at least one beneficial change the enhancement committee might recommend — appointing at least one person to the review committee with a law enforcement background. Nurridin said that addressing police issues is one of the most important things the city council can address this year, adding that there is a divide between the police and some residents.

“It has come from a legacy of distrust, a legacy of hiding things,” he said. “In the estimation of the community, the police department hasn’t been as forth coming as they could be in the past.”

Nurridin said the professional standards department, the internal arm of the police department that investigates complaints, has been seen as a “paper tiger” in the past but that Miller “has started to send the message” that it will have more teeth now. In order for police behavior to change, the division must be strong, and Miller said there have already been recent changes.

“We have replaced investigating corporals with more seasoned sergeants, and added a lieutenant to provide additional review and guidance in investigations,” he said in an e-mail — exactly the sort of staffing change Nurridin said is necessary.

Paul Ksieniewicz, the District 3 representative on the committee, said he welcomes the recent tweaks.

“I think that the changes that have been put in place really have enhanced the way the CRC conducts itself, and it’s a dramatic improvement,” Ksieniewicz said. “We’ve just gone through a great deal of improvements.”

Rev. Clarence Shuford, who has only served on the complaint review committee for a few months and is the chair, said he is skeptical of the proposed interim citizens’ police review committee, in part because they won’t have access to internal information like the complaint review committee does.

“I’m following this just like you all,” Shuford said. “The dialogue is good, so maybe something positive will come out of it.”

Shuford is the chair of the Greensboro Pulpit Forum, a group that has actively addressed alleged police misconduct over the years. Headen is a former chair, and Beloved Community Center Director Nel-son Johnson is also one of the most active participants.

Nurridin also expressed uncertainty about the interim committee.

“I’m not sure how effective they’re going to be,” Nurridin said, adding that he doesn’t think it will hurt as long as the interim committee doesn’t obstruct the existing process.

Instead, he said he wants to help the mayor accomplish what needs to be done to strengthen the city’s process.

Mayor Vaughan offered a more hesitant assessment.

“I know that they said how it’s going to work but I’m not sure how it’s actually going to work,” she said. “It’s a group of citizens who are not sanctioned by the city to do this work so I’m not sure what the value is when they bring it forth. My biggest concern is they may unintentionally contaminate the discussion. I guess we’ll just have to see how it actually works.”

Vaughan participated in a handful of small meetings between council, staff and police reform advocates before the interim committee was publicly announced.

Based on those meetings, Vaughan said she is concerned that a comment about “coaching” complainants about how to talk to the city could “taint the evidence” of a case.

The idea of the interim committee made Councilman Fox, who partially relied on a grassroots campaign fueled by activists to defeat incumbent Jim Kee, pause briefly. Cautiously, he outlined his thoughts on the initiative.

“When a community comes together and they’re tired of something and they put a lot of effort into something coming together, that’s a great thing,” Fox said, adding that he doesn’t really have an opinion about its connection to the city or him. “I am really glad to see the community coming together. I look at this issue like the landfill or the Renaissance Center. I think that this is the year and this is the time to start healing the community.”

“I know that we receive city paychecks but from the minute I got on this job they were very emphatic that we make it level and fair. We do our best to be equitable.” — Human relations supervisor Allen Hunt

Chief Miller sees the interim committee in a very different light.

“This self-appointed board lacks any legitimacy in law or administrative process,” Miller said in an e-mail. “It is not only unnecessary, it is counterproductive to the goal that it claims to seek. Any finding would be incomplete and lack credibility.”

There are several reasons why it won’t be credible, he said — it doesn’t have “authorized access” to employees or witnesses, it can’t collect “physical or documentary evidence,” can’t compel employees to tell the truth as the department can — through a polygraph, for example — and it doesn’t have trained investigators or a defined investigation process.

Miller said the complaint review committee, and several other government bodies that investigate police actions such as the State Bureau of Investigation, already ensure “that we behave appropriately.”

Miller emphasized several other changes he has helped put into place, including the formation of a biased-based policing committee in 2012.

In a recent press conference about police and crime data from 2013, Miller spent a chunk of the time addressing similar issues. Complaints dropped from 87 in 2012 to 46 in 2013, he said, with the sustained complaint as a percentage of all calls for service resting at about 0.01 percent. It’s not clear if the decrease is an anomaly, he said, though the department believes it isn’t, adding that they will work to keep improving.

“Public trust is crucial to everything that we do,” he said in the press conference. “We hold our folks accountable when they err and we support them when they’re doing the right thing. We want to be as transparent as we can about how we investigate ourselves and hold ourselves accountable.”

Though it may be too early to say there is a direct correlation, Miller said there appears to be a connection between the drop in complaints and the “cameras on cops” initiative. The effort equipped all patrol officers with a body-worn camera system, he said, that will not only “help us sort through the facts and fiction in terms of what actually occurred in a given encounter” but also provide immediate accountability for both parties in an incident because they know it is on film.

To Nurridin, the cameras are a boon to accountability that gives the committee a powerful tool.

“It has improved monitoring activity of citizens and the police,” Nurridin said. “This is something that we pushed for in the time of chief Bellamy. We were pushing the necessity of this… so that we could have some type of surveillance going on in traffic stops and other cases.”

To some though, the changes aren’t enough. Possibly emblematic of the divide between those who want stronger reforms and those who mostly champion the current system appeared in the police department’s press conference, standing right next to the chief. Modeling the worn camera system, Sgt. Christopher Schultheis acted as Miller’s example “cyborg.”

“He is and has been instrumental on this for the department,” Miller said of Schultheis and the camera program. “He has taken the lead on this for the police department.”

Some have a very different view of Schultheis because he shot and killed James Paschal Jr., who was unarmed, in 2008. Department critics including former officer AJ Blake have questioned whether it was a legitimate use of force and how the department handled the incident.

Critics have also long argued the complaint review committee doesn’t have enough teeth, and as far as Yamile Walker can tell, the city’s process is only getting worse.

Walker, who formerly worked for the human relations department and is now on the interim citizens’ police review committee, once received and documented residents’ complaints about the police.

“What I currently understand of the CRC is that they are not in control,” she said. “The committee isn’t being told anything and isn’t reviewing much. There has obviously been a drastic change. The volunteers that serve on these committees are essential, but if they don’t know what they don’t know and staff doesn’t inform them, they are pretty much useless. It has to be a partnership and from what I understand right now it’s not.”

Contrary to Walker’s assertion that outgoing city manager Denise Turner Roth tried to prevent the complaint review committee from hearing any complaints that didn’t directly pertain to discrimination claims, Hunt said the opposite has occurred. And counter to what some critics claimed at the council meeting, he said complainants can file their grievances directly with the human relations department rather than the police.

What will happen with the interim review committee and the city council’s enhancement committee remains to be seen. As far as Vaughan is concerned, they are entirely different tracks. And it’s possible that those two tracks will continue to elude each other and the ritual back-and-forth will persist if more people — whatever their stance — don’t heed Walker’s call.

“If the regular citizenship doesn’t hold their governing bodies accountable, our government bodies can pretty much do anything to its citizenship,” Walker said. “People need to stop being so complacent.” !

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