WHITEWASH: Did the city of High Point quash a discrimination complaint against the HPPD?

by Jordan Green

One wet Saturday afternoon in March 2010, two Mexican sisters, Imelda Chang Mendoza, 44, and Elandi Chang Mendoza, 36, encountered Officer Ian Stanick, a 22-year-old cop with less than a year on the job, outside of Elandi’s house in an economically battered section of east High Point.

The sisters and Elandi’s three young children had eaten at a Chinese buffet, and they returned to Elandi’s house in Imelda’s Ford F-150 pickup to find the officer waiting for them. Three pit bulls had been on the loose and causing trouble for the neighbors, and Stanick thought one of the dogs might belong to one of the sisters. The sisters’ English was limited, and Stanick struggled to communicate with them. Tempers flared.

By the time it was over, at least one of the sisters had been punched and both had been knocked down in the mud. Elandi had been repeatedly blasted in the face with pepper spray. They had been arrested for assaulting a police officer, resisting arrest and traffic offenses. They had been booked at the magistrate’s office, and treated at High Point Regional Hospital, for pain and inflammation. Medical staff had found red marks on Imelda’s wrists and stomach, and swelling on one of her wrists that remains today. They had found abrasions and red marks on Elandi’s arm.

That much is clear about the incident.

That unfortunate encounter, coupled with the sisters’ complaint to the city’s human-relations commission, set in motion a series of events that has raised questions about whether City Manager Strib Boynton improperly interfered in a discrimination investigation of the incident.

“We have a human-relations department in the city of High Point,” said Mike Pugh, a realtor who served on council from 2005 to 2011. “If someone feels they have been discriminated against they can file a complaint.”

The city ordinance establishing the human-relations commission declares that it is the policy of the city to exercise its general police powers and governmental authority to promote public health, safety and welfare and “to work for the elimination of discriminatory practices” on the basis of race, creed, color, sex, national origin, age, handicap or economic status. As part of its responsibilities, the commission is authorized to receive and investigate complaints of discrimination.

Human Relations Director Al Heggins confirmed in an interview with YES! Weekly that her official responsibilities include ensuring that the city remains in compliance with Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a federal law that holds that “no person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color or national origin, be excluded from participation, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”

The Mendoza sisters filed a discrimination complaint on a standard intake form issued by the human-relations department alleging that the sisters were beaten by High Point police officers because of national origin, race and sex. Along with allegations of brutality, the complaint states that the first officer on the scene, who would have been Stanick, laughed at Imelda as she lay on the ground and that he said, “I do not like Hispanics because they stink,” “I am the law and I can do whatever I want with you,” and “F*ck you, bitch.”

The Mendoza sisters caught the attention of city staff, council members and citizen volunteers when they appeared before the human-relations commission in October 2010, about six months after the incident, and described their injuries. Twelve members of the human relations commission, the department’s two staff members, and council members Foster Douglas and Michael Pugh were present, along with a reporter for Que Pasa, a Spanish-language newspaper that was covering the incident.

“They filed a discrimination complaint, and we should have investigated it,” Mayor Bernita Sims said last week. “And if it’s found that there wasn’t discrimination, they would have looked at it and said, ‘We found that there was no discrimination.’ I’m a firm believer that things have to go through the protocol. If anywhere along the way the process stops then it looks like you’re trying to hide something.”

When the human-relations commission met in January 2011, police Chief Jim Fealy, who has since retired, and Capt. Ken Steele, who commands the professional-standards division, came before the commission. Sims, then a council member who chaired the public-safety committee, attended the meeting, along with Councilman Jim Corey, who had recently been appointed to replace Douglas as council liaison to the commission.

Fealy told the citizen commission that the police department had heard about the Mendoza sisters’ complaint, and that he had directed the professional-standards division to investigate the matter. The chief reportedly “explained that some aspects of the matter violate the city’s internal personnel/privacy laws and thus employee disciplinary issues cannot be discussed.” The minutes also reflect discussion about plans by the city manager to schedule a time to meet with Heggins and Fealy to discuss directives, and general confusion about the role of human-relations staff in investigating citizen complaints.

Heggins told members of the commission “that employee disciplinary action was not part of the complaint filed with HRD but specifically addressed concerns of alleged discrimination based on Title VI of the US Civil Rights Act.” After Chief Fealy and Capt. Steele left, the members voted unanimously that “the commission request that the complaint be followed through with by the human-relations department on behalf of the commission.”

The last mention of the complaint in the minutes of human-relations commission meetings came in February 2011. Much of the discussion at that meeting centered on whether the city should create a citizen-review board similar to what exists in Winston-Salem, Greensboro and Charlotte that would serve as an independent body to hear complaints against police officers and other city employees. In that light, commissioners asked Heggins about the status of the Mendoza sisters’ complaint. Minutes reflect that Heggins “reported that HRD and Chief Fealy met with the city manager to discuss directives, and a complainant and respondent follow-up meeting had been scheduled.”

Boynton told YES! Weekly that, notwithstanding the fact that the Mendoza sisters filed a discrimination complaint, the police department was the proper entity to investigate because the complaint was against police employees, making it a personnel matter.

“The Mendoza girls had a complaint, and the police department investigated it,” the city manager said. “They thoroughly investigated it. The witnesses corroborated the police. The gals were offered the opportunity for a polygraph and the police officer would have taken a polygraph, too. They declined. End of story.”

Boynton said the incident took place so long ago that he can’t recall whether the complaint was filed as a discrimination complaint or under another category such as excessive force. Any attempt to draw a distinction between the two, he said, amounts to “taking something out of context and making a mountain out of a molehill.” In any case, he said, the human-relations commission does not have the resources to investigate such a complaint and resolve it to any degree of satisfaction because it lacks subpoena power.

“The city manager went to the human-relations director and told her not to investigate this,” Pugh said, adding that he is bound by a promise of confidentiality to not reveal the source of the allegation. Councilman Douglas, a staunch advocate for police accountability who has served on council since 2008, said he learned about the allegation from Pugh. Boynton said he doesn’t specifically recall whether he gave the directive, but repeatedly emphasized that he does not believe human relations was the proper department to handle the complaint.

City Attorney JoAnne Carlyle, who reports to the city manager, said she concurred with Boynton’s interpretation of the ordinance, contending that any investigation into allegations against a city employee falls outside of the human-relations department’s purview. She added that Heggins as human-relations director is not allowed access to police employees’ personnel files.

Carlyle acknowledged that the city ordinance gives the human-relations commission authority to receive and investigate complaints of discrimination, but indicated the ordinance is limited by state personnel law.

“If it’s going to conflict with what the state law says, then the state law is going to govern,” Carlyle said. “When they bump up against each other, you go with the state law.”

Sims expressed frustration that Pugh has declined to reveal his source.

“If you’ve got a person alleging that an order was given by the city manager to a subordinate which is illegal, he needs to say where it comes from,” the mayor said. “We’re trying to get to the truth, are we not? [The human-relations director] and our human-relations department is honor bound: When they get the complaint, they need to move forward.

“If that did happen,” Sims added, “then these people’s rights were violated in a number of ways, even through the investigation of the complaint.”

The mayor suggested that the source would be protected by whistleblower laws if they elected to come forward.

“I’d be willing to take it as far as I can as mayor of the city that this person would not be retaliated against,” Sims said. “Right is right, and wrong is wrong. I’m not out there looking for situations to bring a bad light to the police department. [But] if they brought a complaint, and it did not go through the proper protocol, then that’s an issue.”

Heggins said Pugh’s allegation is untrue. “The city manager has not ordered me to not investigate any complaints,” she said. Pugh countered that Heggins is denying the allegation to protect her job.

“That’s the problem: He is her direct supervisor,” Pugh said.

“If she goes to him and tells him this isn’t right, she will lose her job. I thought she had more integrity. I wonder if she’s going to lie under oath.

“I will take a polygraph,” Pugh added. “I challenge the city manager and anyone else to a polygraph if they say I’m not telling the truth. I know for a fact that I’m telling the truth. I will take a polygraph and pay for it out of my own pocket.”

Heggins protested. “That’s not my MO,” she said. “I’m the kind of person who has enough faith to believe that if I get fired from here, I’ll find something else.”

The human relations director insisted that, in fact, she did investigate the complaint.

“The issue was resolved when they brought it in some years ago,” she said. “I was able to follow up and do what I do within the parameters of what I’m allowed to do.”

When asked how the discrimination complaint was resolved, Corey, the city-council liaison to the human relations commission, said, “I have no idea.”

In a disconcerting exchange, he added, “I’m sorry to have bothered you,” even though he was responding to a reporter’s inquiry rather than the other way around.

“Happy new year,” he added, and hastily hung up the phone.

Heggins said the outcome of her investigation was shared with the Mendoza sisters and with the police department, but that confidentiality requirements prohibit her from publicly disclosing the finding or even the range of possible findings in a discrimination investigation.

Responding to an inquiry about what official response the sisters have received to their complaint from the city, Imelda Chang Mendoza’s adult son asked his mother about the matter on behalf of this reporter.

“No, she never received nothing from the city like a letter or note,” said Wilifredy Lopez Chang, who speaks limited English. “We don’t know nothing about an investigation…. Nobody tell her about an investigation.”

Sims emphasized that in the absence the complete facts she is not inclined to jump to conclusions.

“I’m not one to give a lot of credence to sources that don’t identify themselves,” she said. “You’ve heard this second hand…. In my opinion, if things happened the way you say they happened there was a breakdown in the process, but I’m not saying that this is what actually happened because I don’t know what happened.”

While Sims said she was looking into whether a human relations investigation into the complaint occurred, the mayor, city manager and Officer Stanick readily cited the result of the police investigation: unfounded.

Capt. Steele said the findings were not previously communicated to the Mendoza sisters because they did not file the complaint directly with the police department.

He said that every single allegation in the sisters’ complaint, including discrimination, was addressed.

Steele said then-Chief Fealy reported the findings of the professional-standards division’s investigation to the human-relations commission. No record of that report is in the commission minutes.

Pugh characterizes Boynton’s alleged interference in the human-relations commission as something of an open secret among city council members.

“In the manager’s review we brought that out,” Pugh said. “We brought that complaint against him that he told them to back off on certain instances and not to investigate. It didn’t have any effect as such because I don’t think anyone but me and Mr. Douglas were concerned.”

Pugh added that he and Douglas also expressed concerns to their fellow council members that raising the issue would put another employee — Heggins — at risk, and that the other council members assured them that wouldn’t happen. Douglas backed Pugh’s assertion.

“That’s true,” he said. “Absolutely.” Douglas, an African-American Democrat, and Pugh, a white Republican, formed an alliance of sorts on council. Both — Douglas currently and Pugh in the past — have represented wards with high poverty and high concentrations of black and Hispanic residents relative to the rest of the city. The two have found themselves at odds with their fellow council members from time to time. In November, voters replaced Pugh with Judy Mendenhall, a former mayor who campaigned on the promise to bring more effective representation to the ward as a strong team player.

Other council members who were present for the closed-session discussion of Boynton’s evaluation said variously that the concern was not raised, they didn’t remember it or they couldn’t talk about it because it was a personnel matter.

“Nothing was said in the evaluation that the manager subverted the process of the investigation,” Sims said.

At-large Councilman Britt Moore; Corey, who was replaced in Ward 6 in November by Jason Ewing; Latimer Alexander, an at-large member who has since retired; and Chris Whitley, who was replaced in Ward 5 by Jim Davis, said they don’t remember any discussion of the sort.

“I don’t remember what they said,” Whitley said. “I may have not been paying much attention because I didn’t pay a lot of credence to what those two said…. When you asked them for information, it was always very vague. The stuff they discussed got so out of hand you didn’t know what they’re talking about, and when you asked them for back-up information they never provided it.”

At-large Councilwoman Becky Smothers declined to comment on the matter. AB Henley, who was replaced in Ward 4 by Jay Wagner, said he wasn’t present for the meeting.

Alexander echoed Whitley’s sentiments.

“Mike was infamous for making a lot of allegations, and when you got to digging into the facts sometimes his allegations weren’t necessarily supported by all the facts,” Alexander said.

Douglas said that, to the contrary, rather than lacking facts to substantiate allegations many of his colleagues have not exhibited much interest in hearing about police misconduct.

“Most of the time they turn a deaf ear,” he said. “They say, ‘They’ve never called me with the complaints.’ A few of the council members use that out instead of checking into the matter.”

“It’s been investigated twice,” Officer Stanick said, “and it has been unfounded.”

The cause of the encounter between the police officer and the Mendoza sisters was a dog. Stanick wrote in a supplemental report that he received a complaint from an unidentified caller about vicious dogs in the area of Hill Street and Franklin Avenue. He found three pit bulls in front of 504 Hill Street. The person who live there claimed two of the dogs and promised to keep them secure, but the third, Stanick said, ran behind the house across the street at 507 Hill Street. Soon after, the two women and three children pulled into the driveway.

According to both accounts, Stanick asked Imelda, who did not live at the house, if the dog belonged to her. The accounts diverge from there, with the sisters contending that they attempted to clarify that Elandi lived at the house, while Stanick reports that the women repeatedly indicated to him that they did not speak English in a manner that prevented him from questioning them.

Capt. Steele with the professional-standards division said the police investigation relied on a statement by two witnesses “from next door” as a basis for the department’s finding. He said the investigator looked into whether there might have been pre-existing animosity between the nextdoor neighbors and Elandi, and was satisfied that the witnesses were independent and unbiased.

Steele declined to give the witnesses’ names, but the department released a copy of their statement with names redacted. A next-door neighbor listed as a witness on a subpoena at the same address declined to comment to YES! Weekly about the incident.

Steele said the investigation went no further because the Mendoza sisters declined a polygraph test.

The witness statement quotes the unidentified neighbor to the effect that Imelda got out of the truck and started cussing Officer Stanick, and then punched him.

Officer Stanick acknowledges that he struck Imelda several times on the arm with his fist in a two-page narrative included in the supplemental report for the case. The document is marked confidential, but Police Attorney Brian Beasley said Chief Marty Sumner had authorized its release to YES! Weekly considering that criminal cases against the sisters have been concluded.

The magistrate’s order for the charge of resisting a public officer that Stanick filed against Imelda alleges that she assaulted the officer by swinging at and striking him with a closed fist. But the officer’s narrative in the supplemental report makes no mention of Imelda punching or swinging at him.

After Officer AR Ehrhardt arrived on the scene to assist, Stanick states that he “grabbed onto both of Imelda’s arms and instructed her to get on the ground. After instructing her a third time, I placed my foot in front of her legs and pushed her to the ground, using my foot to trip her. Imelda fell to the ground on her stomach. I immediately placed her right hand in the handcuffs. I gave numerous commands to Imelda to give me her other arm and stop resisting. Imelda attempted to roll around on the ground and get me off of her back. I grabbed onto Imelda’s left wrist several times and attempted to handcuff her but I was unsuccessful. Imelda continued to roll on the ground attempting to get me off her.”

Imelda Chang Mendoza described the incident in two separate interviews with YES! Weekly, translated by Leslie Garcia, her 10-year-old niece, who was at the scene, and Wilifredy Lopez Chang, who was not present but later bailed her out of jail. Imelda said Stanick turned his attention to her when she started taking pictures with her cell phone of him accosting her sister. Imelda said she threw the phone on the ground, and that Stanick responded by punching her in the stomach and grabbing her arm. She said he then pushed her to the ground and stomped her while she was lying prone, making her pee on herself. With Wilifredy playing the role of victim, she demonstrated how Stanick allegedly jerked her arm in a circular motion as she lay on the ground.

“And it made me pee three times because of him punching me in the back and kicking me,” Imelda said.

After Stanick transported her to the police department, Imelda said the officer was instructed to take her to the hospital, and that during the drive he continued to tell her that he hated Hispanic people and that they stunk. By the time they reached the hospital, Wilifredy had arrived at the police department to pay her bond, and Stanick took her back.

“When I picked her up she was wet from peeing because he punched her,” Wilifredy said, adding that his mother was also dirty because she had been on the ground. Imelda later returned to the hospital for medical attention.

Registered Nurse Lara Goins reported in a medical report provided to YES! Weekly by the patient that Imelda had been struck in the chest, abdomen and neck “several times and has pain in [her] right wrist after being detained by HPPD.” Goins noted red marks on Imelda’s wrist and abdomen and swelling to her right wrist and hand.

The patient received a prescription for Motrin, typically used to treat pain and inflammation, and Darvocet, to relieve mild and moderate pain, for her wrist, and was released at 2:30 a.m.

Guilford County District Court Judge Teresa H. Vincent found Imelda not guilty of assaulting an officer in June 2012, but guilty of resisting arrest. The judge also found Imelda not guilty of a charge of not having a child secured in the backseat, but guilty of not having a license in her possession. Wilifredy said that the traffic offense conviction came as news to his mother, and insisted that she did in fact have a driver’s license. Imelda was ordered to pay a $50 fine and placed under unsupervised probation for 12 months.

The magistrate’s order and Officer AR Ehrhardt’s narrative in the supplemental report allege that Elandi Chang Mendoza assaulted Ehrhardt by striking the officer in his left shoulder with her fist while he attempted to assist Stanick.

Ehrhardt reported that he intercepted Elandi while she was assaulting Stanick. But the two officers described the alleged assault against Stanick in markedly different ways.

Stanick said Elandi knocked his hand away as he attempted to restrain Imelda, while Ehrhardt said he saw Elandi throw a punch toward Stanick’s face and upper body. Stanick said Elandi backed away from him while waving her hands as if she wanted to fight, and then tried to push him away when he grabbed her right arm. Meanwhile, Ehrhardt said he saw Mendoza throw two to three “wild swings with closed fists, striking and attempting to strike Officer Stanick around his shoulders and arms.”

Pugh said it’s simply not credible that Elandi assaulted Officer Stanick.

“She did not have any type of weapon,” he said. “He has Mace, pepper spray, a Taser. He has a gun. She is a woman, for God’s sake, with a 2-year-old daughter attached to her leg.”

The second alleged assault by Elandi, or what passes for it, is described in the second paragraph of Ehrhardt’s narrative.

“When I intercepted Mendoza I grabbed the back of her arm and spun her around,” he reported. “Mendoza then threw a weak punch at me that caught my shoulder. I then pushed Mendoza back and deployed my OC spray. I gave Mendoza a short 1-2 second burst in the face. Mendoza immediately turned away. I was unable to get a full burst of OC spray in her face because of Mendoza’s long, thick hair and the fact that she turned away from me. When Mendoza turned away from me she turned to the right, exposing her left arm and the left side of her body. I immediately grabbed Mendoza and performed a single-arm takedown with her left arm. Mendoza then fell to the ground with me landing on top of her because I lost my balance.”

Elandi described the experience, with her daughter, Leslie, translating.

“When the second police came, he sprayed me with pepper spray and got his elbow on me,” she said. “I said, ‘I can’t breathe.’ I didn’t see what was happening.

“He was hitting me on the back,” she continued. “He kicked me on the back, kick after kick. I told the officer: If he could let me go because I couldn’t breathe. He ignored me. He took a gun out and then put it back in. I told the officer: If he could please wipe my face because it was red. And then he arrested me.”

Reached at the end of his shift on Sunday, Officer Ehrhardt said the reason Elandi’s allegations about him hitting and kicking her, and about him withdrawing his firearm are not included in his narrative is because they aren’t true.

“Me and my brother and my sister stayed here,” Leslie recalled. “My other aunt came from across town to pick us up. Someone told her that we were there by ourselves.”

Elandi recalled the indignity of having her picture taken during processing at the High Point Detention Center.

“They treated me as if I had killed someone,” she said. “I had blood all over my mouth. They gave me a suit. I spent two hours in jail.”

After she was bailed out of jail, Elandi followed her sister to the hospital for medical attention. Two nurses and a physician assistant noted an abrasion to one of her arms. Nursing Assistant Doris Paxton gave Elandi a wet cloth to get the pepper spray out of her eyes. Like her sister, Elandi received prescriptions for Motrin and Darvocet.

Elandi’s trial was held the same day as her sister’s, and like her sister, Elandi was found not guilty of assaulting an officer, but was found guilty of resisting arrest.

The police department’s internal investigation that deemed the sisters’ complaint to be unfounded did not take into account the judge’s verdict because, as Capt. Steele noted, it was completed before the cases went to court.

Douglas and Pugh said they would like to see a complaint review committee put in place in High Point that would be comprised of citizens who would hear complaints of police misconduct, similar to what Winston-Salem and Greensboro have.

“Most of the time you’re told they’re still being investigated,” Douglas said. “It will be ‘next week,’ and next week never comes. It’s the protection of the gang in blue, not the citizens.”

Boynton said in rebuttal that High Point doesn’t need a complaint-review committee.

“If anybody would spend the time looking at the investigative policies or procedures of the police department and look at the history of complaints we’ve investigated, they would see that we’ve handled things properly.”

Imelda Chang Mendoza had been planning to return to Mexico prior to her encounter with the High Point police, but now she feels that she has to stay.

“I just want justice before I leave,” she said, “because I’m innocent.”

Foster Lopez, Imelda’s other son, said the United States is a popular destination for immigrants because the law ensures freedom and security for its people, but because of their experience with the police the family no longer feels safe.

“We love this country and we follow the law,” he said.

“And we’re working hard. We’re not doing anything wrong. But I don’t know why we’re so discriminated against.”

Wilifredy added, “Right now, I don’t feel good with the police. I don’t know what kind of people are taking care of the city.”

Leslie said her little sister, Karen, now 4, is scared to go to the doctor’s office; the uniforms give her the mistaken impression that the medical staff are police officers. Discussing the unhappy incident, she suddenly and without warning burst into tears and leaned her head against her mother’s arm. And prompted by the frenetic accounts in two languages of the event, 6-year-old Daniel started flailing his arm, acting out the motion of a rapid sequence of punches.

“My life changed a lot because now I’m scared,” Imelda said. “I do not enjoy myself. My arm hurts a lot. The last doctor I saw said my arm doesn’t work. It hurts from the inside.

I can’t really raise it. I can’t really move it like I used to. I can’t pick up heavy things.”

Boynton said he’s satisfied with the way the Mendoza sisters’ complaint was handled.

“I think we made the right call because the police department actually has the ability to get to the bottom of it,” he said. “The [human relations] department does not have that ability. They can talk about it all day. I wanted to get right to the bottom of it, so I gave it to the police department. I have no regrets or second thoughts.”