‘We’re going to give them the indication we’re harassing them’

by Jordan Green

Jorge Cornell, the North Carolina leader of the Latin Kings had appeared at a weekly Wednesday round-table discussion at the Beloved Community Center and expressed a desire to work towards peace among gangs and to build unity between Latino and African- American youth. That was about a year ago, in late June. The next day, Cornell called the Rev. Nelson Johnson and asked for spiritual counseling. They met at midnight and prayed together. The cause of Cornell’s distress was that Officer AJ Blake with the gang unit had been going around to acquaintances’ homes and to job sites saying that he was looking for the gang leader to serve a warrant. Cornell was especially concerned about a member of the gang unit visiting his workplace and jeopardizing his employment. After conferring for about 45 minutes, Johnson took Cornell to the magistrate’s office so the gang leader could turn himself in and avoid the prospect of being taken into custody in the presence of his two young daughters. When they got to the magistrate’s office Johnson and Cornell were surprised to learn there was no record of a warrant. In fact, there was a warrant for Cornell’s arrest — for accessory to driving without a license, and Cornell would later hear about it from a reporter who learned of it from Capt. John Wolfe, the commander of the gang unit. The warrant was in Blake’s possession.

Allegationsof racism, harassment and abuse dog GPD gang unit Latin King SamuelVelasquez (with bullhorn) alleges he was falsely charged by a member ofthe Greensboro Police Department gang unit. (photo by Jordan Green)

“I cannot tell you why that warrant was not in the computer database when he attempted to have it served, but I can tell you that it was issued on June 16, days before the press conference,” Wolfe wrote in a July 23 memo to Chief Tim Bellamy. The police captain suggested that, if anyone, it was Cornell who was acting in bad faith. “Mr. Cornell knows how to contact the gang unit members who were membernamed Anthony Vasquez ran away from the scene and was injured when hefell in a creek and knocked his head. Sylvia Lugo, a female member whohas since left the Latin Kings, reportedly took Vasquez to Moses Conehospital. Soon after, the police investigated a shooting that appearedto be motivated by revenge for what happened to Vasquez. Blakesaid that Matt Allred, a detective on the gang task force, suggestedcharging Vasquez with attempted murder with the understanding that thecharge would be dismissed, but also knowing that Vasquez could bethreatened with deportation because of his residency status. The policeallegedly believed that would give them leverage to compel Vasquez togive up the location of the real shooter and Sylvia Lugo. Blake said hewent to Eric Sigmon, with whom Blake served on Squad B, and told him:“that we can’t do this.” The police did not follow through on thesuggestion to charge Vasquez. Allred could not be reached forcomment about the allegation. Blake has said that Lugo’s parents werenot willing to cooperate with investigators, and his sergeant, RonaldSizemore, ordered what could be considered a retaliatory arrest. Blakesaid officers staked out the house and waited for Lugo’s mother toleave for her job at Chick-fil-A at the Four Seasons Mall. Knowing thatthe woman did not possess an operator’s license, Blake said, one of theofficers pulled her over, forcing her to pay towing fees and miss work.“Without knowing all the facts surrounding that incident,” AssistantChief Holder said, “there is no way to determine whether officers actedproperly or improperly. We don’t have all the facts.” Documentedallegations in the various formal complaints filed by the Latin Kingsinclude four incidents of warrantless searches, three incidents thatmight be considered arrest without probable cause or false charges, twostops without apparent reasonable suspicion and one incident ofexcessive force. So many allegations have been made againstthe gang unit that the complaint review committee asked the policedepartment’s professional standards division to investigate bothwhether a Latin King member’s rights were violated by an arrest andwhether “there is a pattern and practice of behavior by GPD officers”related to the group. Greensboro police officers in severalunmarked vehicles were ostensibly investigating a robbery in the SpringValley neighborhood in late April when they parked along Kirkman Streetwhere the Latin Kings live. Wesley Williams, a 16-year-old member whosemother left him under Cornell’s supervision when she recently moved toNew Jersey, walked to the edge of the property, according to thecomplaint, and an unidentified officer grabbed him, threw him againstan unmarked car and searched him. Officers confiscated a box cutter andthen held him on the porch while a fellow Latin King searched William’spants inside for identification. Williams contends that he hadbeen using the box cutter in a painting project inside the house. Theboy faces charges for two violations: carrying a concealed weapon andresisting an officer. An order signed by a Guilford Countymagistrate states that Williams “has been arrested without a warrantand the defendant s detention is justified because there is probablecause to believe that he… did resist, delay and obstruct Sgt. TS Krohand Officer MA Graham… by refusing to obey verbal commands during arobbery investigation by refusing to remove his hands from his pocketsand attempting to walk away.” A second magistrate’s order alleging thatWilliams unlawfully and willfully carried a concealed deadly weapon —the box cutter — while off the defendant’s premises” is contradicted bythe Latin Kings’ complaint, which contends that Williams was on his ownproperty when the search began. Williams’ trial is scheduledfor June 30. In a video made by members of the Latin Kings, Cornell canbe heard complaining, “They don’t have no warrant.” Plain-clothed anduniformed officers appear relaxed and amused at the Latin Kings’distress. The complaint alleges that the incident is evidenceof continued targeting of the Latin Kings by the gang unit in responseto their well-publicized protests against alleged police abuses.

AssistantChief Holder said it’s the Latin Kings’ behavior that draws the gangunit’s attention, not their identity or their public statements. “Somuch of the work of the gang unit is tied to behavior,” Holder said.“Our department’s policy is to not profile or be biased against anygroup or individual based on race, gender or ethnicity. It’s importantto understand that officers act based on behavior.” AJ Blake, the suspended officer formerly assigned to the gang unit, contradicted the assistant chief in a recent interview. “Partof the reason my sergeant wants to focus on Latinos is he assumes hehas the ability to deport them all,” Blake said. Holder responded, “Wedon’t have a goal of deporting people from Greensboro. Our goal is toenforce the criminal laws that are in place to keep Greensboro safe.”Blake alleges that his sergeant, Ronald Sizemore, would frequentlydiscuss the option of calling in US Immigration & CustomsEnforcement to deal with the Latin Kings. Blake thought thenotion was ludicrous and revealed a lack of sophistication onSizemore’s part. “Jorge’s from Puerto Rico,” he said. “Where are yougoing to deport him to? New York?” Blake said he brought it toSizemore’s attention that they needed to investigate

twosets of Bloods that were shooting at each other to prevent loss oflife, and his sergeant indicated he would rather focus on MS-13, aSalvadoran-based gang whose presence hasn’t been felt in Greensborosince December 2007. “I complained to Eric Sigmon,” Blake said. “Iasked, ‘Why is it that the only group Sizemore wants to investigate isLatinos?’ His response was that Sizemore’s perception of a gang memberis a Latino.” Holder declined to comment on any alleged viewsthat Sizemore may hold of Latinos, but defended the department’s trackrecord for racial sensitivity and inclusion. “I believe ourofficers behave professionally because they’re trained to do so,” shesaid. “We reinforce that training every year. And we have some awesomemen and women who work here. There’s a foundation that’s laid inrecruit school, and the moment a recruit’s rear hits the chair weinstill it. There is no room for bias based on race, gender or anyother protected class.

Greensboropolice officers detained Latin King Wesley Williams on his porch inApril, charging him with carrying a concealed weapon and resisting anofficer. Williams alleges he was on his own property when policeinitiated the search. (courtesy image)

No because it’s illegal but becauseit’s wrong.” Blake said word came down from Capt. John Wolfe, who hascommand responsibility for the gang unit that the two squads were notto investigate white organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan, AryanNations and Hell’s Angels, despite the fact that they are classified as gangs bythe FBI just as black and Latino gangs such as the Piru Bloods, theCrips, the Latin Kings, Surenos and MS-13 are. Holder said that’sbecause another division has responsibility for monitoring whiteorganizations. Why then, Blake asks, was he the only person ofcolor assigned to his gang squad? “It leads to the perception that thepolice department is racist,” Blake said. “I said, ‘Why are there notmore people of color on the gang unit?’ The response that they gave meis that Greensboro is a majority white city. But the problem is thatthe majority of the people we’re investigating are not white. Let meput it this way: If there’s a 16-year-old who’s on the verge of joiningthe Aryan Nations, there’s nothing I can say to talk him out of it.With Central American males that are dealing with things likedeportation, there’s not much a white officer can say that willresonate.” Holder took pains to emphasize that the department wants more Latinos on the force.

“Weare recruiting, and we would love to add Latinos and Latinas to ourworkforce, particularly as law enforcement officers,” she said. “We arerecruiting and hiring now.” If indeed the Latin Kings are committingcrimes, Blake indicated, the gang unit’s heavy-handed tactics areexactly the wrong approach. If the group is not engaged in criminalactivity, the unit’s behavior looks like harassment. “If thegoal is to gather evidence so we can send them away to prison, itdoesn’t make sense to have them looking over their shoulders all thetime because we’re arresting them for things like throwing a cigaretteon the ground,” he said. “If you look at Chapter 20, the statute bookfor traffic violations, you could almost charge them with anything. Isaid, ‘We’re going to give them the indication we’re harassing them.’Nobody’s perfect, everybody messes up if you watch them long enough,and nobody’s that unlucky that they get arrested practically every day.”