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Winston-Salem launches police review as chief retires

by Amy Kingsley

The Winston-Salem City Council awarded a $40,500 contract to consultants Risk Management Associates on Nov. 19 to review the police department’s investigation procedures in the wake of charges its detectives bungled a 1995 assault case.

The vote happened two days before embattled police Chief Pat Norris announced her retirement at the end of June 2008. Norris, who was appointed in 2004, was criticized by the city manager’s office earlier this year for missteps in an internal investigation of the department. She is the city’s first black police chief and the second woman to hold the top post.

The Winston-Salem Police Department has been under fire for its investigative practices ever since Darryl Hunt had his conviction for the rape and murder of Debra Sykes overturned in 2004 on the strength of DNA evidence.

Three years ago, the Winston-Salem Journal ran a series that cast doubt on another case – a near-fatal beating in 1995 of 33-year-old Jill Marker. Kalvin Michael Smith was convicted of assault in 1997 and has been in prison ever since. He has maintained his innocence for 10 years, and his case attracted the attention of law students in Duke University’s Innocence Project.

Smith’s appeals have been gaining momentum, but Assistant City Manager Derwick Paige said the review by Risk Management Associates has been brewing since Hunt’s conviction was overturned.

“The timing is along the same one as Jill Marker,” Paige said. “But this actually came out of the Debra Sykes investigation. We started working on it in December and January. It just took this long to get going.”

Norris joined the police force in 1977 and rose through the ranks. She was one of several officers involved in the Marker investigation, although her contribution was minor and limited to a handful of police reports.

Norris, who was appointed toward the end of Hunt’s incarceration, implemented several reforms during her tenure, including installing video cameras in interview rooms and generating photo lineups on computers. Hunt supporter Larry Little, a professor at Winston-Salem State University, has praised Norris for some of the reforms she instigated in the criminal investigations division.

Many of those changes resulted directly from the recommendations of the Sykes Administrative Review Committee, which was formed in 2005 at the behest of Mayor Pro Tem Vivian Burke. The committee met for a year and half and submitted its recommendations in late 2006. Among the recommendations was one stipulating that the city should hire an outside agency to review the criminal investigations division. The council adopted the report in January 2007.

A month after the report was released, the city of Winston-Salem settled a lawsuit filed by Hunt for $1.65 million. The report concluded that police had lost some vital evidence in the case and violated Hunt’s right to an attorney during a line-up.

The city withdrew an internal review earlier this year after it was revealed that Lt. Ted Best, who conducted the review, had supervised the lead investigator, Det. DR Williams, during the original Marker investigation. He also neglected to examine several documents related to the case. A review of that incident faulted the police chief and city manager for failing to adequately define the scope of the investigation. Despite the missteps, many members of the city council still support Norris and praise her work.

“So many of the things that ended up in her lap were inherited,” said Councilwoman Molly Leight. “I think she’s made wonderful changes, positive changes to the department.”

Burke reiterated her support for Chief Norris at the Nov. 19 city council meeting. The council put the item appropriating money for Risk Management Association’s review in the consent agenda, a group of uncontroversial items that are approved by a single vote, so no public debate occurred.

Norris is a native of Winston-Salem who took her undergraduate degree at Winston-Salem State University. In a press release, Norris said she was retiring to spend more time with friends and family.

“I am proud that we have increased our community trust,” Norris said in a written statement.

Norris was unavailable for comment because of the holiday. City Manager Lee Garrity said the city would conduct a national search for a new police chief.

Risk Management Associates submitted one of the three final bids the city evaluated, Paige said. They are charged with evaluating the investigative procedures in place at the police department.

In addition to the Risk Management Associates’ review, the city is also recruiting for a citizen review panel. Paige said the two reviews are separate.

Risk Management Associates is a security consulting company based in Raleigh that has contracted with public and private sector clients.

The company has already had dealings in the Triad. It was hired in 2005 to root out problems in the Greensboro Police Department’s special investigations section. That investigation led to the resignation of Greensboro police Chief David Wray after evidence surfaced that supervisors disciplined black officers more harshly than white ones. A subsequent investigation by the State Bureau of Investigation led to obstruction of justice charges against two officers.

The case has divided Greensboro. Supporters of former chief Wray have questioned the company’s independence and compared its investigation to a witch hunt. Greensboro City Manager Mitch Johnson has praised the company and is listed a reference on its proposal.

The company has also worked with local governments in Chapel Hill; Columbia, SC; Fayetteville; Jackson, Miss.; Lincolnton, NC; Raleigh and Wilmington, according to its proposal. Its federal clients include the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Department of Defense and the Social Security Administration.

In Greensboro’s case, the information gathered by Risk Management Associates pertained to individual city employees and was kept confidential. When a copy of the report was leaked to the media, a firestorm erupted.

The contract with Risk Management Associates does not name a particular case or detective it is charged with investigating. Leight said she hoped the review would be available to the public upon its completion. According to the paperwork, the agency is instead charged with evaluating the investigative procedures of the department as a whole to determine whether they match best practices in the field. The Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies accredits the Winston-Salem Police Department, but the Risk Management Associates’ contract proposes to instill stricter standards than those required by CALEA.

Investigators from Risk Management Associates will also interview detectives, patrol officers, crime victims and witnesses. The company said it will present preliminary findings to the city within 60 days.

The city of Winston-Salem will be accepting applications for its Silk Plant Forest Citizen Review Committee. The committee takes its name from the store where Marker was beaten. Unlike the Risk Management Associates’ report, the review committee will examine police actions in the Marker case.

Smith’s supporters, including Duke University law professor James Coleman, have accused Williams of coercing witness statements from Smith and several of his friends.

The city is seeking a committee chair with a background in law and two to four members chosen to represent different segments of the community. The committee would not be charged with evaluating Smith’s guilt or innocence, or with finding additional evidence to either support or overturn his conviction.

“We all have to be ready to be looked out by outside agencies to see if we are doing our jobs to the best of our abilities,” Leight said. “Now if we can get both those reviews behind us, we can move on to finding a new police chief.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com.

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