Nov. 24, 2010 12:00

Out of a job, officers continue crusade for police reform

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Former Greensboro police Capt. Charles Cherry (left) and former officer Joseph Pryor have embraced the city’s civil rights legacy.

Since Greensboro’s city manager upheld the terminations of two black Greensboro police officers, the ousted employees have shadowed the new police chief at community meetings, raising uncomfortable questions.

 

Outside of Smith Senior Center in the city’s northeast quadrant earlier this month, supporters handed out fliers stating that assistant chiefs Dwight Crotts and Anita Holder should be investigated for alleged criminal misconduct. The meeting was attended by at least a dozen uniformed officers, including much of the command staff.

A recent complaint filed with the city manager by former Capt.

Charles Cherry and former Officer Joseph Pryor alleges that Chief Ken Miller is violating departmental directive by declining to investigate alleged violations of law by Crotts and Holder. Meanwhile, the release of the city manager’s final letters of termination to Cherry and Pryor, coupled with additional documentation and audio recordings, raises questions about the motives behind the firings at a time when the US Justice Department has been making quiet inquiries into citizen and police employee grievances.

Cherry contends in his recent complaint that Holder tried to get him to apply for medical retirement and defraud the state retirement system this summer as in inducement to ease him off the force after he made a raft of grievances on behalf of himself and other officers. Cherry alleges that act constitutes solicitation to commit a felony or misdemeanor, which is a misdemeanor under North Carolina law, Cherry alleges.

“Assistant Chief Holder solicited me to pursue a medical retirement,” Cherry wrote. “Assistant Chief Holder is not a medical professional. Assistant Chief Holder knew or should have known that I had no disability and had not been diagnosed with a disability, at the time she solicited me to take a medical retirement.”

Miller dismissed the allegation in an interview with YES! Weekly. “The problem is that there is no substance to the allegation,” he said.

“Just look at Cherry’s letters in their totality. I don’t need to say anything more. And quite frankly I won’t. I’m done addressing Charles Cherry. Charles Cherry has litigation as his next avenue of appeal. He chooses not to pursue it.

Assistant City Manager Denise Turner said the city manager’s office would also decline to comment.

Such is the level of tension in the ongoing dispute, or alternately the degree of apprehension on the part of the fired officers, that Cherry alleges in the recent complaint that police administration tried unsuccessfully to carry out a scheme to unlawfully arrest him and Pryor at one of the community meetings to avoid addressing their complaints.

“Police Chief Ken Miller’s plan was to ask me and citizen Pryor to leave, once we asked a question, and not allow us to respond ‘quick enough,’” Cherry wrote. “Chief Miller would then order the arrests of me and citizen Pryor, charging us with 2 nd -degree trespass.”

During the meeting, the chief discussed plans to revamp the department’s disciplinary process, and Lt. Mike Richey, commander of the eastern patrol division, talked about patterns of residential break-ins. Cherry reported that Assistant Chief Ron Rogers sat down next to him for a time.

“Man, it’s thick in here,” Cherry said, referring to the number of uniformed officers. “What’s up, y’all trying to do us?” The assistant chief responded, according to the fired captain’s account:

“Naw, Richey just wanted to bring his CRT team.”

Jeffrey Welty, a faculty member at UNC School of Government in Chapel Hill with expertise in criminal law and procedure, said the department is not legally required to investigate Cherry’s allegations.

“State law doesn’t create an obligation on the part of law enforcement to investigate every time a citizen alleges a violation of law,” Welty said. “In deciding whether to investigate a particular complaint, law enforcement would consider such factors as who’s doing the complaining, the seriousness of the alleged crime, whether there’s other evidence that would suggest the complaint is well founded, what else they have going on right then and so on.”

Cherry also continues to insist that the department refuses to investigate an allegation that Assistant Chief Dwight Crotts violated the state personnel privacy act by speaking to a subordinate who was conducting an internal investigation on another officer about information in Cherry’s personnel file.

Howard Neumann, an assistant district attorney with the Guilford County District Attorney’s office, indicated that his office sees no need to intervene in the matter. In contrast, the district attorney’s office encouraged the police department to file a criminal charge against AJ Blake, a third officer who has been terminated, because of a priority to address domestic violence allegations. Blake was acquitted of assault against a

female, and fired for separate reasons.

“All of [Cherry’s] allegations have to do with an employment issue, and that’s not something we would be interested in looking into,” Neumann said. “It sounds like an internal police department matter, which I’m confident they can look into and resolve in an appropriate fashion.”

The assistant district attorney similarly dismissed the allegation of criminal misconduct against Crotts.

“He doesn’t allege anything that I think warrants a criminal investigation,” Neumann said.

The city’s recent release of termination letters for Cherry and Pryor to the News & Record sheds new light on City Manager Rashad Young’s thinking about the web of grievances. The city manager is the final level of administrative appeal.

“You acknowledge that you agreed to keep confidential the details of the Leadership Team meetings held during 2007 and 2008,” Young wrote in Cherry’s letter. “However, you alleged that discriminatory comments were made in the meetings; and therefore, you were no longer required to respect the confidentiality of the meetings. I do not find your reasoning to be persuasive.”

Cherry has persistently alleged in various written complaints that “Captain JE Wolfe stated that he did not trust the individuals on the EEOC lawsuit.”

Names of police employees are redacted in Young’s termination letter to Cherry, but their identities can be contextually inferred.

“Captain [Wolfe] stated that he expressed concern regarding the impartiality of decision making of command-level individuals involved in the EEOC lawsuit,” Young wrote. “This statement does not constitute discrimination or retaliation as those terms are defined by federal or state law or city policy.”

Out of 39 black officers who are plaintiffs in a federal discrimination lawsuit, three have been promoted to command-level positions since the resignation of former Chief David Wray in 2006: Cherry, Assistant Chief Ron Rogers and Capt. Brian James.

Young also faults Cherry for reading his response to a fitness-for-duty recommendation aloud to an eastern patrol division lineup in June, calling the act “inappropriate and disruptive.” Two psychologists ultimately determined that Cherry’s mental state was sound.

Later, Cherry sent out a mass e-mail to fellow police officers explaining his administrative status.

“This issue serves to illustrate your lack of discretion and judgment,” Young wrote. “You fail to realize that as a command-level officer you are expected to play an instrumental role in maintaining an efficient workplace. Your e-mail and personal responses to the masses regarding your supervisors’ decision to evaluate your fitness for duty undermined the command structure. An effective force requires the respect, self-discipline and judgment of its officers. By expressing your concerns to your subordinates, you disregarded and undermined the chain of command. Your comments, without the benefit of a response from your supervisors only serve to bring rancor, speculation and distrust to the operation and command hierarchy of the department.”

Young also faulted Cherry for stating in grievance documents that former Chief Tim Bellamy, an African American, was a complainant on the EEOC matter, though the city manager acknowledged that a charge of truthfulness could not be sustained against Cherry because of the disputed testimony of Bellamy and Stephen L. Hunter, a reserve officer who is also a plaintiff in the federal discrimination lawsuit. The city manager appears to have discounted Hunter’s testimony and corresponding signed letter in contending that Cherry’s assertion was baseless.

“There is no evidence, whether disputed or otherwise, that suggests that [Bellamy] was ever a complainant on an EEOC lawsuit against the city,” Young wrote, noting that Cherry’s assertion suggests that Bellamy withdrew as a complainant as a quid pro quo for his promotion to the position of interim chief.

While no lawsuit had been filed at the time of Bellamy’s involvement, contrary to the city manager’s assertion, a copy of Hunter’s notarized letter submitted by Cherry states, “During the period surrounding the resignation of former chief of police David Wray I was one of a few officers tasked with collecting EEOC complaint forms from black police officers who felt that they had been victimized by discriminatory or racist practices by David Wray or those within his administration. Among the complaint forms I collected was one from then Major TR Bellamy.”

Hunter said that when Bellamy was appointed interim chief Hunter destroyed the complaint form according to Bellamy’s wishes before delivering it to one of the officers’ lawyers.

‘An officer whose truthfulness is at issue is unfit to exercise the powers vested in the police department.’ — Rashad Young.

Young made the determination that Cherry had violated the department’s malicious criticism and gossip directive by commenting on Bellamy’s involvement with the EEOC matter, adding, “This issue yet again demonstrates a lack of discretion and judgment from a command-level officer of the GPD.”

The city manager appears to walk a tightrope on the matter of Cherry filing grievances.

“Every employee has the right to file grievances and raise concerns they believe affect their work environment,” Young wrote. “As an employer, we have an obligation to review and make determinations relative to those claims. However, employees also have an obligation to exercise sound judgment and use good discretion as they pursue or advance those grievances in a reasonable manner.”

Among those who received assistance from Cherry on grievances was another plaintiff in the federal discrimination lawsuit, Officer Joseph Pryor.

In Young’s view, the relevant questions in the case were whether Pryor had violated the department’s truthfulness directive by persistently stating in grievances that his signature had been improperly placed on a Notice of Administrative Investigation form and whether he also violated the malicious criticism and gossip directive by continuing to press the issue. In both cases, Young determined that the answer was yes, and that termination was the appropriate punishment.

Pryor contends the department’s professional standards division discriminated against him in its handling of an administrative investigation into whether he kicked a citizen named Terrance Jermaine Lipscomb in the stomach at the Smith Homes public housing project in January 2009.

“Your support for this contention, in part, is [Assistant City Manager Michael Speedling’s] statement that the results of the use of force investigation against you were due to PSD’s ‘discrimination or incompetence,’” Young wrote. “However, you fail to mention that [Speedling] made that statement based on your claim that the complainant failed to identify you as the officer who allegedly assaulted him. The facts of the use of force investigation are clear. The complainant described the officer who allegedly kicked him as being ‘6’0”-6’1” in height, dark complexion, with a close haircut.’ The complainant made this description to investigators in his initial interview and in a subsequent interview.”

It is unclear how Young arrived at that conclusion.

A February 2009 memo written by criminal investigator Cpl. Cheryl Cundiff states that Lipscomb “was unable to give a description of the officer that allegedly kicked him.” And in an audio recording of an interview that professional standards investigator Sgt. Shawn Barnes conducted, Lipscomb can be heard describing his alleged assailant as a “tall, kind of stocky black guy,” adding, “He had like a close cut.”

Pryor said in an interview with YES! Weekly that the description of his height and complexion was added to administrative investigation documents after the fact. Then-Chief Bellamy said in a June memo that Pryor’s allegation was investigated, and he concurred that “there was insufficient evidence to support a violation of directives.”

As Young notes, Pryor was ultimately “vindicated of any wrongdoing” in the administrative investigation. Yet in the process, Pryor contends, Sgt. Mike Loy disregarded available information that would have exonerated him and, if anything, would have shifted suspicion to the two white officers, who were also on the scene at the time of the arrest, and who also were ultimately cleared of wrongdoing.

“You have two Caucasian officers saying they struck the guy, and I didn’t touch him,” Pryor said. “Why do you want to continue to investigate me after two people said, ‘No, Pryor didn’t strike him?’ “I have medical records to prove that I couldn’t do what I was accused of doing,” he said. “I was out for five months after that with a strained [medial collateral ligament of the knee].”

According to all accounts, police had been monitoring Smith Homes for open-air drug sales when Lipscomb was spotted tossing something on the ground. Police decided to use the infraction as an opportunity to see if he was holding drugs. Cpl. Jay Atkins was patting Lipscomb down when he bolted. Atkins, Pryor and Officer HW Cox gave chase.

Cox is heard in an audio recording telling professional standards investigator Loy that he saw Pryor “hit the subject with his two hands” during the chase, causing both the officer and the suspect to fall to the ground. Cox said soon afterward he watched Atkins come over and jump on Lipscomb. Atkins told Loy he pinned Lipscomb to the ground by kneeling with one knee on the suspect’s back and the other on the ground.

Cox said when he caught up with Atkins and

Lipscomb, the suspect had placed his hands under his stomach so that the arresting officers could not handcuff him. Cox used a method prescribed in training known as super scapular strikes to bring Lipscomb into compliance. In plain English, it means he hit him in the shoulder blades to make him pull his arms out.

“I hit him with the super scapular strikes,” Cox is heard saying. “I issued the strikes and his arms came out, and we got him cuffed,” adding that a number of officers “piled up on” Lipscomb “pretty deep” to bring the suspect under control.

Even though Atkins acknowledged placing his knee on the suspect’s back and Cox candidly discussed hitting him in the shoulder blades, the interviews remained focused on Lipscomb’s allegation that Pryor kicked him in the stomach.

That assertion was corroborated by a civilian witness, said Cpl. Jack Steinberg, who also worked on the administrative investigation. Steinberg’s statement is contradicted by the account rendered by Cundiff, who interviewed Pamela Haizlip and her son, Jermaine Hayes. “After interviewing Ms. Haizlip and her son, their stories proved unreliable,” Cundiff wrote. “The information they provided was inconsistent with the facts.”

Cox can be heard telling Steinberg in an audio recording of an investigative interview: “I don’t know what she’s saying because [Pryor] was on the ground holding his knee. You might want to talk to her about that because she’s lying to you.” He added later: “Pryor had no contact with him at all. The only ones who had any contact with him at all is me and Jay.”

Cox stated unequivocally in response to Steinberg’s questions that he did not observe Pryor kicking Lipscomb.

Loy told YES! Weekly he could not comment on the matter because all the information is in Pryor’s personnel file, and therefore protected from public disclosure.

Pryor continuously filed grievances up his chain of command to Young himself, urging them to review the professional standards division’s handling of the investigation.

“I was saying, ‘When was Mike Loy going to be investigated for omitting information from an investigation?’” Pryor said. “‘When was Shawn Barnes going to be investigated for adding my physical description?’ To this day, that hasn’t been investigated.”

Barnes could not be reached for comment. Bellamy assigned Capt. Therron Phipps, commander of the operational support division, to investigate Pryor’s allegation that his signature was forged, copied, scanned in or otherwise improperly placed on the adminis trative investigation notification. Phipps found no wrongdoing on anyone’s part. In reviewing Pryor’s appeal, the city manager concurred with Phipps finding.

“I reviewed the audio recording of Cpl.

[Steinberg] with you,” Young wrote. “He states that he is giving you the Notice of Administrative Investigation form and asks that you read and sign the form. There is a pause when presumably you are reading the form. I then heard the sound of writing. At no point during the recording do you refuse to sign the form or make any comment about the structure of the form or the presence of a signature of any person other than Cpl. [Steinberg]. It is reasonable to conclude that you did in fact sign a Notice of Administrative Investigation form, as requested by Cpl. [Steinberg].”

Pryor told YES! Weekly: “What he neglects to tell you is that the person whose name is on the document didn’t interview me. It had Sgt. Barnes’ name on it when he had already been transferred out of that unit. The person who interviewed me was Cpl. Steinberg. They said they were in transition, and Sgt. Barnes left the notification. If Steinberg is in training, why is he conducting an interview with me? Why would Sgt. Barnes leave a notification? When you sign a notification as an investigator, you’re signing it to say you witnessed me signing it. If you left it for me to sign, how could you witness me signing it?” Young writes that Pryor’s continued assertions that he did not sign the form are untruthful. The city manager also found the police officer in violation of the malicious criticism and gossip directive on the basis that “your allegations of discrimination and incompetence against the PSD tended to impair the operations of the department by asserting that its administrative investigations are dishonest and discriminatory.”

Cherry has leveled the accusation of untruthfulness at numerous employees in the police department, along with staff in the city manager’s office and human resources. In that sense, the city manager’s high-minded words at the end of the termination letter sound as if they could just as easily reflect the sentiments of those on the other side of the conflict.

“A police officer has the ability to deprive a person of life, liberty and property based in large part on the credibility of their word,” Young wrote. “Accordingly, police officers must be absolutely truthful in all matters. An officer whose truthfulness is at issue is unfit to exercise the powers vested in the police department.”

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