The Secret Battle to restore white power at the GPD
The group of African-American pastors was eager to sit down with the new police chief. More than three years had passed since the fatal police shooting of Daryl Howerton, an emotionally disturbed NC A&T University student killed on Phillips Avenue. The pastors had been frustrated in their dealings with the previous chief, Sylvester Daughtry, and were feeling increasingly concerned about what they saw as brutality, inadequate training and a deteriorating relationship between Greensboro Police Department and the black community.
Chief Robert C. White, a black law enforcement officer hired away from the Washington DC Metropolitan Police Department, readily agreed. They sat down together for breakfast at East White Oak Baptist Church one morning in 1999. After listening for a while, White made an alarming disclosure.
‘“The chief then shared with us that there was a serious problem with the department,’” wrote Rev. Nelson Johnson in testimony submitted to the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Jan. 25. ‘“He said there was a group of ‘cowboys’ over which he had no control. He further elaborated that if we kept pushing him publicly it would compromise his ability to ring in this group and maybe even compromise his job.’”
One of the pastors, Rev. Mazie Ferguson, confirmed Johnson’s account. Two others, including Rev. Benjamin Mittman ‘— the pastor at East White Oak Baptist Church ‘— said they did not recall the chief’s exact words, but had no reason to dispute Johnson’s story.
‘“I don’t know whether the term was ‘lone rangers’ or ‘cowboys,”” said Rev. Cardes Brown. ‘“I know there was a representation that there was such a situation. It went back to the Daryl Howerton situation’…. What I guess needs to be said is that even back then we had concerns that there was some kind of internal problem in the department that created alarm and discomfort for African Americans.’”
White, who is now the chief of the Louisville Metro Police Department, did not respond to multiple requests to comment for this story.
The pastors liked what they heard. The new chief told them he expected his officers to uphold the highest standards of conduct in their dealings with the community, and that he supported additional funding for training to help officers deal with emotionally disturbed subjects. He also rapidly promoted many black police officers.
Claudette Burroughs-White, who represented District 2 on the City Council from 1994 to 2005, also met with Chief White to discuss the Daryl Howerton incident. The two are related by marriage: Robert White is the cousin of Claudette Burroughs-White’s husband. The former councilwoman said she was not aware of a group of police officers that operated independent of the command structure under Chief White.
‘“There were certainly people who didn’t support what he was doing,’” she said. ‘“I didn’t understand them to be a renegade force.
‘“When I served on city council a young man was killed on Phillips Avenue,’” she added.
Burroughs-White said that during many conversations Chief White expressed to her that there were few problems in the police department.
‘“I always told him he lived in a fantasy world,’” she said.
Rev. Johnson, a polarizing figure in Greensboro, alleges that the group of ‘“cowboys’” referenced by Chief White is an evolving cast of ‘“rogue’” police officers who, in 1979, conspired to allow the Klan and Nazis to murder his colleagues in the Communist Workers Party and then took part in the cover-up. More recently, under departed Chief David Wray, who is white, a new generation of the same group carried out a campaign of intimidation and harassment against black police officers, Johnson said.
A central figure in the group of black police officers targeted by the Wray administration was Lt. James Hinson, who was rapidly promoted under former Chief White. Hinson was suspended from the force and investigated by the special intelligence section even after being cleared of any wrongdoing.
The racial discrimination practiced within the department under Chief Wray is by now widely acknowledged, but the allegations that rogue police officers were active in 1979 are far more controversial. Johnson wrote in his testimony to the truth commission, which is currently drafting a report on the causes and consequences of the 1979 Morningside Homes killings, that a group of ‘“rogue’” officers involved in drugs and stolen goods that was codenamed ‘“In the Grace’” operated in the police department in the ’70s and ’80s. Johnson has alleged that members of the group were complicit in the 1979 killings.
The pastor said he based the allegations on the say-so of anonymous sources. In addition to the truth commission, Johnson said he submitted his testimony to City Council. One individual named by Johnson told YES! Weekly on Feb. 15 that he and others alleged to be part of the ‘“rogue’” group planned to consult a lawyer.
‘“The names in the list that I have came from the source who was close to Greensboro Police Department operations,’” Johnson said. ‘“He supplied some fairly detailed information. The source was knowledgeable of the police department in the seventies through the eighties.’”
As an indication of his confidence in the factuality of the allegations, Johnson wrote to the truth commission: ‘“Let me assure the commission that all I will say comes from reliable sources that I believe will eventually come forward with their own account.’”
There is little available evidence to substantiate the more explosive charges in Johnson’s testimony, but extensive interviews with former police officers, clergy members who advocated for aggrieved police officers, a member of the city’s Human Relations Commission and the former city councilwoman taken together suggest a longstanding climate of mutual fear and distrust between white and black factions within the department.
In this climate, allegations of cronyism and arbitrary discipline have swirled around the police leadership ‘— almost always to the detriment of members of whichever race is not represented at the top. Allegations of involvement in drug trafficking and prostitution have been leveled against certain officers, almost exclusively by whites against blacks and vice-versa.
In retrospect, the appointment of Robert C. White as Greensboro police chief in June 1998 appears to be an important crossroads in the history of race relations within the department. By many accounts, White came to the department as an outsider and upended the comfortable system of promotion through the ranks that had benefited white police employees since 1979 and before. White’s actions as chief would set in motion a backlash under his successor, David Wray, that took the form of harsher punishments meted out against black officers, isolation of black leadership, attempts to entrap black officers and inappropriate alteration of disciplinary forms for black officers and others out of favor with Wray and his inner circle.
Chief White’s tenure appears as a small-scale and localized second coming of reconstruction, the historical period following the Civil War when African-Americans across the South gained a measure of representation in public administration and elected office. As with reconstruction, many black officers and black citizens viewed White’s administration as a welcome opportunity to address long-held grievances. At least some white police officers viewed his arrival with fear and alarm.
‘“I think he was trying to rebuild confidence in the community,’” said Rev. Gregory Headen, another black pastor who met with White. ‘“I remember him struggling to be responsive to the community concerns and also trying to be a chief that would stand behind his officers as long as they were in the right. He was a strong advocate for additional training for police officers to deal with people that were mentally ill.’”
Rev. Brown also took heart from White’s leadership.
‘“We were questioning him about, ‘What are you going to do about the situation with Daryl Howerton?’ He said, ‘I promise you as a chief that I’m going to do my best to root out corruption, if it exists.’ Chief White was coming with an agenda to do right.’”
Some white police officers like Sgt. Ramon Bell anticipated White’s agenda with dread. Bell, a traffic officer, left the force in November 1997. An avid hunter from Stokesdale, the 63-year-old Bell is currently running for president of the NC Bowhunters Association. According to a website maintained by Bell called ‘“Old South Adventures,’” he runs a private investigation company and sells alternative dietary supplements with his wife.
‘“I could see the storm coming,’” he said. ‘“We heard six months ahead of time who the new chief was going to be. There was a number of high-ranking officers that had been more or less groomed to move up. They would have maintained stability. I can tell you we wouldn’t have the problems we’re having now if they’d been promoted.
He added: ‘“He made life so unbearable for them. A lot of good people with a lot of experience and knowledge of administration were forced out. He promoted Hinson up real quick, from patrolman to sergeant to lieutenant in just a couple years. When does that ever happen?’”
Bell said he was happy with the promotions policy under White’s predecessor, Sylvester Daughtry, who was Greensboro’s first black police chief.
Daughtry was fair, Bell said. ‘“Daughtry came up through the ranks, and that makes a difference. White came from outside the department.’”
Rev. Brown and some of the pastors saw something else in Daughtry’s administration.
‘“Under Chief [William] Swing and Chief Daughtry there was a disparity,’” Brown said. ‘“Black officers were underrepresented. A number of officers were promoted under Chief White because of that.’”
Rev. Johnson cites another reason why White might have accelerated black promotions: he believes the chief was trying to sideline the so-called ‘“rogue’” police officers through his promotional practices.
‘“More recent information from other sources suggests Chief White’s basic plan was to promote people around him that he trusted,’” he wrote. ‘“Included within this group were African Americans. The source believes that Lt. Hinson and several other African-American police officers are the victims of a ‘secret police’ plan to discredit promising African-American leadership.’”
Another grievance Bell has expressed against White is that the former chief dismantled Greensboro Explorer Post #241, a Boy Scouts-affiliated program for young people interested in pursuing careers in law enforcement that the former officer led from March 1988 until the time of his retirement. Bell’s website includes a page dedicated to the Explorers with a picture of five white youngsters posing with a trophy at a competition at the University of Maryland in 1998.
‘“Maybe some day, someone within the department will see fit to rejuvenate the post and rebuild the former Explorer Post,’” the web page reads. ‘“This organization was the only ‘real’ youth outreach program sponsored by the Greensboro Police Department that had as its sole purpose, to help educate the youth of our community about the law enforcement profession.’” An addendum dated 2005 announces that the Explorer post was being resurrected and a program instituted by White to replace it, SOAR, was being discontinued.
‘“’SOAR is gone! (along with Robert White!),’” the page reads. ‘“Thank goodness for the kids that this program may soon return for their benefit and for the benefit of the community and the GPD.’”
Bell said the program was open to youngsters of all races.
‘“There are some black officers on the Greensboro Police Department that came through that program,’” he said. ‘“We took boys and girls of all races and welcomed them.’”
Bell said he doesn’t see anything out of the ordinary about cliques ‘— white or black ‘— operating within a police department.
‘“Is there whites that don’t like blacks?’” he said in an interview. ‘“It’s not a matter of ‘don’t like’; just stay separate and stay apart.’”
He added: ‘“I may or may not have prejudices against black people, green people and red ants, but I don’t let it interfere with the way I do my job.’”
Writings on Bell’s ‘“Old South Adventures’” website are more candid. A ‘“history’” page on the website celebrates Confederate heritage with a fluttering Confederate battle flag, a tribute to General Robert E. Lee and photo of Bell’s great-grandfather, a sergeant in the Confederate Army from Wilkes County.
Bell calls slavery ‘“detestable,’” but assigns partial responsibility to ‘“the African ancestors of the slaves themselves who held political and criminal prisoners and utilized them as slaves of their own, for centuries, even millenniums, before the white man ever set foot on the African continent.’”
A section about the reconstruction period after the Civil War gives some indication of Bell’s view of black political power.
‘“The result was to bring into power a large block of Negro voters, who were at the time uneducated and ignorant of the political processes,’” the web page reads. ‘“The legislatures, without competent leadership and largely influenced by the ‘carpetbaggers’ and ‘scalawags,’ made enormous appropriations and laid heavy taxes, the proceeds of which were largely wasted by irresponsible adventurers. Enormous debts were piled up. Most of the taxpaying white classes were disfranchised by depriving them of their legal rights; i.e. their rights to vote, rights to normal privileges and immunity from persecution and prosecution, rights to property and businesses.’”
The result of reconstruction, the article continues, ‘“was to provoke a countermovement on the part of the Southern whites. This movement was prevented from using legal means of redress, and therefore, such organizations as the Ku Klux Klan were resorted to in the 1870s.’”
Rev. Johnson’s testimony to the truth commission was not the first time Bell was accused of being a rogue police officer.
In a telephone interview he readily discussed the allegations.
‘“I’ve heard everything,’” he said. ‘“I was [accused of being] one of the biggest drug dealers, gambling and prostitution operators in this part of the state.’”
A 1983 federal court case bizarrely implicated Bell in a plot to have Rev. Johnson assassinated. The defendant, Henry C. Byrd, was convicted of perjury for leveling the accusations at Bell.
‘“He came up with this tale about me trying to pay him to kill Nelson Johnson,’” Bell said. ‘“He accused me of the three unsolved murders in Randolph County and said they were drug hits.’”
Bell said he was questioned by the FBI.
‘“I had documentation,’” he said. ‘“I keep logs of where I am at all times. We went to court. They subpoenaed all my phone records and financial records. They found I was just a poor cop. I was no richer than anybody at the police department. Every long-distance call I had to identify who it was. The date these murders happened in Randolph County I was in South Carolina on a hunt with twenty other guys.’”
Byrd had reason to cause trouble for Bell.
‘“I was instrumental in charging him with 36 counts of insurance fraud back in 1981 and 1982,’” Bell said. ‘“I was working the hit-and-run squad as an investigator where Henry was the ‘victim’ of a hit-and-run accident.’”
Bell said Byrd staged traffic accidents by driving around and finding people to hit in situations where it would be the other driver’s fault.
Even Rev. Johnson views Byrd’s charges with skepticism.
‘“I am not vouching for the character of Henry C. Byrd,’” he wrote. ‘“I have never met or seen him. He was obviously part of a criminal under-world element. He was found guilty of perjury.’”
Byrd was released from Caswell Correctional Center, a medium-security state prison in Yanceyville where he completed a sentence for an indecent liberty with a child, on Jan. 6, said NC Department of Corrections official Mike Toome.
The strange connections between Bell and Rev. Johnson don’t end there.
Bell testified before the truth commission in August 2005 that he saw an administrative operating plan created for the purpose of policing the Nov. 3, 1979 anti-Klan march organized by Johnson. The plan called for a low-profile police presence and placed police officers on the campus of Lincoln Middle School, about a half mile away from the mustering point of the anti-Klan march, Bell said, adding that he believed the plan was destroyed shortly after the fatal confrontation between the Klan and Nazi attackers and the communist demonstrators.
Bell called the plan ‘“a big mistake’” and has come the closest of any former police officer to acknowledging that the police bore at least partial responsibility for the bloodshed. Bell’s testimony has not been welcomed by the surviving anti-Klan demonstrators because Bell also blames Johnson for the tragedy, while focusing police responsibility solely on Capt. Trevor Hampton, one of the highest ranking black police officers on the force at the time.
Bell has often said that Rev. Johnson sought a violent confrontation, and that the killings have benefited the pastor by increasing his community stature and attracting private foundation grants.
As a police officer in 1979, Bell said he witnessed Johnson come into police headquarters two or three times to meet Hampton. He said he interviewed 15 people about Johnson and Hampton’s meetings for Michael Schlosser, the former district attorney who unsuccessfully prosecuted the Klan and Nazi shooters following their attack on the communist demonstrators at Morningside Homes. Bell and Schlosser have repeatedly stated that Johnson requested the low-profile plan.
‘“Officers came out and said, ‘Nelson’s asking Hampton to keep the police away,’ and that’s the way the administrative plan came out,’” Bell said. ‘“I remember a group after Nelson left. They said, ‘Nelson’s asking Hampton not to put police at the head of this march.””
Johnson refutes the allegations of collusion between himself and Hampton.
‘“I had one chance meeting with Captain Hampton on the morning of Nov. 1 as I was desperately trying to get the much delayed parade permit,’” he wrote in the recent testimony. ‘“In that chance meeting in the hallway of the police department office, I greeted Captain Hampton and he stated that he would meet me on Nov. 3 at Morningside at 11:30. That is the only exchange I had with Captain Hampton. I had absolutely no idea and no indication from anyone that the police would not be present in full force.’”
Bell could not say exactly who overheard conversations between Johnson and Hampton that indicated the two worked out a plan together to keep the police away from the anti-Klan march.
‘“I don’t remember who it was,’” he admitted. ‘“Most likely it was supervisors. It’s hearsay.’”
Hampton did not show up for work on Nov. 3, and his absence from the march has never been explained.
Johnson believes Bell’s efforts to place sole responsibility for the administrative operating plan at the feet of Hampton, a rising black star in the department, constitutes a convenient endgame. Now retired, Hampton’s reputation has not weathered well. As chief of the Durham Police Department in the early ’90s Hampton endured allegations that a prostitution ring operated within his force. He left the Elizabeth City Police Department in 2003 amidst a contract dispute with the city. Johnson said he has been in touch with Hampton, who now lives in Florida, but has been unable to get the former lawman to explain his decision to write up a low-profile plan and his absence on Nov. 3.
Bell dismisses any suggestion that there was a rogue group of white officers that conspired with the Klan and Nazis in 1979.
‘“There’s no group of rogue officers that did anything that contributed to what happened on November third,’” he said.
Like Bell, Art League, a private investigator who retired from the force in 1988 and rents office space six blocks away from police headquarters, has loudly proclaimed over the years that Johnson asked the police to stay away from Morningside Homes on Nov. 3, 1979.
League was praised by historian Elizabeth Wheaton in her July 2005 testimony before the truth commission. he is credited with arresting a van full of Klan and Nazi members as it sped away from Morningside Homes after the killing of five of Johnson’s friends. League has stated that he broke with the plan to stay away from Morningside Homes because of his curiosity about the Klan.
Johnson noted in his recent written testimony that Art League also figures into the recent investigation of Lt. Hinson that took place under Chief Wray from 2003 through 2005. In June 2005 Hinson’s wife accused League of spying on her when she caught him parked outside her apartment. League has said he was keeping one of Beverly Hinson’s neighbors under surveillance and working for himself, not on contract with the police department’s special intelligence section.
When asked to comment on Feb. 13 about Johnson’s allegations that he belonged to a ‘“rogue’” police group, League said, ‘“I’ve heard that people say I’m a member of the Ku Klux Klan, but I testified around 1979 that I went out to look at the Klan because I always wondered what they looked like. Now how does that make sense?’”
Two days later, he said he wanted to clarify that he’d first heard rumors that he was a member of the Klan only one week earlier. Johnson’s testimony does not identify League as a member of the Klan.
‘“We’re going to consult an attorney because all these outrageous lies and defamation of character before I make a comment,’” League said on Feb. 15. ‘“I feel that any man, especially a man of the cloth, shouldn’t run his mouth unless he knows what he’s talking about.’”
He ended the conversation by saying, ‘“No more questions. I’ve already said too much.’”
While the lines of official and personal responsibility for the 1979 killings at Morningside Homes remain confused and tangled, the distrust and fear around the police department has continued, along with efforts to discredit factional adversaries within the department.
After David Wray replaced Robert White as chief in 2003, Rev. Ferguson said she was approached by several black police officers who complained that they were being singled out.
‘“Their sense was that [Wray] was at the top of the intimidation and fear,’” she said. ‘“He had folks that were spying on them. There were reprisals in terms of promotions. There was intimidation.’”
At first she was skeptical of the claims, she said. As a former lawyer for NC A&T University she had mediated disputes between administration and employees. She asked for a meeting with Wray to see if she could validate any of the black officers’ claims.
Ferguson’s experience with Wray was a far cry from the 1999 meeting between the black pastors and White.
‘“Rather than meet with me he sent one of his officers to my pastor’s church to ask what I wanted to talk about,’” she said. ‘“Of course, my pastor had no idea what he was talking about.’”
Ferguson finally arranged a meeting with Chief Wray in the fall of 2004, but she did not receive a friendly reception.
‘“I went into his office and he had sixteen officers in full regalia, guns at their hips standing at ease,’” she said. ‘“He comes in and sits at the head of the table. I said, ‘Chief Wray, I requested a meeting with you in private. I am now requesting that you dismiss these officers so they can go do their jobs.””
Ferguson recalls Chief Wray responding: ‘“There is nothing you have to say that they can’t hear.’”
‘“I was miffed,’” she said. ‘“I dressed him down in front of his officers and left.’”
Wayne Abraham, vice-chair of the city’s Human Relations Commission, confirms that black officers were subjected to the kind of harassment described by Ferguson. Abraham is the chair of the complaint review board, an officially-sanctioned citizens group that addresses complaints by private citizens against the police. He said under Wray’s administration black officers would receive calls at home from individuals trying to get them to incriminate themselves.
Discipline against black officers was capricious and vindictive, he said.
‘“Minority officers were being disciplined more harshly than non-minority officers,’” Abraham said. ‘“Internal affairs documents were altered. [Imagine] you’re an officer and you commit an offense. Say you back your car into a pillar in the parking garage. The sergeant above you recommends disciplinary action X. The lieutenant might say, ‘Yeah, that’s appropriate.’ It goes up to through the captain, who signs off on it. Then it goes up to the assistant chief. It’s the assistant chief’s right to make a punishment harsher.’”
The problem, Abraham said, was that Wray’s inner circle pressured supervisors to change their recommendations to conform to their desire for harsher penalties.
‘“It might not be illegal, but administratively it’s certainly improper and it violates the city’s policy,’” Abraham said. ‘“People objected to it. If you didn’t go along with it you were tossed out of the good-old boy network.’”
City Manager Mitchell Johnson has asked Interim Chief Tim Bellamy to investigate which officers actively participated in the regime of harassment and intimidation, Abraham said.
‘“Part of Chief Bellamy’s inquiry is to ask officers: were you under orders to do things, or did you do them on your own?’” Abraham said. ‘“People under him didn’t want to do those things. Chief Wray and his little cadre at the top ‘— it’s still yet to be determined who ‘— that’s part of the investigation. Bellamy was not part of the inner circle. Wray would have meetings that excluded Bellamy.’”
Abraham said it’s clear that the cadre included Deputy Chief Randall Brady, to whom the special intelligence section reported, and Capt. Matt Lojko, to whom internal affairs reported. Brady and Lojko left the force on Nov. 30, 2005 following their interviews with Risk Management Associates, the Raleigh consulting firm hired by the city to investigate abuses in the department.
Abraham takes an optimistic view of the realignment of the Greensboro Police Department.
‘“It doesn’t appear that racism was endemic to our police department,’” he said. ‘“The body was trying to push this out. A lot of people weren’t happy. They took their oath seriously. That gives me hope.’”
Others believe the fear and mistrust in the department and the community will roil and break out in new permutations unless the city makes public an extensive document trail of personnel actions in the department to restore public trust.
‘“I don’t think the resignation of the police chief solves the problem,’” Rev. Headen said. ‘“The city has a tendency of demonizing one person and not dealing honestly with the systemic problems that are underlying. The city has a hard time facing the truth about things. I believe if they did we would be a much healthier city.’”
To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at firstname.lastname@example.org