Council speakers protest the presence of ‘smirking’ GPD officer named in civil complaint
Over the past several years, Greensboro Police Officer Samuel Alvarez has been criticized by some public speakers at town hall meetings of the Greensboro City Council. Last Tuesday, those speakers had to walk directly past Alvarez, who was working security that night. Unlike other officers on duty, his expression did not seem impassive, as he stood against the back wall of the council chamber. Anyone who signed up to speak at the podium had to approach within a few feet of the man now named in a federal civil rights complaint.
One person speaking about that complaint later told YES! Weekly he felt discomfited by Alvarez’s proximity and described the officer’s facial expression as “smirking.” At-large Representative Michelle Kennedy, who had noticed Alvarez from the dais, also used the “smirking” descriptor for Alvarez’s facial expression, and gave YES! Weekly the following statement:
“No rank and file city employee should be present at a council meeting where they may be personally scrutinized. At the same time, citizens should not be subjected to the presence of an employee who makes them feel unsafe. A better staffing choice should be made by GPD.”
While multiple public speakers at previous meetings have criticized Officer Alvarez’s alleged misconduct, this was the first Town Hall meeting since Alvarez was recently cited in a civil court document about those allegations, making it very probable that his name would come up at the meetings, and thus remarkable that he had been assigned to its security detail.
On Dec. 9, 2019, Zared Kinah Jones filed an Amended Complaint in U. S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, Greensboro Civil Division, naming Samuel A. Alvarez as a defendant. Also named were Cpl. K. R. Johnson, Sgt. S. K. Flowers, and officers D. M. Harmon, F. T. Wright, J. M. Chavez, D. C. Fleming, J. T. Harrill, M. J. Molson and A. G. Lewis. Lewis is also named in the ongoing federal civil rights lawsuit over the GPD’s fatal hogtying of Marcus Deon Smith during the 2018 North Carolina Folk Festival.
The complaint stems from a September 2016 encounter between Jones, three of his friends, and GPD officers that began when Jones complained to Cpl. Korey Johnson of having been assaulted by a bouncer at a McGee Street bar. While Cpl. Johnson and Jones were talking, Sgt. Steven Flowers and Alvarez approached. The complaint alleged that the new arrivals escalated the situation into a struggle between Alvarez and Jones’ friend, Aaron Garrett. This ended with Garrett allegedly being slammed against a car by Alvarez and tased by multiple officers.
On Aug. 9, 2019, Jones’s former attorney Graham Holt emailed the city council about police body camera videos of the incident, which federal judge Susan Bray had ruled that both the attorney and city official could view, but could not discuss or release to the public. In Holt’s email, he described the videos as showing that Alvarez and Flowers “plotted to arrest the young men long before the men had done anything but walk downtown.”
Holt also described the videos as showing the altercation began after Sgt. Flowers ordered the men to leave the vicinity of the bar from which Jones had been ejected, but outside of which Jones had been instructed to stay by Cpl. Korey Johnson, who had taken Jones’s ID and stepped inside to talk to the bartender. While Jones was explaining this, Holt wrote, Flowers “grabs Zared’s arm and slams a handcuff down on Zared’s wrist,” beginning the altercation.
A 2017 N.C. Policy Watch article by Joe Killian reported that this was the second time Alvarez was accused of racial profiling and brutality. As previously reported, a November 2019 study on homelessness and police violence in Greensboro conducted by several UNCG and Guilford College faculty listed Alvarez as one of the officers named by homeless survey respondents as being excessively confrontational and violent with black men downtown.
One of the speakers who had to walk past Alvarez at the first council meeting of 2020 was retired civil rights attorney Lewis Pitts, Jr., who urged the council to finally view the body camera videos, as they have been legally able to do since 2018. In his speech, Pitts argued that the city council has a civic duty and moral obligation to watch those videos.
Pitts said, “at least $181,000 of taxpayer money has been paid to silk-stocking lawyers charging $300 an hour” to defend against the Smith lawsuit. “There’s going to hundreds of thousands of dollars more spent unless you watch the Zared Jones videos. You have the authority granted by the judge to look at what’s probably four hours of police body-worn camera footage.”
Pitts also cited Holt’s letter to council, which, described “severe constitutional wrongs,” including a chokehold “put on a man who did nothing wrong but be black downtown,” and which Holt had described as “similar to the chokehold fatally applied to Eric Garner.” Pitts did not name Alvarez in his speech, although he has on previous occasions In a subsequent email to the council, which Pitts shared with YES! Weekly, he expressed dismay at what he characterized as Alvarez’s threatening expression.
Pitts described Alvarez as “a frightening person who has serious, credible allegations against him,” and who “conveyed his hostility toward me when I had to walk closely by him on my way to the podium.” Alleging that Alvarez “does not have the disposition or objectivity needed to properly maintain order in the least physical, least violent manner during council meetings where allegations against him and the GPD are frequently made.” Pitts concluded, “I am putting you on notice of his violent temperament and notice of potential city liability for excessive force he might use at those meetings.”
Kennedy responded to this email and asked Pitts what he meant by “conveyed hostility.” In his reply, Pitts wrote:
“I usually nod or speak to all the officers at council meeting; at times chat small talk with them. And they have all been nicely and reasonably responsive. When I passed by Alvarez walking to stand in line waiting to speak, I thought that was him, glanced at his nameplate and nodded a hello; I did not convey hostility and I was pretty surprised it was him. He glared back in hostile fashion and since my name had been called it seemed he knew who I was.”
Pitts stated that Alvarez “did not move or gesture or take any action that was threatening; just certainly not friendly or even neutral,” and that “I hate to admit it, but I did feel a bit frightened about him standing at my back knowing what I know about him and seeing his actions on that cell phone recording.”
The speaker before Pitts, Hester Petty of Democracy Greensboro, did name Alvarez in her time at the podium. In the YouTube video “Hester Petty asks GSO city council to watch Zared Jones body cam videos,” Petty displayed the Dec. 9, 2019, complaint that “lists 11 Greensboro police officers, the police chief and the City of Greensboro” and asked council if they had watched the body camera videos of Jones’s arrest. In response to this question, Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson stated that none had done so.
Petty then called the council “derelict in your duty.”
“That is because you cannot possibly have an informed opinion as to whether this lawsuit should be defended or settled if you haven’t watched those videos. He named 11 officers, including S. A. Alvarez . . . and in a new one, he names A. G. Lewis. Is that the same A. G. Lewis who was present when Marcus Deon Smith died in police custody?”
Petty subsequently told YES! Weekly that she had not personally felt intimidated by Alvarez’s presence, but she could certainly understand why others might.
“I am pretty nervous when I have to speak and was just trying to breathe. I do believe Alvarez was an odd choice for a city council meeting, especially located so close to the speakers. As far as I know, he is not a regular at meetings.”
During the meeting, this reporter noticed both Officer Alvarez and his facial expression that Kennedy later described. Approaching Alvarez, I asked him for his reaction to the council apparently having abandoned the rules of conduct for public speakers suggested by Mayor Nancy Vaughan, which would have forbidden speakers from criticizing city employees like himself by name. Alvarez replied that he could not comment on such matters.
I also asked him about statements by Marcus Hyde of the Homeless Union of Greensboro, who has alleged Alvarez making Facebook posts in which he called himself “an agent of God’s wrath.” Alvarez said that he could not comment on that either.