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Town Hall addresses policing and race


Rev. Nelson Johnson Rev. Nelson Johnson
Nearly 200 Greensboro residents gathered for a town hall meeting on policing and race at the Howard Chubbs Enrichment Center at Providence Baptist Church, on Sunday, June 12.

The town hall was hosted by the Community-City Working Group, a group composed of city and community members, which has been meeting monthly since March 2015 to work on racial issues in Greensboro. Leaders say the purpose of the group has been to address a systemic problem of racial bias that goes back decades. The working group’s initial focus has been on improving the relationship between law enforcement and the community with emphasis on interactions with people of color.

“These meetings have been productive,” said Mayor Nancy Vaughan. “But we can’t move forward as a city until we all come together.”

Since its inception, the CCWG has worked to address racial disparities through workshops, district meetings and panel discussions held throughout the city, including a Doing Our Work Series and a forum on race last February with guest Michelle Alexander, a civil rights lawyer, advocate and author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”

CCWG organizers noted that Alexander’s visit helped spark the idea for the citywide town hall meeting.

“The problem of misuse and abuse of police authority is real and it’s hurtful,” said Rev. Nelson Johnson, a CCWG member and executive director of Beloved Community Center (BCC). “Greensboro can be the greatest city in the nation, but we have to change our ways and we have to do it now.”

Presentations of four core proposals were presented during the meeting: Police practices and accountability, reform in police training, policing and mental health and police worn body cameras. Over the years, Beloved Community Center associates have chronicled a report on police accountability in Greensboro. The report highlights 14 cases of alleged police misconduct.

Dr. Claude BarnesDr. Claude Barnes
“My suggestion is that it is time to move beyond, and put pressure on the police department to implement a more democratic process,” said Dr. Claude Barnes, a political science professor and research associate with BCC.

While Police Chief Wayne Scott issued a special order in November 2015, instructing officers to refrain from conducting traffic stops related to minor vehicle equipment infractions, like a broken tail light or windshield, during the town hall Barnes asserted that the practice of contact policing is one that needs to end but one that may not be so easy to eliminate.

Contact policing, or the broken-windows approach, is a police strategy that places more officers in certain neighborhoods or areas to focus on quality of life crimes such as drugs, disorderly conduct and prostitution as a way to deter more serious crimes.

“We are spending too much time and too much resources on harassing poor people and people of color, and this has got to stop,” said Barnes. “Police misconduct has to be prosecuted. Too many officer committed crimes go unpunished.”

CCWG proposes that a Citizen Review Board with subpoena powers be created, an idea that has been pushed for by Greensboro community activists for years.

The CCWG also proposed that GPD officers be presented with new, innovative types of training with a particular focus on improved social skills techniques to interact with citizens who have mental health challenges.

Recent video footage of the fatal shooting of Chieu-di Thi Vo, a Vietnamese woman whose family said she suffered from a mental illness, by former GPD Officer Tim Bloch has put a spotlight on the lack of officer training in the area of mental health.

Jack Register Jack Register
Jack Register, executive director of National Alliance on Mental Health-North Carolina noted that state funding is a barrier blocking proper mental health training for officers.

“If you have a psychiatric breakdown on the way home today, you may end up in jail, you may end up in the emergency room for days, or you may end up dead before you get the services you need,” said Register who added, “We can ask Mayor Vaughan for a lot, hold her accountable for a lot, but her hands are tied when funding isn’t coming in from the state,” he said.

Community feedback from the district meetings requested that officer trainings also include a focus on de-escalation techniques, implicit bias, racial equity and cultural awareness.

“If we’re going to make the right interventions, then we have to know what we’re looking at, and understand why we have racial inequity,” said Bay Love of The Racial Equity Institute.

Vaughan noted that the police department is seeking legislation to make resisting arrest a separate charge from obstructing and delaying arrest, which she believes could help reduce the number of resisting arrest charges.

She also noted that she is urging the police department to implement a formalized consent process for police to obtain permission to search motorists’ vehicles during a traffic stop, either through a written form or an interaction recorded on a police body camera.

The CCWG and community members helped draft a “People’s Ordinance on Police Body Worn Camera Footage,” deeming it public record and not private, personnel record as it’s considered by the state.

Lewis Pitts Lewis Pitts
Retired Greensboro attorney Lewis Pitts presented the People’s Ordinance and compared it to the city’s policy that was adopted by the city council on May 9, without public input. The city adopted policy leaves the release of body-worn camera video footage to the city manager’s discretion and gives him the authority to choose who gets to view it and what portions get to be viewed.

District 3 City Council member Justin Outline helped draft the city's policy and urged council to adopt it before releasing any police footage.“Police are engaging in misconduct, bringing false, trumped up charges against people,” said Pitts citing the recent Scales Brothers case, where two brothers were arrested and were hit with multiple charges that were later dropped.

Pitts asserted that any footage taken by a police officer should be public record and available to everyone. Pitts helped craft the people’s body camera ordinance which considers body camera footage public record unless releasing it could hinder an investigation. He further explained that council could stop the release of body camera footage with a two-thirds vote.

Another camera policy is on the table at the General Assembly, sponsored by N.C. District 61 House Representative John Faircloth (R- Guilford County). House Bill 972 deems body camera footage as private record, giving law enforcement agencies the authority over who sees the footage. An individual can petition the court to see it. HB 972 is currently active at the General Assembly in a committee on finance.