Citizens demand city council release Cole investigative file

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CJ Brinson of GSO Operation Transparency speaks with City Clerk Betsy Richardson. (photo by Jordan Green)

A citizen coalition threatens a “people’s document search” to acquire and release documents if city council does not vote to release the investigative file on former Greensboro police Officer Travis Cole’s altercation with Dejuan Yourse.

A multiracial coalition of Greensboro citizens delivered an ultimatum to city council on Tuesday morning demanding the release of files from the police department’s internal investigation of former Officer Travis Cole’s altercation in June with Dejuan Yourse.

Cole resigned from the force on Aug. 19, two months after the incident, amid an investigation that later determined that Cole violated departmental directives for use of force, courtesy towards the public, arrest, search and seizure and also compliance to laws and regulations. Greensboro City Council voted to release the police body-worn camera video, which showed Cole, a white officer, punching and throwing Yourse, who is African American, to the ground. The video shows an initially polite interview, with Yourse respectfully answering questions on his mother’s porch, that suddenly escalated when Cole became upset about Yourse calling a friend on his cell phone.

“We’re here because something went terribly wrong and we don’t have all the information about exactly what went wrong, what part of our police management protocols in this city failed,” said Isabell Moore, who lives in the Glenwood neighborhood, during a press conference demanding release of the investigative file. “We know that a member of our community, Dejuan Yourse, was brutally beaten while sitting on his mother’s porch. We all saw the video; it was extremely disturbing.”

Holding up a banner depicting a timeline of events, the citizens, who call themselves GSO Operation Transparency, questioned what took place during a roughly 55-day period between when June 18, when an officer in the chain of command was notified of the incident, and Aug. 9, when Chief Scott allegedly learned about it.

“Why didn’t the police do anything when they first saw the video?” Moore asked. “Why did it take so long for them to act? What did they recommend to the district attorney after the investigation? And perhaps, most importantly, why did a majority of city council members pass on reviewing the full information? What are they afraid of finding out?”

CJ Brinson, a member of the coalition, said GSO Operation Transparency came together to ensure that city council members understand that the issue is important to citizens from all corners of the city.

“Organizations within the community wanted to communicate together to change this narrative that this issue is just synonymous with African-American community,” Brinson said. “We’re sending the message that various members within the community across the city feel this needs to be exposed.”

After the press conference, the citizens walked upstairs from the plaza-level atrium to the city manager’s suite to deliver letters to the nine city council members demanding the release of the investigative file on Cole’s actions. City Clerk Betsy Richardson told the citizens that the council members were not in their offices, but promised to scan and email the correspondence to them as well as leave hard copies in their mailboxes.

The citizen advocating release of the documents said the city council has the authority to do so through a vote, using the same legal mechanism they relied on to release the video in September. City Attorney Tom Carruthers said after the press conference that he wanted to confer with city council before commenting on the request, but cited a section of state law governing the privacy of municipal employees, which states that the city manager with the concurrence of city council may release personnel information after determining “in writing that the release is essential to maintaining public confidence in the administration of city services.”

The citizens are demanding the release of the documents by noon on Jan. 11. If the documents are not released, the group has said in a press release that “it will conduct a nonviolent ‘people’s document search’ to acquire and release the information that should be available to the public in order to restore public confidence in city administration.”

The citizens group is relying on the same statute cited by Carruthers for their pledge conduct a ‘people’s document search’ to acquire and release the information. They declined to elaborate on exactly what action they might take, but Moore said they planned to submit a public records request on Tuesday, well ahead of the deadline to turn over the records.

Carruthers sidestepped a question about whether citizens have the legal authority to “conduct a people’s document search” to acquire and release public records, saying, “I feel it’s important for me to review their communication and give advice to [city council] before commenting to the press.”

During a closed-session meeting in October to discuss the investigative file, council voted 5-4 to not release the file, turning down a request from Councilwoman Sharon Hightower to review the file. Subsequently, Hightower was allowed to review the file, which she said amounts to more than 200 pages, as a privileged document, but not allowed to take possession of it.

Hightower, who did not attend the press conference and said she was not consulted about the action by GSO Operation Transparency, said she plans to introduce a resolution to release the file to the public.

“We need to begin to build public trust so we can have transparency,” she said.

Hightower said the chain-of-command investigation for use of force incidents is supposed to take no longer than 45 days, but this case took 53 days.

“I would like to speculate that it was just because [the investigator] was trying to do a good job,” Hightower said, adding that she wants the documents to be released to the public before she articulates any concerns she might have about what its contents reveal.

“I want people in the community to be able to say, ‘We’re able to know what goes on in the process,’ she said. “If it doesn’t appear to be working, then we need to address those processes.”

Hightower added that she’s concerned that Cole’s case wasn’t flagged by department brass earlier, considering that he had a known history of citizen complaints. The city reached a $50,000 settlement in May — just one month before the Yourse incident — with Rufus and Devin Scales, two African-American brothers who were subjected to a frivolous arrest by Cole. Hightower also said she’s concerned that it took four months for city council to find out about the Yourse incident. And she said the incident first came to her notice thanks to a constituent, who requested anonymity.