Citizen Green: A shadow complaint review committee

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Jordan Greenby Jordan Green

When black citizens complain about mistreatment by the Greensboro Police Department, almost without fail the official processes uphold the officers’ actions as appropriate. When people feel that the system doesn’t work for them, they eventually give up on the system.

With events in Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland and elsewhere framing a national movement of protest against police abuses, activists in Greensboro have renewed long-running demands for reform to the complaint-review process in recent months. In lieu of meaningful change, an independent panel, the Interim Citizens Police Review Committee, was formed to hear complaints.

On June 6, the committee delivered its opinion in the matter of Alfred Waddell, an 86-year-old black resident of Greensboro. Waddell alleges that the police treated him, his wife and their grandson with discourtesy and racial bias when they wakened them at 2 a.m. in February 2014 to demand that he move his cars so the police could remove an abandoned vehicle from the area with a tow truck. At issue in the complaint is whether it was necessary for the police to wake up Waddell and his family at 2 in the morning to move a car, whether the family was treated rudely, whether the abandoned car wound up in the Waddell’s driveway or in an adjacent lot and whether the police falsified a report to justify the damage when they towed the car across the Waddells’ lawn.

The report of the Interim Citizens Police Review Committee makes no attempt to downplay the fact that its findings contradict those of the police department’s professional-standards division and the complaint-review committee, a citizen panel of the Greensboro Human Relations Commission that is tasked with reviewing complaints against the police.

“When considered, Mr. Waddell’s testimony and documentary evidence provides sufficient record for reasonable persons to conclude the PSD and the CRC made the wrong decision in this case,” the independent report concludes.

The problem lies with the process, according to the independent panel. The Waddell report charges that “the rules and procedures for reviewing citizen complaints, both at the PSD and CRC levels, did not provide the complainant the opportunity to present witnesses, confront the police department’s evidence and witnesses, advocate for his claims or have a transparent, public review of his complaint.”

Chantale Wesley-Lamin, the chair of the official complaint-review committee, could not be reached for comment for this article. But Chief Wayne Scott dismissed the independent committee’s findings in a statement to Triad City Beat.

“Because the group’s alleged ‘findings of fact’ were arrived at without full access to evidence,” he said, “their investigation and any conclusions are flawed and biased.”

Barbara Lawrence, a lawyer who chairs the independent committee, told me that the officers involved in incident declined an invitation to attend the hearing and testify. That’s unfortunate, she said, because the committee might have been swayed by their account of what happened.

As members of the independent committee see it, the police’s withholding of information is selective and self-serving.

Chief Scott alluded to the impasse between the two groups in his statement to TCB. He said he had recently met with members of the committee “to discuss their complaint review process, and explained to them at length the state laws restricting their access to information they would need to conduct thorough investigations. Despite these legal restrictions, the group continues to proceed with its process and claim that its process and claim that is ‘consistent with constitutional guarantees of fair representation, examination of evidence and witness and compulsory process.’”

Among other restrictions, state law currently does not allow the police department to publicly release footage from police-controlled video cameras.

“We said, ‘That’s fine because we’re trying to change the law,’” said the Rev. Randall Keeney, one of the members of the independent committee who met with the chief and other city representatives. Keeney told Scott, “We’re asking for your support in that.”

The transparency demonstrated at the recent meeting of the Interim Citizens Police Review Committee on June 6 stood in stark contrast to complaint hearings by the officially sanctioned complaint-review committee, which hears complaints in closed session. Following the reading into the record of the Waddell decision, the agenda scheduled time for public comment and questions. During the meeting, held in a classroom on the second floor of Gibbs Hall on the campus of NC A&T University, Lawrence repeatedly invited members of the audience — all of four people — to ask questions and make comments, and committee members addressed their remarks to the audience as much as to each other.

Members of the committee insist they have a right under the US Constitution to review the action of the police. And despite the monumental effort required to investigate complaints, Lawrence said the members are committed to the work. James Mayes, another committee member, said during the meeting that there’s a long list of complainants who want the committee to review their cases, “so this is the tip of the iceberg.”

Although the independent committee can do little except forward its findings to the city, members said they are eager for community engagement with their work.

“Ultimately, it’s about community leverage,” Lawrence said. “It should act as a deterrent. The police need to know they’re on notice. We have the same racialized outcomes year after year. Dominantly it’s the east side, it’s African American, it’s poor people. And there’s the ‘dark figure’ of people who don’t even report [abuses] because they have no faith that they will be addressed.”