Citizen Green: Time for council to decide on police accountability

1
513
lindy Garnette
Jose Charles and his mother, Tamara Figueroa, flanked by former police complaint review board member LIndy Garnette and the Rev. Nelson Johnson

Jose Charles, a 15-year-old child, had been beaten up by a group of boys at the Fun Fourth Festival in downtown Greensboro last year. He was bleeding from his head when a Greensboro police officer approached him. Jose was agitated when the officer, SA Alvarez, asked him what was wrong and responded with a racial slur often used as a colloquialism among people of color.

According to Tamara Figueroa, who as Jose’s mother has reviewed the police video of the incident, the officer picked up her son, who is slight in stature, and slammed him on the ground. By the police’s own account, the officer’s action resulted in Jose’s pre-existing lacerations above his right eye “bleeding rapidly.” The violent encounter began to attract attention among the hundreds of people at Center City Park celebrating the Fourth of July, and the police moved Jose across the street to an alley near the Davie Street Parking Deck. At some point, as officers attempted to restrain Jose, they allege that he cursed another officer and spit blood and saliva in his “facial area.” Figueroa contends that the blood from her son’s head had flowed into his mouth and he was merely trying to clear his mouth to breathe.

Now, a former member of the police complaint review board who was forced to resign from the board is calling the bluff of the city manager’s decision to back the police department.

Jose was later treated for his injuries at Cone Hospital, and received multiple charges related to the July 4 incident. In subsequent months, he would receive additional, unrelated charges for antisocial behavior that is likely related to mental health challenges that both pre-dated the July 4 incident and were aggravated by the trauma he experienced. Now, he faces a court date on May 11 that, if found guilty, will likely result in him being sentenced to what his mother describes as a “juvenile prison.”

To put it bluntly, people are getting frustrated and angry with what they view as system that is rigged against the victims of police abuse. A state law put into effect last year prevents the public from viewing the police video, but actually worsens citizen distrust of the police because the victim’s family is free to present their narrative of what happened. In this case, a member of the police community review board has corroborated the family’s narrative by characterizing what she saw in the video as “distressing.” Former committee member and YWCA Greensboro CEO Lindy Garnette was forced to resign from the board by the city attorney and chair of the human relations commission on April 28 for what must be considered a technicality. City officials might have calculated that forcing Garnette’s resignation would discredit a whistleblower, but it’s more likely that the action will only further undermine residents’ trust in the city.

Meanwhile, the process in place for handling citizen complaints against the police has slow-walked the matter, bringing to mind the Rev. Martin Luther King’s aphorism that “justice delayed is justice denied.” City council viewed the footage of the violent encounter between the police and Jose Charles in closed session on Monday night with City Attorney Tom Carruthers. According to Figueroa, City Manager Jim Westmoreland has officially backed the police department’s position that officers did nothing wrong.

“I’m not surprised, but I am extremely disappointed,” Garnette said at a press conference at the Beloved Community Center on Monday. “If this case can’t make it, then I don’t know what it will take in our city for city leaders to understand that there’s a problem. This was not a grown man who was in the midst of criminal activity; this was a young man who was with his family at a city-sanctioned event. He wasn’t even in his neighborhood with a group of boys. He was in a downtown city park. And if this can happen to him it can happen to anybody. And we should all be concerned about that. And for the city manager to not see that is pretty distressful.”

Further undermining trust in the city’s mechanism for citizen oversight of the police department, another member of the police complaint review committee resigned on Monday, according to Garnette and Councilwoman Sharon Hightower.

City council members met in closed session for three and a half hours on Monday evening to review the video and deliberate before recessing at 8:30 p.m. They’ll reconvene to continue the closed-session meeting today at 2:30 p.m. The regular meeting of city council scheduled for 5:30 p.m. will be packed by Jose’s supporters. Council members who left the closed-session meeting early on Monday evening said they couldn’t comment without violating state law.

While allowing the release of the video to Carruthers to show to city council in closed session, Superior Court Judge David L. Hall issued an order on April 20 stipulating that “the members of the Greensboro City Council may review and discuss the body-worn camera recordings in closed session. No council member shall discuss, comment on, or disseminate any comment or depiction contained in the body-worn camera recordings in open session of council meetings or to any member of the public.”

Regardless of whether the council members are muzzled by the court order and the state law that undergirds it, the Rev. Nelson Johnson argued at the Beloved Community Center press conference that the people’s elected representatives have the power to solve the problem by bringing a motion at tonight’s meeting.

“Say that ‘we side with the PCRB and all of these charges [against Jose Charles] should be withdrawn,’” Johnson said. “And somebody needs to make a motion… and say, ‘Our motion is that the city manager is instructed to go to the district attorney and say, ‘On behalf of this city, these charges ought to be dropped.’”

UPDATE, 2:25 p.m.: The city has confirmed that two more members of the Greensboro Police Complaint Review Committee have resigned, in addition to Lindy Garnette. The city has declined to release the names of the two members, citing privacy.

UPDATE, TK: The city of Greensboro has released the names of the two members who have recently resigned: Leslie Summers and Jacqueline King.