City council members to vote on whether to conduct independent investigation into death of Marcus Deon Smith

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Marcus Deon Smith's sister, Kim Suber, holds up a poster with pictures of Smith in a casket, during the rally before Monday's city council meeting. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

Members of city council agreed to have a future vote on whether to conduct an independent investigation into the death of Marcus Deon Smith during Monday evening’s council meeting.

Cheers erupted from the crowd as two city council members made and seconded a motion to open an independent investigation into the death of Marcus Deon Smith, who was killed after being hogtied by Greensboro police in September 2018, at Monday’s city council meeting.

At-large Councilwoman Michelle Kennedy, who knew Smith personally through her position as executive director of the Interactive Resource Center, called for the motion about halfway into the meeting, saying she’d like to ask the city manager to call for an independent investigation into Smith’s death. Councilwoman Yvonne Johnson, at large, seconded the motion.

“I think that it is important that there is a resolution and we aren’t any closer today to a resolution than we were when this happened,” Kennedy said. “This conversation keeps coming to our feet. I believe that the only way we get to some different place on this is moving forward to a resolution…. If there’s not trust at this level, then an independent investigation into this should bring that level of understanding.”

While the motion was brought forth by Kennedy, she and others on the council, stated multiple times during the evening that votes can’t be taken in town hall meetings and that the item would be put on the agenda for the next meeting scheduled for April 16.

Zalonda Woods, a member of the Homeless Union of Greensboro and the Justice for Marcus Coalition, spoke during the public comments section and presented a petition with more than 100,000 signatures calling for the firing of police Chief Wayne Scott.

“Marcus Deon was a live, breathing, black man that deserved to live,” Woods said. “He did not deserve the treatment that he received. He was asking the police for help. The police relations here is bad, as an understatement. Hold this department accountable. Change the narrative of Greensboro.”

Several members of the council spoke after Kennedy, including District 1 representative Sharon Hightower.

“If you will recall, several months ago, I asked for that independent investigation and it was ignored,” Hightower said. “I hope it’s not ignored this time. I agree with you. We have to find a way to move on, move beyond. We have to right wrongs and that’s something I think people are asking us to do.”

Mayor Nancy Vaughan said it’s not clear what form an independent investigation would take.

“The city manager and I have had discussions over the last couple of months on what even an independent investigation would look like,” she said. “We haven’t really been able to come up with what an independent body would be acceptable by anyone. What would an independent body be? And that is something that I think we would have to talk about. We are not prepared at this point. This is something that just came up. We don’t know what this independent body would look like this evening.”

As Vaughan spoke about how Smith’s case has affected her since he died last September, many audience members angrily spoke over her, pointing to Smith’s mother and sister who were in attendance. After Councilwoman Goldie Wells, of District 2, implored the community members to let Vaughan speak, one woman stood up shouting, “We have listened to her speak since September! You have silenced people in this city since September! This man is dead!”

Shortly afterwards, Councilman Justin Outling, of District 3, left the chamber and did not return for the remainder of the session.

The Rev. Wesley Morris, the pastor at the Faith Community Church and a staff member of the Beloved Community Center, walked over to calm the woman, whom Vaughan and Wells asked to be removed from the chamber. Morris and several other community members held a rally before the city council meeting, in front of the Melvin Municipal Building where organizers spoke out against the city council and Chief Scott. Many in attendance were faith leaders, who along with Morris, submitted a letter to city council on March 28 listing six points of action that include firing Scott, ending police coverups, conducting an independent investigation, apologizing to victims of police violence and compensating them, establishing an independent citizen’s police review board, training police officers in de-escalation tactics and providing mental health workers for the police department.

Several dozens members of the community attended the rally that took place before the city council meeting on Monday. A group of eight ministers signed a letter urging council members and Mayor Nancy Vaughan to fire police chief Wayne Scott amongst other demands. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

While Vaughan said council members would talk among themselves to figure out how to conduct an independent investigation before the next meeting, Kennedy told community members that if an investigation were to take place, that they would have to accept the results, whatever they may be.

“I do want to say, that I hope that if this is something that this council agrees to do… and the city manager agrees to do, that we are able to come to a position that whatever the outcome is of any type of investigation, it will be understood and accepted by all of us,” Kennedy said.

Later in the evening, Kennedy reiterated her position.

“There is an important part of this that is if there is an independent investigation, it needs to be done by a body that… everyone in the community can accept as independent,” she said. “It does no good to have an independent investigation if following that, the community says, ‘Well that wasn’t really independent.’ So, there is a process in that part that has to be determined.”

Councilwoman Tammi Thurm stated that the length of the investigation, if the council were to approve one, would be up to the independent body.

Morris, who referenced the letter, signed by 12 different ministers and approximately 200 members of different congregations during the public comments section, pointed to an independent investigation conducted by the city of Charlottesville, Va., following the white supremacist Unite the Right rally in 2017, that exposed the misconduct of the city’s police department. After reading two points from the document, Morris noted that the city of Greensboro hired Parker Poe, a Raleigh law firm, to draft an alternative ordinance after members of the Homeless Union of Greensboro challenged the unconstitutional panhandling ordinance passed in April 2018.

“I’m sure you have consultants in your ear left and right, on every single issue,” Morris said. “It is not something that you can’t do. It is something that you can do.”

The independent Charlottesville report took months to complete and was led by former federal prosecutor Tim Heaphy of the Hunton and Williams law firm in Richmond, Va. The report found that unprepared police and government failures compounded the violence during the rally. Shortly after the report was released, Charlottesville police Chief Alfred Thomas resigned.

“Is there any justice that’s gonna be done?” asked Kim Suber, Smith’s sister, towards the end of the meeting.

“We are tired of wondering,” continued Mary Smith, Smith’s mother. “We’ve been wondering since September. We can’t go to bed at night.”