City draws supporters in quest to lift gag order on police video

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Rev. Nelson Johnson speaks during a press conference to highlight a gag order on police body-camera video capturing an incident involving Zared Jones (center). (photo by Jordan Green)

A dozen local groups commit to filing a friend-of-court brief supporting an anticipated appeal by the city of Greensboro to a legal order that prevents council members from commenting on police body-camera video of a controversial arrest.

A consortium of Greensboro civic groups, pastors, academics and newspapers came forward on Tuesday to back the city of Greensboro in a legal appeal to lift a gag order preventing city council members from commenting on police body-camera video capturing an incident of alleged racial profiling.

In February, Guilford County Superior Court Judge Susan Bray ruled that city council members may view police body-camera video documenting police treatment of Zared Jones, but prohibited them from commenting on what they saw in the video. Jones, a 29-year-old nursing assistant who is black, was visiting downtown Greensboro on a Friday evening in September 2016 along with three friends when the incident occurred. The city had a Nov. 1 deadline to file an appeal to the gag order.

While civic groups announced plans to file a friend-of-court brief in support of the city’s anticipated appeal to the gag order, council members are seeking to enlist support from other North Carolina cities for the appeal. The city council voted unanimously to appeal the ruling.

Councilwoman Michelle Kennedy, an at-large member, recently emailed a request to Mayor Steve Schewel asking the city of Durham to file a friend-of-court brief in support of the city of Greensboro’s appeal. Kennedy said Schewel told her he believes Durham City Council will support the request.

“The consensus of this council is we need to be able to speak about what we see,” Kennedy said. “That’s part of our role as representatives of the people. This is an issue of transparency and democracy that’s not lost on any of the folks who are supporting this. If there were a brief submitted to support us from Asheville and Durham, that speaks to something that is an issue across North Carolina. We need to address it. If the police acted in the best way, we want to say that. If there’s an issue, we need to be able to address it.”

Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan told Triad City Beat she is reaching out to other North Carolina mayors to seek support, although she declined to specify the cities.

The groups supporting the city’s appeal of the gag order include Triad City BeatCarolina Peacemaker, a weekly newspaper serving the African-American community; and Roch Smith Jr., who curates Greensboro101.com. Among the civic groups supporting the appeal are the League of Women Voters of the Piedmont Triad, Beloved Community Center, the Homeless Union of Greensboro, Democracy Greensboro and the Guilford County Anti-Racism Alliance. The list of signatories also includes faculty members from UNCG, NC A&T University, Guilford College, Elon University and Greensboro College. The Pulpit Forum, a group of African-American clergy and St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, are also joining the friend-of-the-court brief, along with SOI Community Play All Stars Alliance.

“The city’s brief is challenging the ruling that the court can make a law that would prevent the city council from talking about what they see their employees doing on videotape,” said the Rev. Nelson Johnson, the retired pastor of Faith Community Church. “We think that that has reached the point of absurdity. How can they be responsible to the public that they represent without being able to share with the public what they are looking at?”

Triad City Beat publisher Brian Clarey said in a prepared statement that the newspaper “has a strong interest in seeing that no gag order is unconstitutionally imposed on Greensboro City Council banning them from discussing what they see and think about Greensboro police conduct contained in police body-camera or dash-camera recordings. Any such gag order interferes with the public’s right to know and the newspaper’s right to report about matters of fundamental public interest.”

The local groups supporting the city’s appeal are also calling on city council to watch the entire set of police videos surrounding Jones’ encounter with the police. Graham Holt, who is Jones’ lawyer, said he sent a confidential letter to city council after viewing the videos. Holt and Jones, like members of city council, are bound by a gag order pertaining to the contents of the video.

“I described in the letter what’s on the body-camera footage,” Holt said during a press conference at the Beloved Community Center on Tuesday. “That puts them on notice about what happened. Therefore they are under obligation to take action.”

Jones was arrested and charged with second-degree trespassing and misdemeanor intoxicated and disruptive after asking Greensboro police for assistance when he was thrown out of a bar on McGee Street. Jones’ charges were eventually dismissed. He filed a complaint with the police alleging that he and his friends were racially profiled and harassed when they arrived downtown, and that police escalated the situation, leading to charges against one of Jones’ friends of assault on a law enforcement officer.

“What happened to these young men is unquestionably unconstitutional and clearly a violation of their civil rights,” Holt said.

In November 2017, the police department’s professional standards division cleared the officers of wrongdoing. The division commander found officers “did not make a bias-based arrest in their encounter with Mr. Jones in Sept. 10, 2016. Likewise, the applicable chain of command determined the evidence available to the officers at the time of Mr. Jones’ arrest established probable cause for the arrest, and Mr. Jones’ arrest was therefore lawful.”

Although two years have passed since the incident took place and a year since he filed a complaint, Jones said he’s committed to vindicating his name and holding the officers accountable.

“I really don’t get discouraged,” he said. “The more time that passes, it intensifies the desire to get the results. My friend was Tased for being downtown. Metal prongs had to be removed from his back. He was Tased for being black and being downtown. It’s completely unacceptable.”

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