At a forum designed to introduce and explain Greensboro’s Police Community Review Board to the public, residents question the effectiveness and authority of the relatively new body as part of a larger struggle for police accountability.
In her opening remarks at a Greensboro Police Community Review Board forum last week, Councilwoman Marikay Abuzuaiter emphasized that the new board’s members are independent of city council and selected by the human relations commission chair. Not long after, Human Relations Director Love Crossling set out to bust several “myths” around the review board — created earlier this year — beginning with the false idea that the board never disagrees with city staff or the police department and isn’t an independent body.
But that’s only part of the truth.
Activists have criticized the city’s review process for complaints about police misconduct, with some arguing for a completely autonomous and independent body. That’s part of the reason the police community review board formed earlier this year, breaking off from the city’s complaint review committee that hears residents’ complaints on a variety of subjects. Given the context, it isn’t surprising to hear Abuzuaiter and Crossling stressing the board’s independence, but their remarks overlooked a few crucial facts.
It’s true that the human relations commission chair, in this case VF Corp. employee Zac Engle, appoints the members of the police community review board. Engle chose from a list of names provided by city council members — about 35 people this time around — and selected four to serve on the board, Human Relations Supervisor Allen Hunt said. The remaining five members were chosen from the human relations commission, themselves appointed to their original post by city council, Hunt confirmed.
In that sense, there is a level of independence in the selection process, but it’s hardly devoid of influence from city council.
And it might not help the “myth” Crossling aimed to bust that board member DJ O’Brien, who was nominated by Councilman Justin Outling, is a partner at Brooks Pierce law firm where Outling works. The city also hires the firm for various legal work.
None of these facts mean that the new police review board is in the bag for the police department or that it won’t rule in favor of residents who file grievances against the department or its officers. Indeed, if anything, the tone of last week’s community meeting leaned toward a desire for reform and accountability, with board members saying they’ve repeatedly encouraged the police department to address broader issues such as mental health training in addition to the specifics of a given case.
Board member Lindy Perry-Garnette, a human relations commissioner who serves as the CEO of the YWCA Greensboro, drove that point home while hosting a Q&A session later in the event. Speaking from the stage at the Greensboro Historical Museum on Oct. 5, Perry-Garnette said the board has “lots of concerns that there are systemic issues,” mentioned her belief in social justice and referenced the recent Dejuan Yourse case without naming it as she talked about officers sometimes unnecessarily escalating interactions with the public.
Prompted by a question from activist Irving Allen, O’Brien said the board will look at deeper policy issues such as promotions and use of force, something Allen and others say is necessary. In response to a question from Mark Cummings — who is running for district court judge — about the board’s ability to view police body camera footage in light of a new state law limiting its release, O’Brien also said he would make it known if the city ever stopped doing what it could to put relevant video in the board’s hands.
Ed Cobbler, a former Greensboro police officer and human relations commissioner, chairs the newly impaneled board. Cobbler, a white man, and Vice-Chair Jacquelyn King, a black woman, are the only two holdovers from the former complaint review committee, Hunt said. The other seven members, four of them black, are new.
It’s a diverse group, and not just in terms of race. Tom Phillips is a former city council member, Sallie Hayes-Williams is part of the board of the International Civil Rights Center & Museum, Michael Franklin is an ordained minister, Moussa Issifou works in NC A&T University’s English department and Leslie Summers played an active role in implementing the city’s new participatory budgeting program.
At the meeting, the board members repeatedly said that they bring different perspectives to the table and certainly don’t always agree. And the board does make independent determinations from the city or police department, sometimes kicking cases back to the police chief for review. From there, cases can bounce up to City Manager Jim Westmoreland if the chief disagrees with the board, Crossling said. Speaking at the meeting, Westmoreland said he takes the board’s determinations very seriously, adding that the public plays an important role in exposing issues and identifying ways for the city to communicate better.
The smattering of people at the forum last week included state Sen. Gladys Robinson, who rallied people to the cause of Ashley Buchanan, a Bennett College student accused of assaulting and resisting a Greensboro officer in 2013 but who was found not guilty. Councilman Jamal Fox, Councilwoman Sharon Hightower and Bill Davis — a public defender running for a different district court judge seat — also attended, with Davis commenting during the Q&A that he would also like to see the board consider deeper policy issues.
Speaking from the stage last week, board members did the best to assure attendees that if they didn’t believe they could be effective, they wouldn’t be volunteering their time. But given the abiding mistrust of the police in some quarters of the city, as displayed at a recent council special meeting and at countless forums in recent years, whether residents will grow to trust the board and its members remains to be seen.