by Eric Ginsburg
A Greensboro City Council subcommittee is planning to recommend changes to the police complaint-review process, but a flare-up at last week’s meeting over one woman’s complaint highlights the depth of the existing division.
Tensions rose at a Greensboro City Council subcommittee meeting last week as residents and the police department clashed over practices, police oversight and whether a specific audiotape is public record.
The discord emanated from Lori Walton’s frustrations with the police department and the complaint-review process. Walton, who says her sons were missing for hours on a school bus taken out of the county and that a school employee sexually assaulted one of them, attacked the department’s handling of the investigation.
Walton filed a subsequent complaint about how she was treated in a meeting with the department’s professional-standards division and Police Attorney Jim Clark. She said police are “skilled at covering up their wrongdoings” and should not be allowed to “referee a game in which their team is competing.”
Her secondary complaint hinges in part on how she says Clark treated her in the meeting. Walton said last week that the police attorney “bullied” her and walked out of the meeting. She added that the department later refused to provide her with a copy of an audio recording they made of the meeting.
Chief Ken Miller and Clark responded to an onslaught of criticism from Walton, citing personnel records and state law about juvenile records. Clark said he walked out after she hurled insults at police personnel until he couldn’t tolerate it anymore. Miller said that her complaint “never connected with the [complaint-review committee] process” even though she tried to appeal it to the body because it pertained to a criminal investigation and not police conduct.
“We’re not trying to hide anything,” he said.
Lewis Pitts, a Greensboro civil rights lawyer, fired back that the department was attempting to obscure the issue by conflating Walton’s separate complaints about the initial incidents and later how department employees treated her.
“You just heard the greatest spin possible… from the very folks who own and control the CRC,” Pitts said. “She initiated the process to get her case heard before the CRC.”
Pitts said that the department’s response was so garbled that council members likely had a difficult time understanding it, asking them to imagine how hard it would be for complaint-review committee members or the general public to comprehend.
Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson asked what Walton would need to do to acquire the audiotape of her meeting with the department. Clark initially said it would require a court order, but seemed to confuse many people in the room with his response.
“There are portions of it that certainly could be released, including the conversation I had with her,” he said.
Councilman Jamal Fox was one of the people in the room who couldn’t follow Clark’s response.
“Jim, can you give it to me straight, because I didn’t get that at all,” he said.
Mayor Nancy Vaughan asked for the tape to be provided if possible. Clark did not respond to a request for comment before press time.
To people who attended the meeting seeking reform, the entire exchange and scenario underscored their conviction that the existing process is illogical or unduly influenced by the police rather than serving the public’s best interest. Some attendees, including Rabbi Fred Guttmann of Temple Emanuel, expressed hope that a compromise could be reached and progress made. Others left the meeting less optimistic, jaded by Walton’s version of events.
Michael Roberto, a former human-relations commissioner, was likely among them.
“This is an indictment of the structure,” Roberto said, addressing the council subcommittee. “You must act immediately to change this structure. We must be able to get to the truth here. This system has to go. It is kaput. It is broken. It does not work.”
After several public meetings, council members are poised to suggest a few alterations to the complaint-review committee, though it isn’t immediately clear how Walton’s grievance will be addressed.
Vaughan, who chairs the CRC enhancement subcommittee, said at the meeting that subcommittee members would like to alter how committee members are appointed, taking the function out of the hands of the city’s human relations commission and putting it directly under council’s purview. Reform proponents welcomed the suggested change, urging council to go further.
Roberto encouraged the subcommittee to change the “old boys network in place” and put the appointments in the hands of council.
“I implore you, take this thing immediately out of the human-relations commission,” Roberto said. “What I am saying is don’t take it under consideration; move expeditiously on this.”
Advocates of the change said it would be preferable for council members to appoint review board members rather than the current process — which would appear to be more insulated from politicization — because council members are more directly accountable to the public.
Vaughan explained that the subcommittee’s role is to make recommendations for the full council to vote on, and Johnson added that she thinks it’s time for a council work session on possible changes.
Critics of the current process said it is laden with police influence, suggesting at the meeting that council appointments and greater community engagement would help instill trust in the process and create a more independent body.
In order to do that, Clark said the council would technically need to create a new structure to which residents could appeal their police grievances if they didn’t like GPD’s internal determination. The existing complaint-review committee also hears complaints about non-police issues including fair housing and would need to stay in place for that function, Clark said.
Vaughan said she is fine with that. Council members Tony Wilkins and Fox, who are also on the committee, remained relatively quiet at last week’s meeting.
Police accountability advocates have already created what they are calling an “interim citizens’ police review board” to hear community complaints and gather information, but it isn’t sanctioned by the city and has no legal authority. Pitts said the community-driven panel began last year in response to a lack of city action.
“Citizens have been seeking a way… to air those grievances,” he said. “We’ve got a structure that seems to have a lot of problems. There seems to be process where police cut off complaints at the knees.”
The Rev. Nelson Johnson, the director of the Beloved Community Center and a longtime proponent for enhanced police oversight, said there have been “major unresolved problems that have plagued this city for decades,” adding that the interim board was formed last year before the process seemed to be progressing.
“We are convinced that gathering the stories… is very important,” Johnson said. “There are people that are not going to come to you. There’s a history here, and we have to deal with that.”
That process began before the new council was elected in the fall, which decided early on to empanel a subcommittee to consider strengthening the review process. Pitts said some hope to see the grassroots panel incorporated into the city’s reform efforts, but Vaughan said she is skeptical.
“This would exceed what the legislature would allow us to do,” she said. “My concern is that we don’t even have the ability to give you what you’re asking for because of legislation.”
Despite Clark’s recommendation otherwise, Vaughan said she is inclined to support a review committee with specific professions represented to provide balance. Her leaning is in line with suggestions from those who would like to see change, but the reforms won’t be enough to satisfy some of the critics present last week.
The Rev. Johnson proposed community meetings across the city and a wider engagement with universities, churches and neighborhoods. He said the entire process needs restructuring rather than just the appointment process to deal with “circles and more circles of police influence built into this process.”
While Johnson welcomed the possible changes, he urged council to develop a longer-term solution as well.
“We go through this every seven or eight years… because we do patchwork and we don’t actually fix stuff,” he said.