Homicide finding, video multiply questions about death in custody

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Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan addresses a community meeting as Marcus Smith's parents listen. (photo by Jordan Green)

Questions multiply about the city’s handling of the police-involved death of Marcus Deon Smith in the wake of a medical examiner’s finding of homicide and the city’s release of police body-camera video.

City officials are still scrambling to figure out what to do less than a week after the state medical examiner classified the death of a man hog-tied by Greensboro police officers as a homicide.

Just two days before the release of the autopsy and medical examiner’s investigative report into the death of 38-year-old Marcus Smith, Chief Wayne Scott told Triad City Beat that he believes the Ripp Hobble technique, also known as “hog-tying,” is safer than alternatives such as flexicuffs. Shortly after the homicide finding, Mayor Nancy Vaughan announced that Chief Scott “had issued a special order that the maximum restraint method called the Ripp Hobble, commonly referred to as hog-tying, is no longer being used to tie the feet and hands together. This method had been in place for the last 15 years. The device will only be used to bind feet. The Greensboro Police Department will be exploring new methods for maximum restraint.”

Commenting for a Nov. 20 story in City Beat, Vaughan said she thought city council would likely review the police-body camera video capturing the incident, but said they would probably wait for the release of a report the State Bureau of Investigation, while also encouraging Smith’s family to file a complaint with the Police Community Review Board. Ten days later, after learning about the homicide finding, Chief Scott obtained a court order to release the video. City council members watched it, and the city publicly posted the video online all in the same day.

On Tuesday, Irving Allen, a member of the Police Community Review Committee, said he was glad the video was released before a complaint on the incident came before the committee.

“We were tasked to work with the council, and so far we’ve failed to develop a process that will properly even intake these processes that we’ve been dealing with for several years,” Allen said.

Allen described a non-disclosure agreement that committee members are required to sign before reviewing cases that carries a penalty of up to 20 days in jail for violation.

“We’ve spoken to lawyers who describe it as one of the harshest non-disclosure agreements that they’ve seen,” Allen said. “You’re essentially asking for volunteer citizens to stand up and put their freedom on the line and sign away their right to speak when on the other side we’ve seen false information that would have been presented to us in the same way it was presented to you by the police department.”

In late November, Vaughan refused to respond to a letter from Graham Holt, the family’s lawyer, describing the circumstances of Smith’s death and requesting that council review the video, telling City Beat she wasn’t “going to comment on something Graham described,” adding, “I don’t know that his descriptions are accurate.”

On Tuesday, Vaughan publicly apologized to Holt.

“I understand that that has led to a great deal of frustration, which I regret,” Vaughan said.

The day Smith died, the Greensboro Police Department issued a press release describing him as “a disoriented suicidal subject running in and out of traffic,” adding that he “became combative and collapsed.” The press release made no mention of the officers applying restraints to Smith. During a community meeting on Monday that was attended by Vaughan, along with city council members Michelle Kennedy and Sharon Hightower, Smith’s family members expressed anger and hurt at the characterization, which they said was compounded by the headline generated from the press release, which ran in the News & Record.

“I have concerns about that first press release that was put out,” Vaughan told Smith’s family. “I want answers on why it was said that he was suicidal and dropped to the ground. That obviously was a lie. And I think that has to be answered, too.”

The characterization of Smith as “suicidal” is at least partially supported by the video, which shows Smith running in an out of slow-moving traffic on Church Street. While repeatedly pleading for help and requesting an ambulance, he also says, “I’ll kill myself” and, “I’m gonna kill myself.” Yet, he doesn’t express any motive or means for taking his own life, and also says he fears that others are going to kill him, creating an overall impression of someone profoundly distressed and disoriented.

The word “collapsed” is more contentious, and it’s not clear whether the author of the press release intended for it to describe the moment Smith become unresponsive after being restrained.

Chief Scott used the word in a different context in his narration of the compilation video posted online by the city on Nov. 30.

Referencing Smith’s voluntary decision to sit in the backseat of a patrol car, and later attempting to break out the windows, Scott described officers opening the car door.

“When we do,” Scott said, “[Smith] flees from the car and directly into the arms of an officer, where he collapsed into the roadway.”

Two of the videos posted by the city appear to contradict Scott’s description. One shows an officer taking Smith to the ground after he bursts out of the car. Another shows Smith attempting to stand as a different officer grabs his legs and assists in taking Smith to the ground.

“Those are his words; they are a lie,” YWCA of Greensboro CEO Lindy Perry-Garnette told city council members on Tuesday. “He didn’t flee. He didn’t collapse. Watch the video.”

Official narratives describing Smith’s death after the application of the restraints suggest the officers acted responsibly by quickly rolling Smith on to his side after applying the restraint to him face down. Scott Williams, the special agent in charge of the State Bureau of Investigation for the Northern Piedmont District — who is overseeing the outside investigation of the matter — told City Beat in a Nov. 27 email: “Seconds after the restraint was applied, they rolled him over on his side. As they rolled him over, they asked him if he was okay, and he didn’t respond. They [his] checked pulse, it was faint. They removed the restraint.”

Chief Scott provided a similar narrative in the compilation video.

“You’ll see the officers following our procedures immediately rolling him on his side, where they would adjust the Ripp Hobble and check his condition,” Scott said. “At that time it became readily apparent that he is not responsive.”

Perry-Garnette said in her remarks to city council: “A blatant lie. Watch the video. The man was never rolled on his side until after he quit breathing.”

Two of the videos released by the city show the officers continue to adjust the restraints for about 27 seconds after Smith’s groans subside. Then an officer addresses Smith: “My man, you okay? You still with us?” Another six seconds elapse before the officers turn Smith on his side.

“This chief has stood and publicly lied to you and to this community and to a family,” Perry-Garnette said. “The highest sworn officer in this city has lied. You have to take action.”

The Greensboro Police Department could not be reached for comment for this story.

Among the chorus of people calling for the police chief’s firing on Tuesday, Ed Whitfield gave additional reasons.

“We’re in a situation right now where the chief of police has endorsed activities clearly in violation of the police department’s policy and clearly in violation of the sanctity of life,” Whitfield said. “By lying about it, by not even waiting until the SBI report is complete before returning the officers to duty, I want to say very bluntly that such a person who exercises that poor a judgment has absolutely no business being the chief of police.”

Special Agent in Charge Williams said he hopes to be able to hand over the SBI report on Smith’s death to the Guilford County District Attorney’s office by the end of the week.

Stephen W. Cole, an assistant district attorney, notified Chief Scott in an Oct. 15 letter — six weeks prior to the homicide finding by the state medical examiner: “Based on the information available, and pending the completion of the investigation by the investigation by the SBI, there is no evidence of any criminal liability on the part of the named officers.” The letter was referenced in a Nov. 14 press release from the city issued two hours after a press conference in which Holt first publicly described how Smith was hogtied and his family laid responsibility for his death at the feet of the officers.

On Monday, during a community meeting at Shiloh Baptist Church, Vaughan suggested there was a possibility that the district attorney’s office might revisit the decision. Noting that the initial determination was “pending” completion of the SBI investigation, Vaughan said she believes the district attorney will conduct a “final review.” Assistant District Attorney Cole could not be reached for this story.

While many, including Smith’s family and supporters, are calling for sanctions against the police, Mayor Vaughan and some of her colleagues said they believe the outcome might have been different if the city had better mental-health resources.

Vaughan watched the video on Nov. 30 with fellow city council members Michelle Kennedy, Sharon Hightower and Nancy Hoffmann. Kennedy is the executive director of the Interactive Resource Center, a homeless day center, and knew Smith personally. Due to her professional background, Kennedy has experience working with people experiencing mental health and substance abuse challenges. Based on Kennedy’s experience, the mayor said, “The city is going to embed mental-health workers in our police department. These professionals will be new hires who will be specially trained to assist police with their encounters with people suffering from mental-health or drug-addiction issues to help defuse and deescalate negative interactions. They will also provide follow up and treatment options.”

Councilman Justin Outling questioned the cost of the initiative.

“What is a life worth?” Vaughan responded.

Councilwoman Marikay Abuzuaiter offered the clearest defense of the officers.

“I really can’t judge in this that the officers did wrong,” she said.

Abuzuaiter’s remarks drew angry interruptions.

“They murdered someone,” one woman in the audience protested.

Marcus Smith’s mother, Mary, used the same word.

“Greensboro Police Department murdered my son,” she said on Monday. “He was the most compassionate, loving, kind person — smart, intelligent — person that you will ever, ever meet. And if anybody in here’s a school teacher, if he was your student, you would love him.”

Mary Smith said her son will be particularly missed at the Interactive Resource Center.

“A lot of those guys over there depended on Marcus for smiles, a haircut, a conversation, a joke, whatever,” she said. “If Marcus had it, you had it. He will truly be missed in our lives. Not only was he special in Greensboro, he was special in our community. At school, he was a superstar basketball player, a poet, a writer, kind son. Any mother would loved for him to be her son.”

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