Judge: City council can’t talk about police video of downtown altercation

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Zared Jones, a 29-year-old nursing assistant, waits outside the Boiler Room on Sept. 10, 2016.

A Guilford County superior court judge ruled today that city council members may not make public statements about footage from police video capturing an incident in downtown Greensboro in which a young, black man has accused the police of harassment and racial profiling.

Zared Jones, a 29-year-old nursing assistant, filed a complaint last year alleging that members of the Greensboro Police Department’s downtown bike patrol surrounded him and three friends, all of whom are black, in front of Cheesecake’s by Alex on South Elm Street, and later harassed them after Jones was thrown out a bar on McGee Street and escalated the tension, leading to arrests.

An internal investigation into the Sept. 10, 2016 incident by the police department concluded that officers acted lawfully, rejecting Jones’ accusation that the arrests exhibited bias. Jones appealed the decision to the Greensboro Police Community Review Committee, a panel of citizens under the human relations commission. The committee has reviewed the police-body camera video, and the committee co-chairs have signed a letter with the committee’s determination as to whether they agree with the police findings. Allen Hunt, the city’s primary complaint officer, said the city sent the letter by certified mail to Jones’ attorney, Graham Holt, on Monday morning. Hunt said he is not allowed to disclose the panel’s finding.

Greensboro City Council has instructed its legal counsel to go to court and seek a waiver allowing them to comment publicly on the video. In the past, city council members have refrained from reviewing police body-camera video until after the police complaint review board completed its process. In addition to the police body-worn video, which is tightly controlled by state law, there is also video taken by a member of the public capturing the arrests on McGee Street that was posted on YouTube.

Councilwoman Michelle Kennedy told Triad City Beat that council members hoped to obtain an order from a judge allowing them to comment publicly in place before they review the video.

“We felt strongly that we have an obligation to transparency,” Kennedy said. “It doesn’t serve the public if we review something, but cannot speak about it. For me, it’s important that we get that ruling before we view it so there’s no question about why we’re asking for the right to speak on it. If we were to watch a video and say, ‘It was very clear there was no evidence of misconduct,’ or, ‘It was very clear that there was evidence of misconduct, in order to represent the public we need to be able to say that we’re not making the request based on the content of a particular video. It’s not a slanted viewpoint based on, this looks good for the GPD, or this doesn’t look good for the GPD.”

Superior Court Judge Susan Bray didn’t see it that way.

“I’m not going to entertain that motion if they haven’t even watched the video,” Bray said on Monday. Rising from the bench as attorneys attempted to persuade her to reconsider, Bray continued: “It wasn’t a priority for them. I think that’s ridiculous.”

Assistant City Attorney Rosetta Davidson, who represented the city, told Bray: “They absolutely want to watch it. It’s not a question of ‘do we watch it’; it’s a question of, ‘If we watch it, can we talk about it?’ They want clarification from the court.”

Reached after the hearing, Kennedy said until she has an opportunity to confer with staff in the city attorney’s office, she was reluctant to say anything except that she was disappointed.

Graham Holt, the attorney who represents Zared Jones and Clifton Ruffin — who was part of the group that was allegedly harassed by the police — filed two identical motions asking the court to release the video to his clients for preservation. The city also filed a motion asking for whatever the court was willing to provide to Holt’s clients. Judge Bray turned down all three.

Amiel Rossabi, a private attorney argued on behalf of the 10 officers, including Sgt. Steven Kory Flowers and Officer Samuel Alvarez, who are subject to the complaint. Rossabi said he is representing the individual officers free of charge and is not working through the Greensboro Police Officers Association. While Rossabi argued for the officers, two attorneys from the Greensboro Police Attorney’s office monitored the hearing but did not speak to the judge. Rossabi argued for suppressing the video.

“I understand the city council members’ position that they should be able to say, ‘I saw this, I saw that,’ but as far as the police officers are concerned this matter is over,” Rossabi said.

“I know there’s a benefit for the city council to say, ‘The police did everything right,’ but some people will never believe it, so really there’s no benefit to releasing it,” he added, as members of the progressive group Democracy Greensboro sat in the court chambers.

Previously, Judge Bray ordered the limited release of police body-camera video taken at 315 S. Elm St., the address for Cheesecakes by Alex, so it could be reviewed by the police community review board. According to Holt, the police have said the footage was erased.

“That would show my clients being surrounded by the police and questioned as soon as they arrived down there,” Holt said in an interview after the hearing. “It would show them being interrogated for no reason and being asked, ‘What are you doing down here?’”

While Holt said that while his primary interest is in preserving the remaining police body camera video for his clients, he would also like to see it released to the public. But since Judge Bray turned down his motions outright, he didn’t have an opportunity to argue for wider release.

“I think that first and foremost the people should know what’s going on,” Holt said. “Body-worn cameras were given to the police to protect the citizens from injustice and to protect the police from frivolous accusations. If the people can’t see it, then it’s meaningless.

Davidson told Holt that once she briefs City Attorney Tom Carruthers on the order, she anticipates that city council will hold a special closed session to discuss next steps. City council could go ahead and watch the video, and then file a motion at a later date seeking permission for members to speak publicly on the video, she said.

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Video captured by one of Zared Jones’ friends on a cell phone shows a confusing scene outside the Boiler Room in downtown Greensboro on Sept. 10, 2016.

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