Potential police reforms raise hopes, concerns

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by Eric Ginsburg

Greensboro is considering a resolution aimed at protecting residents from police overreach similar to one adopted in Charlotte, but the recent purchase of a long-range acoustic device is causing some confusion about the city’s intentions.

 

When Robert Dawkins heard that the Greensboro Police Department bought a long-range acoustic device, or LRAD, it immediately raised a red flag for him.

Dawkins doesn’t live in Greensboro — he’s the statewide organizer with a group called SAFE Coalition NC “working to build public trust and accountability in NC law enforcement” — but he’s seen a LRAD deployed first-hand.

The device includes several functions, one of which is a “deterrent tone” designed to force a crowd to disperse.

“It’s piercing noise that makes your ears ring, to the point of bleeding in some situations,” Dawkins claimed in a recent interview.

The department purchased an LRAD in July 2015 but didn’t publicly announce its acquisition until Nov. 2, 2015. And that process, maybe more than the purchase itself, is what concerns Dawkins.

In early June, SAFE Coalition NC reached out to the city of Greensboro with a draft ordinance called “Local Civil Rights Restoration Act” that proposes numerous city policies around police surveillance, profiling based on race, religions and political speech, transparency, data collection and immigration enforcement, among other things. The coalition first proposed the act to Charlotte, and the Queen City’s city council adopted a version of the changes last summer.

The 10-page draft ordinance is sprawling, including clauses about free speech zones, police checkpoints, mass arrests, undercover infiltration and use of force. But one point towards the end stands out given Greensboro’s purchase of a $13,000 LRAD device.

“Any purchase by law enforcement authorities of equipment for crowd control purposes (including but not limited to tasers, tear gas, pepper spray, and Long Range Audio Devices (LRADS)) shall require prior notice to the public, a meaningful opportunity to comment, and the affirmative approval of the city council,” the proposal reads.

The Greensboro Police Department had been discussing the possibility of acquiring an LRAD for almost a year by the time Greensboro City Manager Jim Westmoreland received the draft ordinance upon request from the Charlotte city manager’s office on June 2.

But on June 19, Chief Wayne Scott hadn’t yet been convinced that the device was worth the cost, according to internal emails obtained by Triad City Beat. Shortly thereafter, a few weeks after Westmoreland had forwarded Scott the draft ordinance, Scott did approve the purchase of an LRAD 300x available at a discounted rate. The department finalized its buy in July using operational funds from the new fiscal year.

Greensboro hadn’t made any commitment to specific provisions in the suggested ordinance at the time — and it still hasn’t — but the decision to buy an LRAD without input from the council or public concerns Dawkins.

“It was surprising to me when they bought LRAD,” he said. “That’s troublesome. They’ve come to the table; we’ve been talking about things that we could do… At the same time, they turn around and buy this noise equipment.”

In the department’s November announcement for the device, it emphasized that an LRAD has numerous functions that will enable police to communicate more effectively across long distances, helping in situations ranging from a missing person to a barricaded suspect.

Dawkins said city staff had expressed interest in pursuing aspects of the ordinance and acted open towards community meetings on the matter. But a major focus of the proposed Local Civil Rights Restoration Act is demilitarization of the police, and if the city is serious about reform, the LRAD acquisition is “perplexing” and somewhat contradictory, Dawkins said. He’s concerned that the city might be committed to dialogue, but not implementing change.

“We’re not seeing it translate yet into actual reform,” he said.

But that change may be coming. Before Dawkins’ coalition reached out, the city was already reviewing its policies and directives “with the intention of making improvements where needed,” city spokesperson Donnie Turlington said via email, and “embrace the opportunity as a way of building community confidence.” He said staff could have recommendations related to the proposed ordinance ready for city council’s review as early as February.

Turlington said “there are definite intentions to propose some form of civil liberties actions on our end,” later adding that “in general, many of the provisions of the Charlotte resolution already exist in [Greensboro police] policies or laws which directly control enforcement” but that the city is determining where it could “supplement or clarify existing GPD policies and decide which of the provisions should be adopted as policy by GPD to clarify or improve its practices.”

Dawkins said that on the whole, the statewide coalition, which includes organizations like the ACLU of North Carolina, has been satisfied with Greensboro’s willingness to meet and discuss potential reforms. The group’s point-person on the ground for Greensboro is the Rev. Nelson Johnson of the Beloved Community Center, who has been meeting regularly with Mayor Nancy Vaughan and other community leaders to discuss police reforms, Dawkins said. Because of that ongoing dialogue, Dawkins said the coalition has been hopeful as it awaits potential reforms.

Johnson couldn’t be reached for an interview and neither could Vaughan, but the mayor said via email that she only recalled “a brief conversation” about the proposed ordinance.

“I’m surprised it’s coming up so soon,” she wrote. “I don’t know that anyone is aware. I wasn’t until you mentioned it, except for a brief mention from staff.”

But despite Dawkins’ concerns and Vaughan lacking substantive information about the ordinance, the city didn’t wait until recently to delve into the matter. In an Aug. 28 email to Johnson, Dawkins, Westmoreland and Scott, Assistant City Manager Wesley Reid provided a comparison of the ordinance with existing city policy. The review, conducted by Greensboro police Attorney Jim Clark, found that “many of the provisions of the Charlotte Resolution already exist in GPD policies or laws which directly control law enforcement,” Reid wrote.

 

Civil Rights Resolution Comparison

“I have asked GPD to develop a resolution to be reviewed at a future public safety committee meeting and then for full council consideration,” he wrote in the email.

The committee, a subset of city council, has yet to review the ordinance.

Clark’s review notes that existing policy is more comprehensive than what is suggested in a few places, including a section prohibiting arbitrary profiling. Other practices the proposed ordinance discourages are already prohibited, such as citizenship status profiling, Clark wrote. On some items, Clark wrote “substantially similar provisions.”

But on others, such as one about the confiscation of recording equipment designed to protect people who are documenting police actions, he simply wrote “no equivalent.”

 

Daniel Wirtheim contributed reporting to this piece.