Greensboro city council sent city staff back to the drawing board on Tuesday afternoon after staff gutted a recommendation from a citizen committee to implement written consent for police searches.

On Tuesday afternoon, city council met for a work session to discuss a written consent policy for searches by police. During the meeting, Assistant City Manager Trey Davis — a former Greensboro police department captain — presented city staff’s recommendations to the council, which deviated from the Greensboro Criminal Justice Advisory Commission’s February recommendation to implement a written consent form for all police consent searches. The city’s recommendations included updating the verbal language that police officers use during consent searches to make sure individuals understand that a search is voluntary. They also recommended conducting a citywide “Know Your Right” campaign. A written consent form was not a part of the city’s recommendation.

According to current Greensboro Police Department policy, officers are required to verbally ask individuals whether or not they can search them or their property. That consent to search must be documented either by a body-worn camera or through a consent-to-search form if the body camera is not on. Officers must then complete an incident report any time consent to search is requested, whether it is granted or denied by the individual.

However, Casey Thomas with Greensboro Rising, says verbal consent isn’t enough, and that an explicit, written consent form should be given to all individuals every time consent to search is requested. Thomas and Kay Brown, a commissioner of GCJAC, say written consent is necessary because although body-worn camera footage may capture verbal consent, the footage is not easily accessible.

“Written consent means that even though we can’t see any video without a court order, it means that we can have proof of whether or not cops are getting affirmative consent to search them,” Thomas said. “Or whether they’re rushing past them and relying on most people not knowing or not asserting their rights during these searches.”

Four out of every five drivers stopped and searched by Greensboro police officers are Black.

That’s the statistic, according to data from the NC Department of Justice, that’s been circulating through city council meetings, activist rallies and media since the discussion around written consent started in the city about a year ago.

“We looked and there were some disparities in how many stops were being conducted with Black folks compared to white folks,” said Brown, a member of the Greensboro Criminal Justice Advisory Commission. “This is an opportunity for people’s rights to be acknowledged and for people to know what they are before they consent to anything.”

Councilwoman Tammi Thurm, who represents District 5, said in an email that she supports “a written consent policy that ensures that our citizens know and understand their rights.” While Thurm did not articulate whether she supports GCJAC’s exact recommendations, she has been one of the most vocal supporters of a written consent-to-search form, along with at-large Councilwoman Michelle Kennedy.

Throughout Tuesday’s meeting both members described the addition of a written consent form as “the right thing to do” and argued that it increases transparency for individuals during interactions with police.

While the council has been discussing this potential change for months, the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in May and the national uprisings that followed brought the issue back to the forefront. Many of those in favor of the written consent policy point to the racial disparities in who gets stopped by Greensboro police and how the form could act as an added layer of police accountability.

However, councilmembers Sharon Hightower of District 1 and Goldie Wells of District 2 opposed the policy, arguing that a piece of paper won’t lead to any broader, systemic changes.

“I don’t think the consent form is going to stop anything,” Wells said. “I think everyone should know their rights, but having them sign a paper is not going to stop [police] from stopping Black folks. It sounds like we almost have a better policy than most places. I don’t see why we need to make that drastic change…. We need to have police that have a change in heart.”

Councilmembers Kennedy and Thurm pushed back on Wells’ sentiments, saying they believe any small changes that could potentially help citizens should be considered.

“No one is saying that this is going to solve everything,” Kennedy said. “This is just one piece of the puzzle, but this piece has to happen. It doesn’t take importance away from everything else.”

According to statewide traffic-stop data published by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice on the Open Data Policing website, Black individuals made up 82 percent of searches by GPD in 2019, compared to 13 percent for white and 3 percent for Latinx drivers. That amounts to a disproportionality rate of double for Black individuals in the city who make up 41 percent of the city’s total population. And while the total number of departmental search counts has been trending downwards for all racial groups since 2017, Thomas said the frequency with which certain racial groups are stopped is still disproportionate to the population, and that a written consent form would help combat that.

In nearby Durham, Thomas points out that after a written consent policy was implemented in October 2014, there was a sharp decline in consent searches. Data from the state’s Department of Justice reflects Thomas’ claim. In 2013, Durham police conducted 1,039 consent searches, but by 2019, the number had decreased to 112 — an 89 percent decrease. However, the number of probable cause searches — which do not require consent — spiked in 2015 with numbers climbing from 934 in 2014 to 1,414 in 2015. Last year, there were 993 probable-cause searches in the Durham. (Data on Open Data Policing shows incomplete data for 2019. Complete data is available on the NC Department of Justice website.)

During the work session, Mayor Nancy Vaughan questioned whether the written consent policy could have caused the increase in probable causes in Durham.

“I do think it’s important to recognize that probable-cause searches have gone up significantly in Durham,” she said. “That can lead to more significant consequences.”

Councilwoman Hightower agreed with Vaughan.

“I don’t want there to be unintended consequences for Black people around this,” she said.

Thomas countered in an interview with TCB that if probable causes increase because of the written consent policy, then the city needs new leadership.

“The police chief brought up in an earlier work session that if police couldn’t get consent from people, for-cause searches would just increase,” Thomas said. “Does that mean the police chief would just allow police to fabricate to get what they want?”

In addition to concerns about how the written consent policy might impact how police go about stopping drivers, city council members also questioned how much an additional form might burden police officers’ workflow.

Chief Brian James said officers are already required to fill out a traffic-stop report and a case report if they conduct a consent search. A written consent form would be an additional piece of paper to keep track of if the policy were changed.

“It’s an extra layer to get a consent search,” he said. “There are already three different ways that consent search is documented.”

Councilman Justin Outling of District 3 pushed back repeatedly, asking for clarification of how exactly another form would burden officers.

“If I install a security alarm, it’s just an extra minute to dispatch it before I leave the house,” he says. “It’s extra work but at the end of the day, it doesn’t affect my workflow.”

Thurm agreed by saying that the current written consent form — which is only used if an officer’s body camera is not on — could be condensed and shortened to be easier to read and that multiple translations of the form could exist on the same piece of paper.

“I think the form should be in multiple languages,” she said. “To stop someone who is not a native speaker who is already scared; I think it’s important for me, just like Miranda rights, that people have rights and they need to know their rights. If we don’t standardize things it leaves room for critical errors.”

About an hour and a half into the meeting, Thurm suggested that the council vote to ask city staff to come up with a policy of written consent that the board can vote on in a future meeting. City Manager David Parrish responded, after a majority of the council voted in favor of Thurm’s suggestion, saying that staff would bring back data and a written consent policy for the council to vote on sometime in September.

On the whole, Kennedy, Thurm and Nancy Hoffmann, along with Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson spoke in favor of a written consent form while Wells, Hightower and Marikay Abuzuaiter spoke against a written form for varying reasons. Outling and Vaughan expressed support of a more transparent and uniform consent search policy but did not say outright whether they were in support of the proposed written consent form.

The city council’s next regular meeting is scheduled for Aug. 18.

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