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Amid protests and calls to defund the police, law enforcement leaders in the limelight

GREENSBORO — In February, shortly after he took office, Greensboro Police Chief Brian James envisioned having his officers spend time walking through neighborhoods, getting to know the people they’re tasked with protecting.

“Hopefully it’ll be warm in a month, you know the days get longer, and that will give us some great opportunities to go out in communities and actually talk to people and find out what’s going on,” James said. “And really, if nothing else, just build up some trust.”

Less than a month later, the novel coronavirus sank its teeth into the state, forcing the new police chief to cancel the remaining community meetings he had scheduled throughout the city.

And as he and other law enforcement leaders scrambled to institute new sanitation procedures to protect both officers and the public from the highly contagious disease, another tragedy occurred — the killing of George Floyd.

Five days later, Greensboro police officers in riot gear were facing angry protesters just blocks away from James’ office. A few threw rocks at officers, others vandalized cars and businesses and looted stores. The city soon imposed a weeklong citywide curfew to curb further destruction.

This year has challenged law enforcement leaders like James with a double-menace: the new coronavirus and age-old racism.

And the former is complicating efforts to address the latter, law enforcement leaders say. Social distancing has made informal in-person conversations difficult for officers and the communities they serve.

“We gotta figure out how to get back outside of those cars because I think community policing is the key to everything, especially right now,” James said in a July 6 “Coffee with the Sheriff” YouTube video with Guilford County Sheriff Danny Rogers.

Rogers agreed, saying he believes “going through the community, and meeting people in different parts of the community, gives them an opportunity that allows their voices to be heard.”

Both leaders are forming advisory panels. Rogers is forming a panel with representatives from various backgrounds to express concerns and make suggestions. James is looking at forming a faith advisory board, partnering with clergy in the community who may have a better rapport with residents, he said in the video.

James was interviewed by the News & Record in February, but declined a second interview earlier this month.

Greensboro Rising

But community policing and advisory groups aren’t enough, critics say.

The activist group Greensboro Rising has released a 10-item list of demands to the city of Greensboro. Making amends to the family of Marcus Smith tops the list.

The 38-year-old man died in 2018 after Greensboro police officers restrained him by binding his hands and feet behind his back. Smith’s family is suing Guilford County, the city of Greensboro, eight officers and two paramedics, alleging they violated the homeless man’s constitutional rights by improperly restraining him and failing to treat his medical issues.

The city and county recently lost a motion to delay the lawsuit.

Citing the ongoing lawsuit, James would not publicly comment on the Smith’s death.

Among Greensboro Rising’s other demands are greater transparency and more data-sharing from police, eliminating arrests for marijuana possession, treating homeless, LGBTQ and gender nonconforming people with dignity, and eliminating chokeholds.

Use of chokeholds

In June, James announced policy changes he’s implemented to address some of the concerns.

They included specifically banning chokeholds, which apply pressure on the windpipe and restrict breathing.

“Those methods were never authorized,” James said, adding that the new language was to “ensure that that language is clear.”

Other law enforcement officials also said they don’t use the controversial tactic.

Rogers said his deputies are not trained to use chokeholds, though there is no specific ban on the procedure.

Rogers said he wouldn’t rule out its use under certain circumstances. “If somebody is getting the best of them, and that’s the only way I can get you off of me, then guess what, I’m going to do I need to do to get you off of me.

“People are going to defend themselves, whether it’s a citizen or law enforcement,” Rogers said.

High Point police Chief Ken Shultz told the city’s public safety committee that his department has banned chokeholds for 31 years.

The department’s policy states that “any compression of the neck that restricts a person’s airflow is prohibited unless deadly force would be authorized.”

Shultz, who retires Aug. 1, declined through a spokesperson to speak with the News & Record.

At the N.C. Highway Patrol, 1st Sgt. Michael Baker said in an email that the agency has never trained officers to use chokeholds. However, it has suspended the use of vascular neck restraint — which can restrict blood-flow to the brain and render a person unconscious — pending further review, Baker said.

Excessive force

In Greensboro, another policy change James implemented is to require officers who witness an excessive use of force to intervene verbally or physically to interrupt the act. They also must notify a supervisor.

Officers already were required to self-report any use of force so the incident could be investigated, James said.

At the sheriff’s office, deputies involved in a use-of-force event, his or her supervisor and those who are witnesses all must complete a report regarding the incident, according to an email from the sheriff’s office. Those reports are compiled and sent through the chain of command for review, the email said, and become a permanent part of the deputy’s personnel file.

A question about whether the sheriff’s office policy requires deputies to intervene if excessive force is observed was not answered in the sheriff’s office emailed response.

In 1993, Rogers himself was fired from the High Point Police Department after allegations surfaced that he left his assigned patrol area and punched a suspect he was trying to restrain. Rogers has openly acknowledged he’s had his own run-ins with the law, including traffic violations, ABC violations and domestic violence charges that were dismissed or settled.

Col. Glenn McNeill, who commands the Highway Patrol, said he implemented a policy on June 10 that requires troopers to intervene and to report misconduct of any law enforcement officer, both internally or externally.

The agency routinely works with outside police agencies and was at 28 separate protests statewide on one Saturday last month, McNeill said.

“I wouldn’t say that (the policy changes are) a result of the protests,” said McNeill, a Reidsville native. “It’s more-so to be more transparent and to clarify and to add greater accountability for the organization.”

In High Point, the chief recently added a mandate for officers to physically intervene “in an effort to stop unreasonable action” and report the incident to the commanding officer or chief.

“This was one that was added … to address the concerns that are happening now,” Shultz told the public safety committee in late June. However, he added, “This has always been a part of our standards of conduct.”

Shultz clarified that use of force is “anything more than mere restraint, and again mere restraint is holding on to somebody.

“If I’ve got to pull him, if I’ve got to take him to the ground, they’re reporting that to a supervisor, that supervisor is documenting it, it’s going up the chain (to the chief’s office),” he said at the meeting.

Transparency

The protests also have spurred calls for agencies to be more transparent.

During a Facebook live panel discussion with the Greensboro NAACP June 15, James said “any data that we have that is public, which is really just about all of our data, anyone can request it at any time.”

One area — incidents involving sexual orientation or gender non-conforming individuals — is not included in that paperwork.

“We do not identify sexual orientation in any of our paperwork,” James said. However, in the areas of gender and race, he said, the data can be broken down.

“That information is always available,” he said, adding that the department issues an annual report that includes information about uses of force and complaints.

James also noted that anyone can contact the city’s Police Community Review Board directly to have their complaint reviewed. However, any recommendations are advisory, and Greensboro Rising wants to see the board given subpoena power by the General Assembly.

Rogers, who oversees the county’s jails, said the department is adding body cameras for detention center officers beginning about Sept. 1. “That would continue to prove that we are very transparent and help out with incidents that may occur,” Rogers said during the NAACP panel discussion.

The issue of camera footage inside the jail came up when marchers recently gathered outside of the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office demanding justice for Tasha Thomas.

Thomas died May 2, 2018, three days after being jailed on charges of probation violation and possession of a controlled substance. Her mother, Rochelle Thomas-Boyd sought to see surveillance video taken inside the jail before her daughter’s death, which the medical examiner concluded was from natural causes. Thomas-Boyd disagrees, alleging her daughter was mistreated.

Sepsis “does not break bones. It does not pull hair from the roots,” Thomas-Boyd said at the rally.

Her attorney, Reginald D. Alston, said he’d arranged to look at the footage last week at the sheriff’s office.

Defunding the police

Another demand from Greensboro Rising is “defunding the police.” This would divert law enforcement money to organizations acting as alternatives to police interventions in the areas of mental health, sexual harassment and domestic violence, as well as funding recreation centers.

A Zoom discussion posted on Guilford for All’s Facebook page, another organization seeking police reform, explored what defunding the police might look like. Participants talked about funding more after-school programs, affordable housing and mental health crisis counselors.

“I think a lot of people are jarred when they hear ‘OK you’re going to get rid of the police, and then the next day I’m not going to have anyone to call if something goes south,’” Casey Thomas said in the discussion.

“We can invest in all of these other things, as we are decreasing the police budget,” Casey said. “We can do this in a way that doesn’t leave people hanging and but that puts that money where it needs to be and where it cares for our folks.”

The issue of abolishing the police department also came up in the Zoom discussion.

“I come to this with the perspective that we’ve got to start all over,” said Amelia Mattocks, a white member of Greensboro Rising. “What is in place now is not working.

“My friends who are Black are scared and are harmed every day by an overinflated and funded police force,” she said. “I just think that there’s no other way to get everybody safe.”

Attorney Kahran Myers-Davis, an organizer with the group, said its members include both abolitionists and reformists. “At this point our demand is for the defunding of the police and the reallocation of those funds to our community, through the passage of our 10 demands.”

Both James and Rogers said reducing their budgets would most likely mean reducing their staffs and cutting officer training necessary to meet the needs of community.

“Defunding the organization is putting the residents and citizens at risk,” Rogers said.

“I could I call 911 (and hear) ‘Please hold, your call will be answered by the next available operator,’” Rogers said. “I don’t want hear that. I need (a deputy) now.”

Mental health

James said at a news conference last month that he wants to begin offering Greensboro officers monthly access to mental health counselors and requiring a psychological assessment for officers every five years.

“We need to make sure we’re supporting them as well.” The stigma of officers seeking mental health care needs to be broken, he said.

“The bad police behavior that you’ve seen nationwide, that department probably has a policy that prohibits that behavior,” James said. “That’s why we go back to making sure we have the right people, and making sure that those people remain in the right frame of mind to do police work.”

Rogers agreed. “Mental health is real, whether it is people that are brought in from off the street, or whether it is people who work within this organization,” Rogers said. “If they need health care, whether it’s mental health, or it’s cancer, then I can encourage them to go.”

However, Myers-Davis said five years is too long between psychological assessments. Reallocating that money to the mental health providers for the community would allow everyone to benefit, including police officers, she said.

Officer training

All of the law enforcement agencies said they train officers how to de-escalate situations that could turn violent.

The training is part of the state’s Basic Law Enforcement Training course, required by all sworn law enforcement officers in North Carolina. The four-month course includes practical exercises and training in ethics and constitutional law, among other things.

All members of the Greensboro Police Department underwent implicit bias training about five years ago, James told the NAACP panel. The department also sends individual officers to racial equity and bias recognition training.

“I’m in the process of trying to get racial equity training for the entire department, which is, like I say, close to 800 employees,” James said during the discussion.

Discrimination is a battle James fought within the department before he became chief. He was among 39 officers who sued the city in 2009 alleging racial discrimination, which was later settled by the city.

Rogers said he’s working to bring in the racial equity trainers to help his deputies identify racial bias and aid their ability “to respect and listen.”

Hiring more minorities

Law enforcement was already struggling to recruit more minorities, and recent events like George Floyd’s killing could make that even more difficult.

Fewer minorities in law enforcement can translate into less understanding of minority communities, said Lynda Williams, president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives.

“We are supposed to be part of our community,” Williams said. “If law enforcement can be recruited out of that community, then that gives a better perspective to law enforcement because you understand the community, you understand the culture, you understand the people,” Williams said.

When officers aren’t drawn from the community they protect, “that’s a challenge for their management to make sure they’re indoctrinated into that culture,” Williams said. “Just because something is done differently, … it’s not an abomination, it’s cultural.”

Rogers said one way he’s trying to boost the number of minorities is by paying deputy candidates to go through the Basic Law Enforcement Training, which he said costs $3,600 per student.

“Many Caucasian applicants would come to the sheriff’s office BLET certified, while many of the black and brown people couldn’t get the job because they were not certified,” he said.

“We flipped it,” Rogers said of the change he instituted eight months ago. “Now we’re hiring, and we are sending people to school. So far, we have had 100 percent graduation within a year.”

He said since he took office in December 2018, the percentage of minority patrol deputies has increased about 15 percent.

At the Highway Patrol, McNeill said he hopes to capitalize on the recent protests with a hiring campaign that emphasizes being part of the solution.

“Be the change!” the patrol’s latest flyer proclaims.

Community reaction

Those critical of policing are watching closely to see concrete action from its leaders, as well as legislative leaders.

“We aren’t interested in platitudes or declarations. We’re seeking permanent change that is supported by the full weight and authority of local law,” Myers-Davis said.

While James’ policy changes are helpful, Myers-Davis said, Greensboro Rising wants them written into law, so that the next police chief won’t be able to quietly do away with them.

“Our demands have never been to the police chief as an administrator, but to our City Council, who we are calling on to govern as though Black Lives truly Matter,” Greensboro Rising said in a recent statement.

The statement indicated the group has gotten promises for action from some council members on its demands to:

  • Functionally decriminalizing marijuana. The group wants officers to stop charging people for possession of marijuana.
  • Requiring officers to get written consent before searching people without probable cause.
  • Setting standards for a strong use-of-force policy.

Marcus Hyde, a founder of the Homeless Union of Greensboro, said the fact that the city is still fighting the lawsuit over Marcus Smith’s death proves it’s not serious about changing.

“This is the same rhetoric,” Hyde said. “Until we do something about qualified immunity, a lot of these fights will continue.”

Marilyn King-Lewis, associate minister at church New Zion Missionary Baptist church, said she’s hopeful that James will make a difference in Greensboro.

“If you’re showing up to listen to things that are going on in the community … I feel then that you will listen and you want to be a part of that,” she said referring to James’ community meetings.

And while she said she hadn’t heard much about how the highway patrol is being run, she did express skepticism of Rogers. “I haven’t seen that (community interaction) with Sheriff Rogers,” she said.

Williams said little will get resolved in addressing systemic racism in our culture and in law enforcement until it’s recognized as a problem by everyone.

“If you talk to certain factions of people, they don’t think there are social injustices, they don’t think there’s systemic racism, they don’t think that racial injustice happens,” she said.

“Until everybody can acknowledge there is a problem, we’re going to be always talking to a wall,” she said.


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Greensboro City Council hopeful Guilford County commissioners will use federal CARES Act relief money to reimburse city’s coronavirus expenses

GREENSBORO — Since the earliest days of the coronavirus pandemic, the city of Greensboro has spent money on everything from deep cleaning its buildings and equipment to housing the homeless in hotels.

The running total for those growing expenses is not easy to tally, city officials say, but it is surely reaching into the millions of dollars.

Housing the homeless alone costs $145,000 a month, one City Council member said.

Last week, city officials said they hope that Guilford County, with more than $93 million in federal COVID-19 relief funding, will use some of its money to reimburse the city for its expenses.

Mayor Nancy Vaughan and Councilwoman Michelle Kennedy expressed their frustration with the county’s coronavirus response during the City Council’s regular business meeting Tuesday.

“I’m grateful that they have chosen some of that $93 million to prop up nonprofits and small businesses who are suffering,” Vaughan said. “I think that money is well spent in those areas. But they also need to look at Greensboro and High Point to see the expenses we’ve incurred.”

Kennedy added: “The city has come out of pocket for a huge number of things that were obviously unanticipated but were all related to the public health issue.”

The city is applying to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for help with some costs associated with the pandemic, as Guilford County officials have suggested.

“But we’re going to need them to help us for our expenses,” Vaughan said, referring to county officials.

So far, the county has been largely quiet about its intentions, but county officials suggested last week that help may be on the way.

That’s only fair, Vaughan said.

“This is really a complication created by the federal and state governments by not explicitly providing for expenses for municipalities,” she said Friday in an interview. “I am hopeful that a reasonable compromise can be achieved since the taxpayers of Greensboro make up the largest population of the county.”

Greensboro City Manager David Parrish said Friday that it’s difficult to add up all the costs associated with the pandemic, but some of them are clear: Overtime pay for personnel, cleaning costs, help for businesses through nonprofits, housing the homeless.

Those last two items alone account for more than $1 million.

Since April, the city has spent $601,000 to house more than 150 homeless people in hotels. Although $250,000 of that was covered by federal money directly from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act passed by Congress that leaves the city with a bill for $351,432. And that cost is growing every day the city continues the housing program.

Parrish said the city has also spent $460,000 for local small-business relief efforts.

When Congress approved the CARES Act, it was clear that the money was to cover expenses directly related to COVID-19 public health emergency and not to replace tax revenue losses associated with the pandemic.

But at their meeting Tuesday, some council members suggested that the city is at an impasse with the county, which was one of three North Carolina counties that received CARES funding directly.

Mecklenburg, Wake and Guilford counties received direct CARES funding because they have populations of more than 500,000. For the other 97 counties in North Carolina, federal money was passed through the state government.

The assumption, Vaughan said, was that the counties would take care of the large municipalities within their jurisdictions.

But so far, that hasn’t happened in Guilford.

Help might be coming soon, however.

County Manager Marty Lawing said that in the next few days, he will send letters detailing how to get CARES Act reimbursement to Greensboro and nine other local governments that are eligible.

“We’re in the process of sending a letter to the municipalities letting them know the amount that has been allocated to each of them,” Lawing said.

Vaughan had not heard that from the county as of Friday, but said “that would be very good news for both Greensboro and High Point.”

The other local governments qualifying for varying amounts of CARES Act money are High Point, Summerfield, Gibsonville, Oak Ridge, Stokesdale, Pleasant Garden, Jamestown, Whitsett and Sedalia.

Among the local governments, Greensboro can claim reimbursement of up to nearly $2.95 million for “mitigation and preparedness” spending related to fighting the pandemic. Other eligibility limits vary from as little as $5,000 for Sedalia to $1.1 million for High Point, second among cities and towns on the list.

Parrish said Greensboro has applied to FEMA for some reimbursement, including requests for more than $2 million in April for small-business funding and personnel-related costs.

Vaughan said she and her city colleagues have been working hard to get the message out that they need money.

“We’re communicating with our federal delegation to make sure that the next round of funding comes through with more explicit instructions or expectations or that it goes to municipalities,” she said.

“The managers are communicating directly and we are constantly updating what our expenditures are and I have had discussions with a few of the county commissioners as have other council people,” Vaughan said. “So they are aware of our concerns.”

Lawing said that Guilford County Schools is also included in the $9.46 million set aside for other Guilford governments in the county’s Phase One allotment. The plan allots up to $5 million for the school system’s efforts to mitigate the pandemic and gear up to fight it.

The pool of money to reimburse cities, towns and schools comes from a total of $93.7 million federal grant that Guilford received through the CARES Act, which was approved by Congress and the Trump administration earlier this year.

The Guilford County Board of Commissioners held in reserve $25 million, roughly 27%, of its CARES Act grant, and divided the remaining $68.7 million into such Phase One categories as reimbursement, preparedness, lifeline support and small-business grants.

Lawing said that under CARES Act rules, the county will not be “fronting” any of its grant money to other local governments; it will only use it to repay smaller units of government for qualifying expenses those entities have already paid.

Greensboro and other local governments will have to sign a “memorandum” formally agreeing to adhere to all CARES Act terms and conditions.

“The county,” Lawing said, “is ultimately responsible for how these funds are used so we just need to have an agreement to make sure that the municipalities understand.”

He noted that the county is under no obligation to share CARES Act money with any of the other governments, but he said it is doing so because leaders of county government felt that was the right thing to do.

In fact, the U.S. Treasury Department specifically absolves counties of any such duty toward other local governments in the FAQ section of its Coronavirus Relief Fund guidelines.

Treasury officials overseeing the $150 billion fund say that such a “final recipient” of the grant money is not required “to transfer funds to a smaller, constituent unit of government within its borders.”

“For example, a county recipient is not required to transfer funds to smaller cities within the county’s borders,” the Treasury Department said in one FAQ answer.

According to the Treasury Department, money from the CARES Act relief fund can only be used to cover costs:

  • Made necessary by COVID-19’s “public health emergency.”
  • Incurred during a 10-month window from March 1 through December.
  • Not already included in the local government’s annual budget in effect March 27 when the CARES Act was enacted.

Kennedy said in an interview that she believes the county has latitude to grant appropriate expenses more quickly to Greensboro.

She said the federal money was distributed to counties “with the understanding that the county is going to support cities. It puts us in an extremely difficult situation. In the meantime, we’re still having people in the city who are having negative experiences with COVID that we’re having to address.”

Vaughan and Parrish noted that CARES Act funding was intended to be distributed through Dec. 31, so today’s expense total will only grow.

Kennedy said that most officials believed at the beginning, in April, that the community would be getting back to normal by midsummer.

“There is no normal to ease back into,” she said. “Costs will continue to grow.”

Veteran Guilford Commissioner Melvin “Skip” Alston said he thinks his counterparts in city government are rightfully concerned. He said administrative and elected officials at both levels of government should be communicating more frequently and cooperating more effectively.

Alston said he thinks the situation might be aggravated by a recent decision by Greensboro leaders not to cover roughly $1 million in shared costs to post school resource officers in Guilford County’s public schools.

“That kind of soured the relationship when they decided to do that without notice,” Alston, a Democrat, said of the SRO matter.

The SRO issue arose during separate county and city deliberations as both boards prepared their 2020-21 budgets that took effect July 1.

But Alston said that regardless of bruised feelings, county officials must work more closely with their municipal counterparts to distribute CARES Act money in the best ways possible.

“It’s all about leadership. Our chairman should be talking to the mayors. The county manager and the city managers should be talking,” Alston said. “We need to do better because all of us are living in the same county and all of us are fighting the same virus.”

Commissioner Jeff Phillips, the chairman of the Board of Commissioners, said in a written statement Friday that he is “disappointed” that news of the county’s work and spending for COVID-19 relief “has not made its way, for whatever reason, to all the members of the Greensboro City Council.”

Phillips said that Guilford County public health officials have helped to oversee 6,500 community COVID-19 tests and coordinated response to the virus along with courts, schools and cities. He said he is proud of the county and its work, and the fact that it has put $7.2 million into the hands of small businesses and given $1.6 million to nonprofits dealing with food insecurity and health issues.

And Phillips said the county’s decision to earmark $2.9 million for Greensboro was done in a “measured” manner, as it was for other communities and cities.

“That fact is not new news,” he said.