GREENSBORO — In a terse and unexpected statement after a discussion behind closed doors, the City Council quashed prospects Tuesday for an independent investigation into the controversial death of an unarmed Black man at the hands of officers and, on a larger scale, police practices in the city.
Those practices have consistently been called into question following the tragedy of Marcus Smith, whose 2018 death in police custody sparked outrage in the community that continues today.
Around that time, the nine-member council voted unanimously to hold an independent investigation.
Council decided later to forego the investigation after Smith’s family filed a federal lawsuit against the city in spring 2019.
But last week, with that lawsuit ongoing, Councilwoman Michelle Kennedy proposed that council discuss holding an independent investigation.
As staffers scheduled the discussion on council’s formal work session agenda, Kennedy spoke passionately about the need to compile a thorough and independent report. She suggested not only an investigation into Smith’s death but also on the police department’s culture, its relationship with minority residents and the issues that have created what she believes is a climate of “fear and distrust” between police and the public.
But on Tuesday, council held a two-hour scheduled discussion of annual budget matters and then went into an unscheduled closed-door session to consult with the city attorney, not mentioning that the session would include the Smith case.
After council met privately for 45 minutes, Kennedy read a brief statement in open session that put an investigation to rest. She said later she was asked to read the statement as written.
“I am the person who asked for us to have an independent investigation, both as it relates to the events connected to Marcus Smith and to a larger investigation around institutional culture and essentially an agencywide conduct review of the Greensboro Police Department,” she said. “So on the advice of the city attorney, council went into closed session and received advice from an attorney who practices exclusively in the area of independent investigation.
“Council has decided not to pursue any such investigation at this time.”
Then Mayor Nancy Vaughan asked for a motion to adjourn the work session.
When asked by text message if she could say more about what happened, Kennedy responded: “I wish I could.”
Councilman Justin Outling, who is a candidate for mayor, also said he could not shed light on council’s closed-door decision not to hold an independent investigation.
In the year since the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, protests and criticism of police practices nationwide have taken center stage. For some, the Smith case cracked open a door into police practices that demanded further investigation.
Greensboro activist Lewis Pitts, who acts as the liaison between the Smith family’s legal team and the civil rights community, said after Kennedy’s announcement he believes council violated state open meetings law because it made no mention of the Smith case before entering closed session.
“That was not legal,” he said. “That’s a continued pattern of seeking secrecy and hiding behind closed doors while hypocritically mouthing the words ‘transparency and open government.’ It is hideous and revolting hypocrisy by every single council member.”
In the Smith case, the homeless Black man was acting agitated and experiencing what appeared to be a mental health crisis in September 2018 when he asked officers for help.
Unable to settle him, officers extremely restrained Smith, binding his hands and feet together behind his back on a downtown street.
A state medical examiner said that Smith died of cardiopulmonary arrest caused by a variety of factors. Among them: “prone restraint” at the hands of police, cardiovascular disease and drugs and alcohol in his system.
Police would later abandon that manner of immobilizing people.
After a probe by the State Bureau of Investigation, District Attorney Avery Crump chose not to charge those involved in the incident.
But in 2019, Smith’s family sued the city, eight police officers and two paramedics for wrongful death.
The lawsuit is ongoing and advocates for the Smith family say the department has a history of treating minorities badly.
In Smith’s case, police used a device called a RIPP Hobble to bind Smith’s hands and feet together behind his back. Although the device is no longer used by the department, a recent report shows it was employed hundreds of times prior to the tragedy.
Journalists at The Marshall Project reported last week that court records show that in the four years before Smith’s death, 275 people were restrained in the same manner — two-thirds of whom were Black.
Contact Richard M. Barron at 336-373-7371 and follow @BarronBizNR on Twitter.