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Greensboro City Council votes against written consent

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Greensboro City Council votes against written consent

On Tuesday night, the Greensboro City Council did what the Greensboro Police Officers Association recommended, and voted 5-4 against requiring signed written consent for police searches. It looked like it would go the other way, until District 1’s Sharon Hightower changed her mind.

The motion to require written consent was made by District 5’s Tammi Thurm and seconded by At-Large Representative Michelle Kennedy, based on a recommendation from the Greensboro Criminal Justice Advisory Committee (GCJAC). District 3’s Justin Outling and Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson also voted for it. Reversing their positions at the Aug. 11 work session, Mayor Nancy Vaughan and District 4’s Nancy Hoffman voted against it. So did District 2’s Goldie Wells, and At-Large Representative  Marikay Abuzuaiter.

The latter was no surprise. Abuzuaiter has vehemently opposed the recommendation. In February, she angrily stated that the idea of “micro-managing” the GPD gave her “heartburn.” At Tuesday’s meeting, she condemned the idea of telling the police “how to run their department” and stated that “Chief James has only been police chief for six months; let him do his job.”

Abuzuaiter’s progressive critics have long accused her of being not only a GPD defender but a “police spy.” In 2013, Eric Ginsburg reported for YES! Weekly that email correspondence between Abuzuaiter and the GPD indicated she was acting as a Confidential Informant while serving on city council.

Both Abuzuaiter and Wells have been criticized for their responses to the fatal GPD hogtying of Marcus Deon Smith, of which Abuzuaiter stated that the restraint may have been necessary because drugs had given him “superman strength” and Wells said, “maybe it was just his time to die” (a remark she has subsequently apologized for making). But Hightower, a frequent critic of the GPD, both in that incident and others, joined Abuzuaiter and Wells in voting against written consent, although she expressed much more ambivalence. She stated she believed the GPD has a fundamental problem with racial disparity in searches, but that she did not feel this would do anything to correct it.

On Aug. 14, three days after the work session determined that the resolution would be formally brought before council on Sept. 16, Amiel Rossabi sent an open letter to the mayor and city council. Rossabi is the attorney for the attorney for the Greensboro Police Officers Association (GPOA). In the letter Rossabi stated, “the City Council chose a politically motivated and harmful gesture in order to cater to a relatively small, but vocal, group of anti-police activists.”

Greensboro police officers are required to tell citizens that, in the absence of probable cause, they can refuse a police search, and to record the interaction in which they make that statement on their body-worn cameras. Currently, there is no standardized language for conveying that information. As Chief Brian James acknowledged at Tuesday’s meeting, officers are not required to tell citizens that they can withdraw consent at any time, even though the law states they can.

A written consent form would not only standardize the language and explicitly state that consent can be withdrawn at any time, but would allow the person searched acknowledge that they had been so instructed. Councilmember Thurm and Kennedy argued this would remove any ambiguity from the encounter and increase transparency.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Greensboro Police Chief Brian James stated that, if written consent were required, officers would have to “go back to the car, get the form and read it to the person,” a process he called both “convoluted and difficult.”

Goldie Wells repeatedly stated that, because all interactions are recorded on body-worn cameras, such a form is not necessary. She said “there’s no need to put another burden on these police,” whom she called “stellar.” She criticized what she called the “grilling of our new chief” and accused council of “nitpicking one thing after another.”

“Rely on the body cameras,” Wells said. “That piece of paper doesn’t mean a whole lot. When you see, it is better!”

Wells did not mention how difficult it can be in Greensboro to get body cam footage seen, or how council members can be forbidden to discuss such footage even when they are allowed to see it. This happened with the videos that allegedly depict multiple GPD officers conspiring to falsely arrest Zared Jones, which council members have refused to view because they cannot discuss that footage without possibly being jailed.

Mayor Vaughan stated that she felt that requiring written consent would be “a step backward” from recording consent on body-worn cameras, to which Kennedy responded that it was not an either/or proposition.

Hightower said she feared “unintended consequences for Black people” if written consent was required, and expressed concern that it would result in police finding more excuses for probable cause. Mayor Vaughan and Wells both stated that, after written consent was required in Durham, probable cause searches increased.

Kennedy had addressed this very concern at the Aug. 11 work session, at which she said that, in Durham, “their total searches of cars have fallen by 44% comprehensively. There was a transition period as everyone adjusted to that change, but ultimately, the number of searches in Durham is down dramatically.”

At the Sept. 15 meeting, Wells said she did not believe that enacting written consent would “result in having less Black people stopped by the police.” Chief James contradicted this at another point in the conversation, in which he stated that, based on his conversation with officers, “they would be less likely to try to search the vehicle if we layer in a consent form.”

Unlike Wells and Hightower, he did not appear to regard that prospect as a good thing, stating, as he has in the past, “the majority of crime is in Black neighborhoods.”

Despite her ambivalence and skepticism, Hightower stated she intended to vote in favor of written consent, as like District 3’s Justin Outling, she believed it would at least increase transparency. But this intention changed after Mayor Vaughan said that, instead of a written consent form, she would propose a policy of “informed documented consent—” with the documentation coming, as it does now, from the body-worn cameras.

“We should be training our police officers to make sure that people know they have the right to refuse,” Vaughan said, “and that they have the right to withdraw consent.” She also said “we have to have standardized language. That’s what we should be saying we want our police department to have, not written consent.”

The mayor’s proposal appeared to sway Hightower back to her original opposition. If Hightower had voted according to her previously stated intention, written consent would have passed 5 to 4.

After council voted 5 to 4 against requiring written consent, Mayor Vaughan immediately made her own motion for what she called Informed Documented Consent. After Hoffman seconded it, Abuzuaiter argued against the idea of standardized language, stating her belief that officers should be allowed to express it in their own personalized way.

Outling said that he did not see the “prospective utility” in this, at it did not have the transparency of written consent, and he did not support it— Kennedy and Thurm also voting against it.

On Wednesday, Mayor Vaughan gave YES! Weekly the following statement.

“GCJAC took this issue up at the request of council. It was an issue that Tammi Thurm wanted more information on. It is the only recommendation that council has received, so far, from GCJAC. We did take their suggestion of standardized language. The Chief committed to changing the GPD directive and communicating clear expectations to the entire GPD. Body-worn camera footage will be retained for a minimum of three years.”

Thurm and Kennedy also sent statements.

“It is difficult to watch the hard work of data compilation and best practice assessment completed by GCJAC be pushed aside,” Kennedy wrote in an email. “A core purpose of GCJAC is to provide recommendations to Council for improved police policies and protocols. If we have no intention of accepting those recommendations, then we should stop acting as though we’re interested in what the data, and the people, are telling us.”

“I was terribly disappointed with tonight's vote,” Thurm noted. “As a council, we missed an opportunity to take a small step towards building trust between the GPD and our residents. While written consent failed, I am glad officers will at least be required to tell people they have the right to say ‘No’ to a search request or that they can stop a search in progress.”

On social media, Black organizers expressed not only disappointment but anger.

“City Council failed us” was the title of a Facebook livestream by Casey Thomas, Tyler Walker and Kay Brown of Greensboro Rising.

“I am so furious,” were Thomas’s first words. “That was bullshit, start to finish” were Walker’s.  In other Facebook post, young Black activist posted variations of the statement “our Black elders have failed us once again.”

Kay Brown, who is also a member of Guilford For All, gave YES! Weekly the following statement:

“There are times in this country where we have face challenges that we think are insurmountable. There are times where progress feels uncomfortable. I hope that the next time we face an opportunity to move toward progress and equity as a city that we take it and embrace it. I was very disappointed that written consent did not pass and extremely disappointed. Black people in this city deserve a Greensboro that doesn't feed into bias, fear and inequity. This fight will continue and we will never give up on moving this community forward and not back. What the mayor did was an overstep felt like a slap in the face to the over 6,000 people that engaged on this issue and the 2,500 people that have protested in the streets.”

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