This week Lindy Garnette said what she had been thinking since she first reviewed the case of alleged police brutality in the arrest of Jose Charles:
“If we can’t see this one as wrong, we can’t see anything as wrong,” said Garnette, chief executive officer of the YWCA and a member of the Police Community Review Board. “If this case is swept under the rug, we might as well pack up, go home and call it a day.”
Charles, then 15, got beaten up by a group of other teenagers at last year’s Fun Fourth celebration in downtown Greensboro. He was using his shirt to wipe blood off his face when he was approached by a Greensboro police officer.
After an oral exchange, Charles said, the officer threw him down, choked him and arrested him for malicious assault after he coughed up blood, which struck another officer in the face. Charles also was charged with disorderly conduct, simple affray and resisting arrest.
His mother, Tamara Figueroa, returned from a trip to the restroom that night to find her son on the pavement, bleeding from the head, with the officer’s hands around his neck. He needed eight stitches to close a wound over his eye.
Figueroa filed a complaint with the GPD Professional Standards Division, which found no wrongdoing by the officer. She then appealed the matter to the citizen-run PCRB. The review board disagreed with the department and appealed the case to Chief Wayne Scott. Scott upheld the internal police investigation, which sent the matter to Greensboro City Manager Jim Westmoreland.
Along with police watchdog group Greensboro Operation Transparency and other members of the community, Figueroa has asked the Greensboro City Council to intervene in the matter, because Charles is facing a court date on May 11.
On March 7, the council voted, 5-4, to view the body camera footage of the incident and on Monday received permission from a judge to do so, but only after Westmoreland makes a decision in the case. Westmoreland said that might take a couple of weeks.
As someone who has seen the video, Garnette said that, if the actions she saw reflect proper police behavior, we should all be worried.
“They can do whatever they want to do, and you have no recourse,” Garnette said.
For Garnette, the Charles case shares similarities with the 2016 case of Dejuan Yourse, who was sitting on his mother’s porch when he was punched by former GPD Officer Travis Cole. In both cases, she said, the officers escalated the situation by using excessive physical force with no justification.
“If that doesn’t meet the standard of breaking the law, what does?” Garnette asks.
Even with body-camera footage showing Cole punching Yourse, no charges were pressed against the officer, who resigned before the investigation was complete. Across the nation, few officers ever are charged in incidents of police brutality, even when it involves lethal force. Fewer still are ever convicted.
“This kid was a victim,” Garnette said. “I’m still puzzled by why they decided to treat him as a criminal. There is no part of me that believes this would have happened to a white kid.”
As the white mother of a biracial son, Garnette has seen the role implicit bias plays in policing. She strongly believes the video should be shared with the public, as Figueroa has asked, especially because it concerns a juvenile.
“This one has hit people in their gut because it’s a kid,” she said. “It’s hard to watch this video without thinking, ‘This could be my kid.’ ”
This is the first case in which the PCRB has disagreed with the Professional Standards Division, Garnette said, and that’s significant.
“The board truly is a microcosm of this community,” Garnette said. “That means we don’t always agree, and that’s reflective of the community. This case generated more emotion and more heated discussion than any other case we’ve considered, just as it has in the community. This became the case in which everyone could see themselves.”
Garnette is bound by state law from discussing the contents of the video, but she said the information already in the public domain speaks for itself.
“We have seen the video and said something was wrong,” Garnette said. “His mother has seen the video and said something was wrong. That should tell you something.”
If the police did nothing wrong, they should be more than willing to show the video, Garnette said. If they think people would misread the video because they don’t understand how the police work, this would be a great opportunity for a teachable moment. Show the video and explain why the officer’s actions were justified.
Chief Scott’s decision did little to advance that case for Garnette.
“It seemed to be couched in a lot of legalese,” Garnette said, as if his opinion had been written by attorneys. “There are two problems: What is right, ethical and meets community standards? And what is legal in terms of police behavior?
“We have given a segment of society the right to do whatever they want and not be held accountable. That’s why I think this case is so central and so important. If they can build a case that this was perfectly legal, I am very fearful for all of us.”
Given the emphasis on legality and not on community standards of acceptable behavior, the city’s primary concern appears to be shielding itself from liability in a civil suit. Westmoreland said only that he would give the case a “careful and thorough” review. Once he renders his decision, the council can view the video, but its members are prohibited by the judge’s order from commenting on it in open session.
The council presumably could overrule Westmoreland’s decision, because he works for the council, or direct him or the city attorney to take further action.
Saving money in a legal settlement never should be a larger concern than doing what is right and just. Not when a young man’s future hangs in the balance.
The taxpayers of Greensboro, who ultimately would pay that bill, should let city leaders know that in no uncertain terms.