At the table: City and NAACP leaders gather to clear the air
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on September 13, 2009 2:00 AM
NAACP state conference president the Rev. William Barber, left, and Goldsboro/Wayne NAACP president Sylvia Barnes meet with Mayor Al King, members of the City Council, Goldsboro police Chief Tim Bell and other leaders Thursday at City Hall.
Goldsboro Mayor Al King, left, speaks at the city's meeting with the NAACP. In the background is Goldsboro police Chief Tim Bell.
The March arrest of 17-year-old Tavares Allen -- and how it was handled by members of the Goldsboro Police Department -- brought city and NAACP leadership together at City Hall Thursday afternoon.
The two-hour discussion was cordial for the most part, but both Mayor Al King and Mayor Pro Tem Chuck Allen voiced frustration over what they see as a lack of communication between the advocacy group and local officials.
To listen to the raw audio recording, press play.
It was not the fact that the NAACP had called for an SBI investigation into the happenings that night at Alpha Arms Apartments that rubbed them the wrong way, they said.
The mayor pro tem was concerned by the group's repeated use of the issue of race to condemn actions by city staff.
"I think you have got to look a little bit at it from our perspective, and it really started several years back. ... Since you have had this council ... we are as race neutral as you can be. We are about doing the right thing for everybody," he said. "But kind of the thing and Mrs. Barnes you will remember this, a few years back when we were doing the dog pound, you ... came up and ... were against the dog pound and how it was going to hurt that neighborhood because it was a poor black neighborhood. The county manager had the plans and you all wouldn't even go see the plans. ... The dog pound ... has been a great asset to this community and you all brought race into the dog pound. ... Then ... you came up about some racial profiling at the Police Department. ... Then you get into the Fire Department and what's going on at the Fire Department. And in my aspect sometimes, I think instead of trying to work together or try to fix problems, you're trying to create headlines, to be honest, because you come to the City Council and drop these bombs, and then you leave. .. To me, the way to fix things is to sit across the table from each other and dialogue like we're doing today."
And King was "really bothered" by a broad criticism of the police force he said local NAACP president Sylvia Barnes made at the July 6 council meeting -- and the fact that she claimed police brutality without providing details to the board.
"We all take this very, very seriously. Our police department contains over 100 people, and when you come before us and say that your Police Depart-ment is guilty of brutality, excessive force, profiling, stopping people, taking them out of the cars and beating them up and leaving them, that concerns me. ... None of us want or will tolerate that, and I am extremely frustrated as the mayor of this city when I hear these accusations and I don't know who we're talking about. I don't know the police officer. I don't know the person. But it continues to be thrown out there."
NAACP state conference president the Rev. William Barber said he knew nothing about general allegations being made, that Mrs. Barnes was sent to the July 6 meeting as a spokesman for the organization and was referencing the March arrest specifically.
"What we're talking about is a specific issue." Barber said.
"You remember what you said when you came before the council?" he asked Mrs. Barnes. "Do you remember what you said?"
"I said the NAACP was calling for an SBI investigation of the Police Depart-ment," she replied.
"Yes. That's exactly what you said." King interjected. "When you came before us and you made that comment I had no idea it had to do with anything. She said that I want to advise and inform the council that the NAACP is calling for an SBI investigation of the Police Department. Period. ... That was all I knew."
But Mrs. Barnes had already gone to the Police Department for help, Barber said.
And when Police Chief Tim Bell launched an investigation, the person in charge of conducting it acted inappropriately, Barber and Mrs. Barnes alleged.
"People that we had names addresses and phone numbers for became very hostile, very intimidated because they said that the investigator came to them as if they were the criminal," Mrs. Barnes said. "He intimidated them by bringing up records, talking about what they had done."
King had no response, other than to shake his head and say, "This is the first I'm hearing about this," under his breath.
The NAACP called the meeting not to discuss what they saw as criticism from the mayor, but to address the way in which he did it.
"We were concerned ... about the language," Barber said. "We're not opposed to the criticism. That's America, and the debate is necessary. And there are times when government officials and advocacy groups are going to be at odds. ... If someone feels the NAACP shouldn't call for an SBI investigation, that's a valid criticism to say 'You shouldn't do it,' just like it's our valid right to call for it. ... But to suggest that the NAACP is not supportive of the Police Department, to us, is a misrepresentation."
And the group was specifically concerned with a statement King made during an August interview with the News-Argus.
"The NAACP has lost credibility with me. I remember years ago, they had a voice, but they were very reasonable. We had honorable citizens in this thing, trying to do the right thing," King said then. "They did not support bad behavior. If they saw that, hey, this person is wrong, they weren't going to defend them. ... The group right now is much different."
King didn't back away from those comments Thursday.
"I could say, 'You know, that reporter just got it wrong, misquoted me. That's not what I meant.' I can't say that. ... What I said then, I was saying how I felt. I felt that way then, and I feel that way now," he said. "Let me tell you about the NAACP of the past. We did some great things that helped this city. ... They would give me the names, who it was, what the incident was ... and we would get to the bottom of it. I come from that perspective. I have been used to working individually with NAACP people to find out what the real facts are and every time, when they had a legitimate issue, I would never ever pass it over, and I will not today."
So he took exception to the way the NAACP chose to handle the alleged complaints it received regarding the way in which Allen was arrested -- the fact that the group bypassed him and sought an investigation from the state attorney general and then, Wayne County District Attorney Branny Vickory.
"We need to know the police officer or the individual ... we've got to know something," he said. "And if you tell me a police officer who has acted unprofessionally with anybody, we will definitely find out the facts."
Mrs. Barnes said one of her branch's main concerns is that people don't feel comfortable coming forward on the record, as the mayor wishes.
"That bothers me," King said. "But go ahead."
"They say to me when they call to voice their complaints, they say, 'We don't want our names because we are afraid of the harassment. ... Our children will be bothered,'" Mrs. Barnes replied.
So when she came to the council meeting, it was simply to raise awareness about things going on in Goldsboro elected officials might not know about.
"No, I do not have names that I can present, but it's a matter of letting the city know and (Chief Bell) know that I am still getting these complaints," she said. "They are not going away."
King again responded, arguing that his hands are tied if specific incidents and officers' names are not presented to him.
"You know what the No. 1 responsibility to us is? The safety and security of this city. ... If we can't rely on the Police Department to do their job professionally, we want to know, and I am going to demand to know who is it and what are we talking about," he said. "And when someone tells me something as critical as you're telling me that's happening in our Police Department, I am upset for a number of reasons. I am frustrated. I want to know who this is, and let's get them out of here. ... I will not sit here and tolerate that kind of action from any police officer, but by the same token, we do not engage in mass punishment. We cannot fire the whole Police Department. We can't discipline the whole police department. We need to know who it is. ... and they may be there and that's my concern."
Details of the incident that brought the two groups together are still a matter of contention.
At least they were during Thursday's meeting.
Court records show that the case began March 29 when police were ordered to serve a warrant on Tavares Allen.
The two officers, Orlando Rosario and Philip French, said a number of people were milling about in the parking lot of Alpha Arms Apartments when they arrived around 4:30 p.m. to do just that.
At first, the two officers said, Rosario made up a story about a lost dog in an attempt to make the crowds of people less nervous.
Then, after they told Allen that he had an active warrant, the 17-year-old fled.
French chased him for less than 20 yards before bringing him to the ground.
During that time, Rosario testified, the crowd of people was advancing toward the officers.
In an attempt to back the crowd up, Rosario used threats of pepper spray and his service weapon, he testified, adding that neither attempt worked.
Meanwhile, he noticed that French was having trouble handcuffing Allen.
So he switched places with the 20-year-old officer and told him to shoot him "in the head if he gets any closer."
The NAACP's stance remains that the police acted inappropriately.
"Even the district attorney said in the court ... he acknowledged that he believed that the police might have acted improperly. ... Even our own DA had some questions, not about the Police Department as an entirety but about this specific incident and what could have resulted," Barber said.
But King said there was a bigger issue.
"You've got a 17-year-old kid who's lying on the ground trying to take the weapon," he said as Barber shook his head. "That didn't happen?"
"That's not exactly what the court record said," Barber replied.
"Was there a struggle for a gun?" King then asked.
Barber did not respond.
"I am very, very much concerned about the safety not only of our citizens, but of our law enforcement officers, too," King added. "And when I hear that there is a young man, who is not a choir boy, lying on the ground tussling with a police officer ...trying to make a legal arrest, and he is trying to get his gun from him, that is not a good sign because somebody is going to get killed."
The mayor also said the March incident points to an even bigger issue.
"There are some issues out here that bother me deeply, and I will be quite frank with you: It's our young black men," he said. "I get the reports from (Bell) and every time I look at them ... they are young black teenagers, sub-teenagers every day, almost every day -- 13, 14, 15, 16 years old -- and it just bothers me that these young men are destroying their lives at an early age. It's tough enough if you've done everything right, but when they don't have adults who will tell them, 'You are wrong,' we must as adults ... not defend poor behavior."
Barber said the NAACP is not in the business of defending bad behavior.
"We preach that same message," he said. "The message of personal responsibility and parenting is a message as old ... as slavery."
And he said singling out black men was wrong.
"The majority of the people committing crime are not black people in this culture," he said. "Most of our young men and women are doing the right thing. The majority of them are."
And he defended the 17-year-old Allen, saying that the mayor's characterization of him as a "thug" was going too far.
"The kid is not a thug," Barber said. "But even if the person was a thug ... even the DA questioned the actions (of the arresting officers)."
Several other members of the Goldsboro/Wayne branch of the NAACP also were on hand for the meeting -- one, a retired 33-year veteran of the Goldsboro Police Depart-ment, another, a local pastor.
And each detailed to those city officials on hand their own experiences with profiling.
Apostle Dennis Jacobs said his children have been harassed by Goldsboro officers.
And former lawman Jerry Howard said he, too, has been on the wrong side of bad policing.
"I had an incident myself," he said, before explaining to those gathered that minutes after he was pulled over for speeding, the officer was waiting at his residence with a "funny look."
"You haven't heard the half of what's going on," he told the mayor.
King acknowledged that there is a history of profiling in the U.S.
But he also noted that until he has proof the practice is occurring in Goldsboro, he will not act.
"If you look at me, it's obvious, I'm black. I didn't just get black, you all, I have been black all of my natural life. I have traveled all over this country and most other countries, and in this country, in many, many states, I have been stopped and asked, 'Boy, whose car is that?'" the mayor said. "So when I hear people say there is racial profiling (going on in Goldsboro) ... I'm not going to hold our police officers guilty of doing that until somebody proves to me that they are."
"(Being a police officer), it is a tough, tough job," he added. "Every time they go out on patrol ... they could get killed. In the last five years, we have had two police officers shot in the line of duty. ... It doesn't matter what your profession is, there is going to be from 3 to 7 percent of those who are not doing everything you want them to do. I don't care if it's elected officials, clergy, lawyers, I don't care what it is. ... I refuse to allow our Police Department to be judged by that 5 or 3 percent."
The meeting ended with pledges from both Barber and King.
The reverend said he will make every effort to cooperate with officials at City Hall long before other organizations are asked to take action.
"It's clear that we have got to get folks on record. We are going back with all these folks and say, 'You might be intimidated, but we are going to support you, and we're going to be here, but we need to know on the record because we can't get things corrected,'" he said. "But we reserve the right to -- and will always -- do exactly what our local branch and president have done if we feel like an investigation was done and was not satisfactory. Then, we look at the next level in which to call an investigation."
And King, Allen and the other city staff on hand made a commitment to root out the "bad apples" -- but only if they are proven to exist.
"We have nothing to hide ... and if bad stuff is happening out there we want to know about it," King said. "But we need some facts. Don't just say, 'There some bad stuff going out there.' Well, duh."