Durham News

Durham City Councilwoman Jillian Johnson: Why were officers still on force?

cseward@newsobserver.com

A Durham City Councilwoman wants to know how the city responded to previous use-of-force complaints against officers involved in the fatal shooting of Frank Nathaniel Clark.

After reports about previous complaints against officers Charles Barkley, Christopher Goss and Monte Southerland, council member Jillian Johnson said in an email to City Manager Tom Bonfield she was “struggling to understand why those officers were still employed.” She asked for an update on advocates for Clark’s family and the McDouglad Terrace community’s demand to see the officers’ disciplinary record.

“I’m also scared,” Johnson wrote, “because I’m sure these officers aren’t the only ones with these sorts of histories that still work for DPD. I know that Chief Davis has very different standards than (former chief Jose) Lopez did, and I’m thinking it would be good for her to review some of these old cases.

“I understand there may be legal implications to reviewing prior employment actions, but frankly I’d rather settle some lawsuits that have another person killed by our police department,” she wrote.

C.J. Davis started as Durham’s chief in June, replacing Lopez who was forced to retire at the end of 2015.

In general, most information in officers’ personnel files, including complaints and related resolutions, are shielded from public scrutiny under state law.

However, one provision of the law could allow Bonfield, with City Council agreement, to release information if city leaders determine it is “essential to maintaining public confidence in the administration of city services.”

City Attorney Patrick Baker said city officials used that provision to let family members of La’Vante Biggs, who was shot by police in September 2015, review an Internal Affairs file. Police say Biggs was suicidal and holding a weapon when police responded to 911 calls from him and his mother in the 1700 block of Angier Avenue. The Durham NAACP and Biggs’ mother say police mismanaged the situation and that Biggs’ death could have been prevented.

Bonfield said city officials are meeting internally to explore Johnson’s concerns.

“At this point I don’t have enough information to respond,” he said.

Attorneys Scott Holmes and Dave Hall, who represent Clark’s family, have asked the city to release all the complaints and related findings against the three officers.

Council members Steve Schewel and Charlie Reece said they have concerns about information shared with them about the officers, but they are waiting for more information before deciding how to move forward.

“I definitely have concerns about the information that I have received from members of the public concerning Officer Barkley,” Schewel said. “It has definitely shown a spotlight on an officer who has been involved in controversy. You don’t want to make a personnel decision, but we do want our administration, including the police chief, to thoroughly review this and figure out whether this is an officer who should be on the street or not.”

City Councilman Eddie Davis said at this point he doesn’t think there has been a public outcry.

“Since there hasn’t been an outcry, it doesn’t appear to me that the public confidence has been compromised at all,” Davis said.

Davis said he has heard from some advocates for McDougald Terrace residents.

“I don’t know what the relationship is between those folks,” he said, because they are the same people who are often critical of police.

“With every opportunity they seem to come out of the wood work to be anti-police,” Davis said.

Suspensions

Barkley was suspended in 2014, and Southerland was suspended in March, according to information provided by the Police Department.

The officers have also been tied to other controversial cases.

In 2006, a woman accused Barkley of using excessive force when he used a flashlight to break up a fight between two girls outside Jordan High School. A 15-year-old girl suffered a skull fracture from the incident. Barkley was working an off-duty assignment for a basketball game at the school, the family’s attorney said.

In December 2014, the Police Department’s internal affairs agreed Southerland had used excessive force by using a Taser stun gun on a 14-year-old boy while working with other officers to break up a family quarrel, according to a Police Department letter written by D.C. Allen, a captain in the Professional Standards Division.

Barkley and Goss were also among the officers involved in that incident.

Goss was exonerated on a contention that he used excessive force in the case. An excessive force complaint against Barkley was determined to have insufficient evidence to prove or disprove the allegation, according to the letter.

The incident involved Sheila Alston, a former police officer in North Carolina and Georgia, her son Montsay Alston and her grandson SayKwan Alston.

Police charged them with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest; the charges were later dismissed.

“Our view all along was that these officers injected themselves into a situation where the police were not needed and unnecessarily escalated things to the point where they became violent,” said Ian Mance, an attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice who represented the Alston family.

Mance said he felt like Barkley was an “instigator” and his presence caused the situation to “spiral out of control” when it was on the verge of being resolved.

“We had heard a lot of stories about Officer Barkley from people in that neighborhood and knew he had a reputation for this sort of behavior,” Mance said. “And we expressed those concerns in no uncertain terms to the Professional Standards investigators when we met with them.”

After the Police Department’s Professional Standards Division issued its findings, Mance and Alston successfully sought a hearing before the Civilian Police Review Board. The board reviews cases to determine whether an internal affairs investigation was conducted appropriately. The board makes recommendations to Bonfield, who makes the final decision on further action.

In the appeal application to the review board, Mance contended that the Police Department’s Professional Standards Division had abused its discretion.

“It appears the PSD approached the investigation with more interest in exonerating as many officers as possible than in getting to the truth of what happened,” Mance wrote.

Ultimately, the board found that the department didn’t abuse its discretion on the conduct of the investigation.

Alleged harassment

During a press conference last month held by an attorney for Clark’s family, Jasmine Lloyd, the mother of Clark’s daughter, said Barkley had harassed her and others since she was 12 years old.

“Barkley needs to go,” she said.

Barkley, Southerland and Goss were involved in an encounter with Clark, 34, that led to the shooting that left him dead near the corner of Dayton and Wabash streets in McDougald Terrace on Nov. 22.

A city report says the three officers stopped and questioned Clark around 12:30 p.m. It says Clark reached for his waistband and that a struggle ensued. Officers say they heard a gunshot and that Southerland fell to the ground, prompting Barkley to fire his gun.

However, witness reports have differed. Reketa Bagley, who said she saw the encounter between Clark and the officers, said Barkley was patting Clark down when a gun went off. Police shouted “gun” and Clark “took off running,” she said.

Bagley said the gunfire struck Clark in the back of his head.

City officials are awaiting a State Bureau of Investigation report on the incident.

In general, the SBI report will go to District Attorney Roger Echols, who will decide whether evidence warrants pursuing criminal charges. The Police Department, however, is working on a parallel investigation to explore whether officers followed department rules and procedures.

Police spokesman Wil Glenn referred questions about officer complaints to Bonfield.

Johnson said the state report will provide more information on the Clark shooting, but she has concerns about previous use of force complaints.

“I do think that we need to make sure that we don’t have officers that are prone to using excessive force, that they aren’t on the street,” Johnson said.

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges

DPD Suspensions

Number of suspensions among the Durham Police Department’s 630 employees, based on information provided by its Professional Standards Division. Suspensions are for violations of city of Durham and Police Department policies and procedures. Reasons for suspensions could include substance abuse, excessive use of force, tardiness, speeding and crashes.

2011 – 44

2012 – 42

2013 – 26

2014 – 33

2015 – 24

2016 – 23 (as of 12/6/16)

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