The jagged scars on Marena Robinson’s left knee are concealed beneath a long denim dress, but the emotional pain is written all over her face. “We put the police on such a high pedestal,” the 27-year-old single mom says, gesturing skyward, “and we don’t want to think they’re out to get us because they’re the ones who protect and serve.”
Robinson had heard about “Rambo cops” making the news, especially in places like New York and Los Angeles. But the North Raleigh resident never imagined she’d encounter them herself. “It’s like the AIDS epidemic,” Robinson explains in a soft voice. “When it first started happening, people were like, ‘Oh no, it won’t happen to me.’ That’s how I used to feel about police brutality.”
Now all that has changed. Sitting on her living room sofa, Robinson gracefully shifts her 115-pound frame while lifting her dress to show a badly scarred left knee fastened with “two pins, two washers and a screw.
“This,” she says pointedly, “is not just my story–it could be your story too.”
Robinson’s story took a drastic turn early one morning in January 1999 when she was driving her car, an Inifiniti G20, along U.S. 401 toward Fuquay-Varina. She’d dropped off her two kids at daycare, and was due to clock in by 7 a.m. at industrial giant John Deere, where she still works. Noticing that she was passing a Raleigh squad car, she checked her speed. When the police car stayed to her rear, she says she figured she must be OK. So when she saw flashing blue lights a couple of miles farther down the thruway, Robinson says she didn’t think they were flagging her.
What happened next has led to two court trials already; a third trial is pending.
Police officials will not comment on the case while it awaits the third trial. But in earlier court hearings, Officer Keith Pickens testified that he trailed Robinson after noticing she was speeding. Pickens said he noticed some movement of her hands that made him suspicious–drugs or weapons, perhaps. According to Robinson’s testimony, what he noticed in her hands was a muffin and juice she was eating for breakfast.
After having radioed for backup, Officer Pickens stopped Robinson. The police report he filed says that Robinson behaved belligerently, causing the three back-up officers to pull their weapons and pull Robinson from her car. Within seconds, all the officers lay on the ground along with the petite woman. (While the trial is pending, Robinson will not comment on the charges against her, on the advice of her attorneys.)
As she was being handcuffed, Robinson says she recalls screaming, “My leg, my leg!” She had been snatched from her car so roughly, she says, that her feet “never touched the ground.”
Before she was rushed to Raleigh’s Wake Medical Center, Robinson knew her lip was busted. She had hit the pavement face-first and says she could taste blood. But she didn’t know that the pain shooting through her leg, resulting from her crash landing on concrete beneath the cops, signaled a shattered knee.
Two days after emergency surgery, Robinson was arrested in the hospital. Handcuffed to a wheelchair, she was taken to jail and booked on charges of failure to stop, failure to produce a license, resisting arrest, obstructing police officers and “assault … by hitting [an officer] in the arm with her right elbow, and scratching in his right wrist and hand with fingernails.”
At the time, the impact of those charges didn’t take hold of Robinson. “I was aware of what was happening to me, but I was in so much pain,” she says. After being fingerprinted and photographed, Robinson hobbled on crutches into a cell where she stayed until her mother posted bond a few hours later. All along, Robinson recalls, “sobbing so deeply–not hysterical but like I’d had a great loss of something. That’s the only way I can explain it.”
Whatever had been taken from her, there was one important thing Robinson later realized she hadn’t been given during the ordeal. “I had never been read my Miranda rights,” she says.
That didn’t sway Wake County District Court Judge Paul Gessner, who last August found Robinson guilty on all charges. Her case wan’t helped by the fact that in 1996, Robinson had been convicted and fined for speeding and failure to stop. After Judge Gessner’s ruling, Robinson’s attorney (and state representative) Bob Hensley immediately appealed. In April, Robinson’s case was dismissed due to a hung jury. The Wake County District Attorney’s office subsequently decided to pursue a third trial. Meanwhile, the officers involved in the incident remain on their beats, having been cleared of any wrongdoing by an internal police investigation.
Even during her second trial, Robinson says the looks on some jurors’ faces “was like, ‘Well, she must have done something.’ It didn’t matter how many tears I shed,” she says, “they didn’t understand. But I knew I was innocent, that I had nothing to hide.” Robinson says that throughout the ordeal she’s remained “stuck on the idea that it never should have happened–I mean, why did a simple traffic stop go so far?”
Robinson’s ordeal could easily be viewed as an isolated incident–one of those wrong-place, wrong-time, stressed-out-people deals. If the police officers went over the line–shockingly over the line–well, everybody makes mistakes now and then. But claims of police brutality are hardly uncommon. And they are hardly limited to places like New York and Los Angeles.
According to a report furnished by Durham police officials, 88 claims of excessive force used by Durham officers were reviewed over the past year. Citing “personnel privacy,” officials declined to provide information about how those cases were resolved. Those who make the complaints usually have no idea whether any action has been taken.
Officials in Raleigh were slightly more forthcoming. They reported that from 1998 to 1999, there were 30 claims of excessive force filed against Raleigh officers. Of those, only two of the complaints were “sustained” after an internal investigation of the charges. The Raleigh Police Department would not say what happened to the offending officers: A sustained complaint could result in anything from counseling to termination to prosecution. Again, the claimants can only guess how their complaints were handled.
The lack of public accountability by police departments is one big reason why we so rarely hear about instances of police brutality. Another big reason is the way these cases are usually handled in the courts.
Imagine the following: You get pulled over by an officer, maybe for having a busted tail light. The officer barks something about your license and registration. You eyeball him, but comply. Damn! The registration expired last month. Your birthday, as shown on your license, was last week. You are ordered to exit the car and spread-eagle, but you don’t do so fast enough. One thing leads to another, and you wind up on the wrong side of some pepper spray, a baton or a fist.
What to do? First of all, you’ll probably have to get a good lawyer; chances are that, like Robinson, you’ll get charged with resisting arrest. Your court case notwithstanding, you know that you’re innocent. You know that things got out of hand because of the cop, not you. So you file a complaint with the police department.
Internal investigations officers will take your complaint, ask a few particulars, and assure you they’ll look into the matter promptly. Weeks later–or maybe months–you’ll get a letter stating that your allegations were deemed true or not true, or that police investigators just couldn’t make a clear determination.
In fact, the latter finding is the most common, at least in Raleigh. The majority of excessive-force cases in 1998 and 1999 were ultimately found “not sustained.” That doesn’t mean they found your report to be bogus; basically, it means they decided it was your word against the officers’, and that there wasn’t enough compelling evidence beyond your word to take any action against the officers. Or, as the letter will state, “insufficient facts exist to substantiate any wrongdoing or refute the allegations.”
Whatever the outcome, police officials will assure you that they were fair. In the unlikely event that your complaint was sustained, they will also assure you that “appropriate actions” will be taken with the officer or officers. What those actions are, you won’t know–state law doesn’t require police departments to furnish such information to claimants, or to make it public. Chances are, few people will ever know what happened to you.
Of course, police brutality is not unheard of. Most folks can easily conjure up images of Rodney King rolling beneath police batons, and newspapers headlining recent New York City atrocities–41 bullets in Amadou Diallo, a plunger handle in Abner Louima’s anus–have hardly yellowed. But few people realize that these are more than isolated incidents. Along with the information available from police departments, reputable studies say otherwise.
In its June 1998 report, “Shielded from Justice,” the Human Rights Watch group–an offshoot of Amnesty International–issued findings based on studies of 14 police departments nationwide. While mainly focusing on major metropolitan areas (none in North Carolina), the report says “Ramboism” among cops occurs with regular frequency all across the country. Using data provided by the U.S. Justice Department, researchers say that complaints of police misconduct and corruption have risen 500 percent over the past five years nationwide.
“There is a widespread and persistent problem of police brutality across the U.S.A.,” the report states. “Police officers have beaten and shot unresisting suspects; they have misused batons, chemical sprays and electro-shock weapons; they have injured or killed people by placing them in dangerous restraint holds.”
Here in North Carolina, state ACLU executive director Deborah Ross says her office gets many complaints every year. But victims who seek justice face tremendous obstacles, she says–and this is where the courts come in.
“If a person is convicted, they can’t bring a case,” Ross notes. The most common way for someone claiming police brutality to seek justice, when they can’t get it from police investigations, is to file suit. But it’s almost impossible to win a lawsuit if you have been convicted of charges like the ones Marena Robinson faces–and most victims of police brutality are brought up on charges by police. If you’re found guilty of, say, resisting arrest, you can still sue–but juries don’t look too kindly on folks with criminal records.
Even if the claimant has escaped a conviction, Ross says, “It’s almost impossible to win these cases.” The reason? “You have to show that either the person didn’t resist at all or the police just lost it.”
That’s one reason that many victims of police brutality are convinced to strike deals before their cases go to trial. “The police get people to plea bargain,” Ross says disgustedly, noting that victims who get their charges dropped or reduced usually must agree to drop the matter entirely–i.e., no suits against the police. When that happens, Ross says civic organizations like the ACLU “can’t look any further because of how the charges were resolved.” And the plea-bargain agreements and out-of-court settlements almost always prohibit victims of brutality from telling their stories. Nobody is the wiser.
As hard as it is to determine the real extent of police brutality, it’s no less difficult to determine how much racial bias is involved in these cases. In “Shielded from Justice,” Human Rights Watch researchers found that “race bias is reported or indicated as a factor in many instances of police brutality,” something no doubt bolstered by the fact that many violent arrests take place in high-crime areas with a high density of blacks. Areas like the one in Durham where Margaret Dukes lives.
It’s true, Dukes says, that drugs are sold in many predominantly black neighborhoods. But, she says, “the police need to stop stereotyping people. Just because you’re in a black neighborhood doesn’t mean you’re a criminal.”
Dukes’ opinion was borne from personal experience. In 1994, Dukes and her sister, Reta Scarlett, were accosted by members of Durham’s CAT team, a special drug-enforcement arm of the local force. The Crest Street neighborhood had been under surveillance, and one night while Dukes and Scarlett stood outside their father’s house, a team of officers rushed them, throwing Dukes (who had a bad back) and Scarlett (who was pregnant) to the ground and stepping on their backs.
“One [officer] stood to my left while the one to my right took everything out of my pockets,” Dukes says. “I told them the God’s truth, that I didn’t know who was selling drugs.”
Neither Dukes nor Scarlett, both nurses at the time, had any criminal record–nor was there any search warrant aimed specifically at their father’s house. Neither woman fit the descriptions of purported dealers in the area. And the forceful personal searches turned up no drugs.
Like Marena Robinson and others who face criminal charges after being brutalized by police, Dukes had to be cleared of “resist, delay, obstruct” charges before she could file a civil suit. Fearing the worst, Dukes remembers how “the police were taunting me the whole time I was in court and it felt like they could do anything to me. I was having nightmares and had got bald spots in my hair.” Doctors diagnosed Dukes as having post-traumatic stress disorder. She says she “didn’t even hear the judge when he read the verdict”: not guilty.
During her trial, Dukes says she was asked to sign a waiver in lieu of possible harsh sentencing–to agree, in other words, to a plea bargain. If she had done so, it would have been nearly impossible for her to win a lawsuit. Instead, she declares, “the ol’ gray matter started going and bells went off and I knew I had a case.”
It took more than three years, but when court finally adjourned, jurors had determined that the police had overstepped their bounds–and that former Durham Police Chief Jackie McNeil had compromised the case by ordering an internal-affairs official to change his findings of misconduct by police officers from sustained to not sustained.
It cost the city $295,000.
Since winning her case, Dukes has gotten on with her life. But she hasn’t stopped bearing witness to the persistence of police brutality. And last year, when she heard about drug-enforcement agents roughing up two elderly African Americans, Catherine Capps and James Cates, Dukes says she “didn’t have to think whether or not it was true. Experience had taught me that, ‘Yes, this is what they do.’ They just go at you like gangbusters.”
Like Dukes, Capps lived in a Durham neighborhood targeted by police as a high-volume drug district. Cates, an old friend, was visiting Capps when officers rushed her house. Search-warrant requests say that a confidential informant had, on several occasions, made “controlled buys” at Capps’ house at 1706 Gunther St.
But when officers stormed in, wearing masks, they didn’t find, as the warrant request stated, a 20-something, 6-2 dealer named “New York.” Nor did they find a 70 year-old-woman named Linda. Instead, they found Capps, a 71-year-old deaf woman who required in-house nurse visits and whose food was delivered by Meals on Wheels. And they found Cates, a squat, 72-year-old diabetic.
No charges were filed against Capps, who died five months after the incident. Charges against Cates were dismissed due to “insufficient evidence to warrant prosecution.” But a picture of Cates taken just after the incident, showing a severely swollen face, explains why he didn’t feel the same way about the police. Aside from being hit, Cates said he was thrown to the ground for allegedly reaching for an officer’s gun, and was forced to urinate on himself while handcuffed, despite his requests to use the bathroom.
According to Durham attorney Keith Bishop, who in May announced a lawsuit against the city for “several million dollars,” Cates’ ordeal didn’t end with his physical mistreatment and the humiliation of wetting his pants. Bishop says that police officers also “made [Cates] take off his pants and underwear and spread his ‘cheeks’ “in order to perform a strip-search, “presumably for weapons.” None were found.
Citing pending lawsuits, including Cates’, Durham police officials declined to comment regarding this case. They also declined to speak about their policies concerning excessive force and police misconduct.
Cates has trouble speaking for himself about the incident; a stroke several years ago affected his speech. During an interview in his Chapel Hill home, Cates’ cousin, Nancy Brooks, often talks in his stead as Cates sits in front of a coffee table covered with medals and framed certificates from all four military branches. As Cates nods, Brooks explains that her cousin regularly drove to Durham to visit Capps, with whom he’d been friends for five years. “Like most old folks, he enjoyed the companionship,” says Brooks. “Boots used to drive a taxi in the service,” she says, using Cates nickname, “and sometimes he ran errands for Ms. Capps–just like he was [still] doing his old job.”
Cates’ attorney says that the incident shows how “officers feel empowered to act with impunity in these neighborhoods.” Bishop, a soft-spoken but steely sort, is well aware of the Dukes case and the monetary rewards his client stands to gain. But Bishop says he has a more important objective: to make the police more accountable.
“When a person’s been injured, there’s no way to turn back the clock,” says Bishop. “And the only way cities will listen, the only way to teach them a lesson, is when they have to pay.”
On the rare occasions when police brutality goes on trial, public awareness is raised–at least temporarily. But it doesn’t necessarily lead to substantial changes in police procedures, or to greater accountability for police officers’ actions. Just ask Catherine Capps’ neice, Shirley Smith.
After all the publicity surrounding the Margaret Dukes case, Durham city leaders created a Citizens Review Board. The board was supposed to hear appeals from folks dissatisfied with the results of police investigations into allegations of misconduct, and act as a liaison between the public and city officials who might be able to change police policies.
“I never got an understanding of what all they could do,” says Smith. But, at the very least, she expected the board to “determine if the police were wrong” when they raided her aunt’s house last year. But after months of corresponding with the review board and city attorneys, Smith was informed that “they couldn’t hear my case because Mr. Cates had filed a lawsuit.”
Smith, who was asking for no money–only an explanation and an apology from the city police–was frustrated to learn that another avenue for redress merely led to a dead end. “It’s terribly wrong,” she says.
Besides being prohibited from hearing appeals when there is pending litigation, the Citizens Review Board lacks any authority to implement policy changes, and it works largely under the direction of the city manager and attorneys. Thus, while it was trumpeted by city officials as a last resort for dissatisfied citizens, the board has had little impact–and, in fact, has not heard a single case to date.
For some, the board has become just another example of how police departments avoid public accountability. “They’re not doing anything,” says one city official who asked not to be named. “It’s a mess, because there is a war out there with cops and so-called criminals, but people want to protect their positions and are afraid” to antagonize city leaders or make findings that might cost the city in court. (Attempts to reach board members for comment were unsuccessful.)
Lacking Durham’s history of high-profile cases, Raleigh officials say they haven’t had need for an independent board to review police investigations of their own officers. “Several times in the last few years, we’ve had cases that ended in criminal prosecution,” says Major John Knox, Raleigh’s commander for police field operations. He cites one example: In 1997, Officer Robert Wayne Bridges, who battered a drug suspect with a flashlight, was terminated and later prosecuted. Even after several fellow officers testified against Bridges in court, however, the jury found him not guilty.
Since Bridges’ exit from the force, Knox says Raleigh officers have been evaluated “at least” once a year on “how well they get along with citizens and ethnic groups and how they deal with stress.” In addition to 900 hours of basic training for new recruits, all 592 current officers (431 of whom are white males) must undergo additional “diversity and sensitivity training, not just racial but cultural and sexual as well,” says Knox.
All that, Raleigh police chief Mitch Brown says, is “indicative of the stand that this management team takes in insisting on high integrity.” Brown says that his department “sustains more cases [of misconduct] on average than other cities, which gives the public the idea that we are on the straight and narrow.”
Still, only two out of 30 complaints of excessive force were sustained by the Raleigh Police Department in 1998 and 1999. And Brown admits that “there’s no standard in place, no perfect way of eliminating that person who’s racist or has extra baggage,” even though the department does conduct psychological testing to weed out potential “Rambos.”
Aside from sensitivity training and “zero-tolerance” policies, can more be done to guard against the use of excessive force–and to hold local police departments and officers publicly accountable for their actions? Some state leaders say no. The kinds of measures aimed at the state Highway Patrol, they say, wouldn’t work with local police and sheriff’s departments.
“Individual municipalities would resist those types of statewide mandates,” says Chief Derek Poarch, director of public safety at UNC-Chapel Hill and chair of the N.C. Criminal Justice Standards Commission. Poarch says that when it comes to excessive force, “it’s hard to mandate because employees, whether they’re good or not, have certain rights and procedures.” However, Poarch adds, “it’s incumbent on the police chiefs and administrators to ensure that theirs is an ethical department.”
State Rep. Bob Hensley, Marena Robinson’s attorney, puts it another way. “I can put in a bill to require something of state agencies,” he says. But at the municipal level, “citizens need to put the pressure where it belongs. You have a chief of police who’s hired by a city manager who’s hired by the city council–so people need to go to their [locally] elected officials” to advocate for reforms. In Durham, there is at least one such effort underway: a joint task force inspired by Shirley Smith’s fight for justice. (See “Refusing to go away”).
Problem is, the lack of public information about police brutality makes it hard to keep the public’s interest up. While it might get some publicity, a case like Cates’ or Robinson’s ends up looking like an isolated incident–and it’s hard to get people riled up about what they think is an isolated incident.
Hensley suggests another angle for those who want to increase police accountability: “I’d attack the conservative business element,” he says, “and make it a tax and spend issue. I’d say, ‘Look at all the money we’re spending on police training and money that’s going out [of city coffers] in hemorrhage fashion’ ” because of lawsuits like Margaret Dukes’.
A good attention-getting spiel, perhaps. But proof of how much money is being doled out to victims, like most information related to police brutality, is hard to come by–and sometimes impossible.
It doesn’t have to be that way. While protecting state employees’ privacy, state law also allows personnel matters to be made public–if city officials “shall determine that release is essential to maintaining public confidence.” For example, says Durham attorney Alex Charns, “when officers are accused of excessive force, a city council could make that public.” At the very least, Charns believes that sustained complaints should be public information. Otherwise, he says, the officers in question “can resign from one agency and be hired by another while the public has no information about a history of misconduct.”
David Harris, a law professor at the University of Toledo who specializes in police misconduct and race bias, says that police brutality in the South has historical roots. “Officers used to have the job of enforcing subservience in the black population,” he says. Despite a higher level of awareness by many police officials, Harris believes that some officers in the New South, are still dedicated to “keeping blacks in their place–whether it’s searches or drug raids or imprisonment.” Unless they’re held publicly accountable, he says, “you’ll make societal-level mistakes that are going to leave a lasting mark.”
An image of Marena Robinson rubbing the scars on her knee springs to mind. She is speaking out, she says, not because her future is hanging in the balance with a third trial. Nor is it because of the way her knee aches during bad weather, or the fact that it can’t take the stress of roller skating alongside her 6-year-old and 9-year-old the way it used to. Rather, she says, it’s the feeling that her “soul and spirit have been shattered.
“I don’t expect people to understand how I feel,” Robinson says, “because they haven’t walked in my shoes. But what it boils down to is that we have to make the police touchable. After all, they’re human too. They make mistakes.”
Challenging excessive force
Ten years ago, when Diop Kamau started a non-profit organization, he sought one major thing: more police accountability. He certainly had his reasons.
In 1987, Kamau’s then 67-year-old father was pulled over by several police units while driving in Pomona, Calif. “The police claimed that he matched the description of a 25-year-old robbery suspect,” Kamau says. “He was stopped at gunpoint with my younger sister and four toddlers in a black van. Then my father was ordered out of the vehicle at gunpoint and savagely beaten by the officers. When the beating was over, his police ID had fallen from his back pocket,” and the police realized their mistake.
Kamau, who was also a law-enforcement officer in Pomona at the time, resigned his position and began investigating police misconduct full-time. When tips from private citizens check out, or when they see news accounts of potentially problematic police forces, Kamau and his staff of investigators penetrate neighborhoods and police departments where purportedly abusive cops can be found. Sometimes using hidden cameras, sometimes using plain-view video cameras and other recording devices, the Center documents both misconduct and good conduct by police officers.
The Center has been featured on CNN, Dateline and 20/20. More importantly, it’s helped divulge patterns of abuse in cities like Los Angeles and New York. But, says Kamau, “the data we have collected does not necessarily show that big cities are the only places where misconduct occurs.” It happens, obviously, in places like Pomona. And Kamau says his organization has received several complaints from North Carolinians, which the Center’s investigators are looking into.
Besides combating police misconduct by documenting it on film, the Center also has a Web site (www.policeabuse.com) where citizens can file complaints and get tips regarding their civil rights. The Center’s efforts have helped change laws in California, and its videos are being used by progressive law-enforcement agencies as training tools to guard against misconduct.
Kamau has some sound advice for victims of police brutality:
· Always file a complaint of misconduct if you feel you have been subjected to ill treatment by a police officer. This applies even when no physical abuse is involved.
· All complaints should be made in writing.
· Send copies of complaints to officials outside police departments, such as attorney generals and city managers.
· If the police schedule an interview with you, don’t go alone. You can request to be interviewed in your home or at a neutral location, such as a church.
· Always record your statements to police, advising the officer that you are recording.
· Always take photographs of any injuries.
· Obtain witness statements and evidence immediately following an incident of misconduct.
· File a claim for damages when you are injured or when your property is taken or destroyed.
· Always seek the counsel of an attorney.
· Request that your complaint be made part of the officer’s permanent personnel file.
Refusing to go away I had been clipping articles about the Catherine Capps and James Cates horror story (see “Brutal in Blue”), but I hadn’t thought about getting involved until I saw a letter from Shirley Smith in the Durham Herald-Sun last September. Shirley wasn’t just another observer like me; she was Capps’ niece and sole caretaker. She wrote movingly about how her aunt’s health, already poor, had declined rapidly since the drug raid. All of a sudden, Catherine Capps was no longer just another faceless victim to me. Nor was her niece. Shirley had even included her phone number in her letter, hoping for any kind of help anyone could give. Gosh, nobody ever does that, I thought. I have to call her.
Several of her friends and members of the Durham NAACP had already been helping Shirley keep her aunt’s case in the press–and keep the heat on local officials. When I called her, we agreed that I would call some of my fellow Libertarian Party members, and that we’d all get together in about a week. I had long been a secret admirer of Curtis Gatewood, chair of the Durham NAACP, and was looking forward to working with him. On the other hand, I wondered how successful Libertarians and NAACP activists would be at finding a common language.
Any concerns I had were dispelled immediately. We quickly discovered that our “Rosetta stones” were the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and anything else that speaks of inalienable civil rights. And we began to see how much the local NAACP and Libertarians have in common. We look at our schools and see the same problems. We agree that the death penalty has simply got to go. And we wonder out loud why it seems so hard for whites and blacks to work together.
The Durham NAACP/Libertarian Party Joint Task Force for Justice for Catherine Capps and James Cates soon reached a consensus about how to proceed: We wanted to seek healing instead of conflict. We agreed that the best justice for Capps and Cates would be to change police policies so that this kind of thing would never happen to anyone in Durham again. In particular, we want the city to crack down on the use of excessive force, and to replace the failed “war on drugs” approach with one that emphasizes reconciliation and treatment. We object to the use of confidential informants without further corroborating evidence. And we believe the city should at least apologize when its officers make a mistake.
We placed hope in our ability to reason with the city, and scheduled a meeting with the City Council’s Finance Committee to begin the dialogue (this committee would address the incident, we were told, since it had been classified as a “personnel matter”). We also began a series of press releases to keep Capps’ and Cates’ names in the news.
The finance committee encouraged us to take our appeal to Durham’s fledgling Citizens Review Board, set up to hear appeals from those dissatisfied with the results of internal investigations of incidents involving police officers. This turned out to be a comedy of errors. We met every deadline we were given, but the city and the board failed to meet in a timely fashion and to keep us informed of what they might be doing. It wasn’t until February, after repeated requests from Shirley Smith, that they finally got around to telling her that the City Council had changed the rules on us in midstream, six weeks earlier. New restrictions had been put in place, designed to keep appeals just like ours from reaching the Citizens Review Board. Well, fancy that. So much for dialogue with the city.
Still, some good has come out of the process. We impressed a number of people in city government with our conduct and our cause–but, unfortunately, not the kind of people who have the power to change police policy. As far as we’re concerned, the City Council, the city manager, the police chief and the district attorney have endorsed, with their silence, the excessive use of police force on two helpless, innocent senior citizens. At the very least, most of them appear to wish that we would just go away.
Shirley Smith won’t just go away, though. And partly because of her, none of the rest of us is ready to give up the fight. She never asked for any of this, but Shirley has, in her distinctly humble way, become a strong leader on this issue. It wasn’t exactly Shirley’s plan to be the focus of a new civil-rights movement in Durham. She seems more surprised than anyone else to be put in this position. But no matter how things are going, she always gives us a reason to keep working.
Sometimes it seems like everything we have tried has run its course. But then something happens to revive our flagging sense of purpose. Not long ago, the task force was contacted by a local man with strong evidence that the DEA and Durham sheriff’s deputies did to him exactly what Durham Police had done to Capps and Cates. We’re working with him now. If it wasn’t for the noise we’d been making over the last year for Capps and Cates, this man would not have known that he had some natural allies in Durham. And if it wasn’t for Shirley Smith, the name of Catherine Capps, who died last fall, would long since have been forgotten by those who never knew her.
We can be beaten down and discarded one by one, but if we stand together, then maybe we can actually get some things changed around here. It all starts with one person that refuses to go away until she gets some justice.
The Durham NAACP/Libertarian Party Joint Task Force for Justice will bring up a website later this month, documenting stories like Capps’ and Cates’. The Web site will be located at www.mindspring.com/~stopvio lence/museum.html, the homepage of Durham’s SOS Violence Awareness Museum. The Durham NAACP can be contacted at 682-4930, and the Durham Libertarian Party at 286-0152.