Greensboro res­i­dents con­cerned over new po­lice hire

Times-Record - - News - By ABBY AN­DREWS aan­drews@ches­pub.com

— Sev­eral Greensboro cit­i­zens came to the town’s meet­ing Thurs­day, March 1, to voice their con­cerns about the town po­lice depart­ment’s new­est hire.

Thomas Web­ster IV was re­leased by the Dover Po­lice Depart­ment in Fe­bru­ary 2016, three years af­ter a dash cam cap­tured footage of Web­ster, a white man, kick­ing La­teef Dick­er­son, a black man, in the face and break­ing his jaw, and two months af­ter a jury ac­quit­ted Web­ster of a re­sult­ing as­sault charge.

Now in train­ing to be cer­ti­fied in Mary­land, Web­ster is on track to join the Greensboro Po­lice Depart­ment in April.

Cit­i­zens said they wor­ried about the mes­sage the town was send­ing to peo­ple, es­pe­cially peo­ple of color, both within Greensboro and in sur­round­ing ar­eas, by hir­ing Web­ster, and ques­tioned the lack of com­mu­ni­ca­tion with res­i­dents be­fore his hir­ing and why the town’s depart­ment needed a fourth of­fi­cer.

Town of­fi­cials said Web­ster was the strong­est ap­pli­cant of about 15 in­ter­viewed for the po­si­tion, passed all back­ground checks and eval­u­a­tions and was ea­ger to work with the com­mu­nity.

Mayor Joe Noon ac­knowl­edged the 2013 dash cam footage was shock­ing, but said Web­ster had been found not guilty. Fur­ther, Noon said, he would never do any­thing to know­ingly put the town’s cit­i­zens in dan­ger.

“The coun­cil is giv­ing Web­ster a se­cond chance,” Noon said. “We’re ask­ing the cit­i­zens to give him a se­cond chance.”

Christina Robin­son, of Greensboro, spoke for a group of cit­i­zens who had given her ques­tions for the coun­cil, she said, some of whom were afraid to di­rectly ask themselves for fear of re­tal­i­a­tion.

Robin­son read one such cit­i­zen’s ques­tion, ask­ing if Web­ster’s hir­ing in­di­cated a shift to a more mil­i­ta­rized style of polic­ing within the town.

“Is this what the mayor and coun­cil is go­ing for?” Robin­son read. “If not, what mes­sage do you think this sends to cit­i­zens and peo­ple out­side the town? Is the goal to dis­cour­age peo­ple of color from mov­ing here?”

Coun­cilmem­ber Michael Mackey, also the town’s po­lice com­mis­sioner, said the dash cam footage the pub­lic saw was only a snip­pet of the full story.

“Peo­ple never saw the com­plete story of what hap­pened,” Mackey said.

“I know where ev­ery­body’s com­ing from,” Noon said, adding his phone had been ring­ing off the hook since news broke of Web­ster’s hir­ing. “I agree the video looked bad.”

Robin­son said even if it is true the pub­lic does not know the whole story based on the video alone, what can be seen in the video still af­fects the pub­lic’s per­cep­tion.

“The op­tics goes into the trust of the po­si­tion,” Robin­son said.

The next ques­tion Robin­son read asked why the town po­lice depart­ment, which has al­ways op­er­ated with three of­fi­cers, now needed a fourth.

Mackey said Sgt. Wil­liam Gard­ner in­tends to re­tire some­time be­fore the end of the year; Web­ster was hired now so he will be trained in time for Gard­ner’s de­par­ture.

“This town can’t af­ford four of­fi­cers, and we won’t have four,” Mackey said.

Robin­son read a ques­tion ask­ing why there were no pub­lic meet­ings con­cern­ing Web­ster’s po­ten­tial hir­ing.

Mackey said the town has never in­volved the pub­lic in the hir­ing process for a town em­ployee be­fore, but he sees where the ques­tion is com­ing from in this par­tic­u­lar case.

Greensboro Po­lice Chief Michael Pe­tyo said he per­son­ally per­formed a deep back­ground check on Web­ster. In ad­di­tion to the usual poly­graph test, psy­chi­atric eval­u­a­tion and for­mer em­ployer in­ter­views, Pe­tyo said he vis­ited some of the Dover neigh­bor­hoods Web­ster pa­trolled while an of­fi­cer there.

“These were high crime ar­eas,” Pe­tyo said. “The res­i­dents had noth­ing but good things to say about him, that he was a peo­ple per­son, he got things done.”

Pe­tyo said Web­ster’s for­mer su­per­vi­sor in Dover also told him if he had been chief, Web­ster would not have been let go.

“I looked at the to­tal­ity of the ap­pli­cant,” Pe­tyo said. “This is some­one not afraid to do his job, who wants to be em­bed­ded in the com­mu­nity.”

Robert Thomas, an­other con­cerned cit­i­zen, said watch­ing the video, he was most con­cerned about the tac­tics Web­ster used to ad­dress Dick­er­son, who was un­armed.

“This is a train­ing thing, not a black and white thing,” Thomas said.

Pe­tyo said Web­ster is now in train­ing for state cer­ti­fi­ca­tion and will get much more train­ing once he joins the Greensboro force.

“Train­ing is paramount for ev­ery­one in this depart­ment,” Pe­tyo said.

Mary Baker, an­other con­cerned cit­i­zen, asked if there was any truth to two ru­mors go­ing around so­cial me­dia — that Web­ster had pre­vi­ously ap­plied to join the Caro­line County Sher­iff’s Of­fice but was turned down, and that he and Pe­tyo had been room­mates in the po­lice academy.

Noon said only the sher­iff’s of­fice would know if Web­ster had ap­plied; the town was not privy to that in­for­ma­tion.

Pe­tyo said he went through the academy two years af­ter Web­ster, and only knew him in pass­ing, when Web­ster worked in Dover and Pe­tyo worked for nearby Wy­oming.

Robin­son’s fi­nal ques­tion was who would be re­spon­si­ble if there was an­other in­ci­dent while Web­ster is em­ployed by the town; the City of Dover paid Web­ster $230,000 over six years af­ter his re­lease from the po­lice depart­ment, on the con­di­tion he would never again seek em­ploy­ment there, and paid Dick­er­son $300,000 to drop a fed­eral civil rights law­suit against the city.

Town At­tor­ney Brynja Booth said Greensboro would be re­spon­si­ble.

Robin­son said the cit­i­zens’ ques­tions were not an at­tack on the po­lice depart­ment or the town, and the cir­cu­lat­ing ru­mors and fears could have been staved off from the be­gin­ning if the town had been more trans­par­ent.

“This is the prob­lem when we don’t ad­dress things be­fore­hand,” Robin­son said. “We get mis­in­for­ma­tion.”

“This has been a learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence,” Noon said.

Town Man­ager Jean­nette De­Lude said an “open house” will be held once Web­ster is through train­ing, to give the pub­lic a chance to meet him. She said sim­i­lar events are held for ev­ery po­lice of­fi­cer hired by the town.

Noon said Web­ster had of­fered to at­tend the town meet­ing and speak to cit­i­zens him­self, but town of­fi­cials asked him to wait.

The dis­cus­sion con­cluded with De­Lude, Pe­tyo and Noon of­fer­ing to talk to any cit­i­zen, at any time, about any con­cerns.

Robin­son also of­fered her help to the town as a cit­i­zen.

“Any­thing I can do to help ease the ten­sion, reach out,” she said.

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