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Tension over police relations leads to expulsion from council meeting

041117citycouncil

Greenville City Council meets on April 10, 2017.

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By Seth Thomas Gulledge
The Daily Reflector

Friday, August 10, 2018

Tension about police and community relations boiled over in City Council chambers on Thursday night, resulting in one resident’s removal. 

The removal, as well as an obvious division between people attending to share public comments on police officers and those on hand to recognize their public service, demonstrated two distinct attitudes towards city policing.

The council’s agenda for the evening included several rezoning requests and discussion on job creations grants, Air BNB’s and alcohol in the city’s major park.

Also on the agenda were several recognition ceremonies, including one for Scott Lascallette, a retiring Greenville police officer of 15 years. Lascallette, a retired U.S. Coast Guard veteran, was honored for his work on increasing bicycle and motorcycle safety in the city.

Over a hundred residents gathered in council chambers, creating a standing room-only situation in what is usually a sparsely populated room.

Because of the award ceremony, about 40 uniformed Greenville Police officers, off-duty officers, spouses and supporters filled one half of the room. 

Also in attendance — occupying the other half of the room — were about 30 members and supporters of the Pitt County Coalition Against Racism (CAR), who have been attending meetings since spring to discuss alleged police profiling and improper use of force. The group is petitioning the council to create a civilian police review board, which is being researched by city staff. 

During the public comment period — which preceded the recognition ceremony — about 12 members of the public came before council to discuss concerns related to the night’s agenda, including several members of CAR. 

Willow Mercando, a CAR supporter, alleged that members of the police force were routinely profiling residents throughout Greenville based on factors, such as race. 

“People aren’t suspicious, behavior is,” she said. “Which calls into question how someone looks suspicious by just walking. What behavior while walking dictates suspicious behavior?” 

Following Mercando’s speech, Mayor P.J. Connelly informed residents that the allotted time limit for public comment had ended, causing outcry among CAR members. 

The City Council public comment period allows any resident in attendance to speak for no more than three minutes, so long they do not refer to something that is the subject of a separate public hearing during the same meeting. A total of 30 minutes is allotted for the period. 

One CAR member, Dedan Waciuri, stood in his seat and began shouting in protest of the end of the public comment period. Connelly repeatedly ordered him to quit speaking.

“We’ve got something to say,”  Waciuri said. “The community has been abused constantly, and everybody should stand up and say what we need to say. These things have been going on for way too long.

“This is a shame that you won’t let the community come out and speak to let you know that what’s going on in our community,” he said.

As Waciuri continued, a GPD officer crossed the room and escorted him and other CAR members out of the chambers.

During the council’s closing comments, council members said they encouraged residents to come and speak about their issues, but differed on whether ending the public comment period was correct. 

District 1 Councilwoman Kandie Smith apologized to the public, and said that not allowing the residents to speak was the wrong decision, adding it was unfair to residents and hypocritical of the council. 

“I 100 percent support all of our citizens to have a voice and to share their issues and concerns, regardless of the subject matter,” Smith said. “What happened tonight was disturbing on several levels.

“We many times have had public comment periods that were extended due to the request of the citizens,” she said. “We must remember why we are here, why we are elected and why we sit in these seats.”

Connelly called Smith’s comments improper, and said he unequivocally supports residents having a voice, but believes the rule of law is important. 

“We as a city pass policies and procedures, and we have to follow those policies and procedures,” he said. “If you want to make a change to it, make a policy change. To out there and say we didn’t follow the policies and procedure, that’s incorrect.”

Connelly encouraged those in attendance on Thursday who were unable to speak to return at another comment period, as well as to email him at any time.

At-Large Councilman Brian Meyerhoeffer said he was encouraged to see so many people out at the meeting, and said he wanted to see community dialogue continue. He said he believed having honest dialogue is important to finding common ground and solutions.

“I think the beauty of our police department and the many good cops out there is that they also want to eradicate bad cops,” he said. “I think some people might be surprised to find out they have that in common with our good police officers.

Also on Thursday night: 

  • Council held a discussion regarding the regulation of short-term rentals — such as Air BNB’s, directing staff to bring recommendations back to council on how to regulate their increasing popularity. 
  • A formerly denied rezoning request that had residents concerned about potential for sand mining was tabled until the council meets in October. 
  • The council approved a Job Creation Grant Program, which is allocated $100,000 to award companies either coming to Greenville or expanding to offer more jobs in the area. 
  • A previously denied rezoning request on East Sixth Street was withdrawn by the applicant, after about 20 neighbors came out in opposition to the project.  

Contact Seth Gulledge at Sgulledge@reflector.com and 252-329-9579. 

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