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SEXTON: Getting to the bottom of police complaints

In his role as a member of the Citizens’ Police Review Committee, chairman Tony Burton doesn’t have a lot to do.

And that’s just fine by him.

The committee, a de facto and essentially powerless appellate court where aggrieved residents can argue their side of complaints against police, meets four times a year.

Members hear in-person testimony, review evidence and make recommendations to police brass that may or may not be followed.

Since 2018, the committee has heard three cases — one in 2018, two in 2019.

There’s little by way of specifics; the process is intentionally opaque. Personnel laws in North Carolina allow for very little in terms of public disclosure — even for public employees empowered to make irreversible, life-altering decisions.

A handful of statistics — aggregated totals of generalized outcomes — is about all the general public is allowed to see.

“I can’t say much,” Burton said. “I can tell you that I think the balance is correct (between disclosure and privacy concerns). Reports and incidents are investigated, and there is transparency about what the (police) chief wants to be made public and what the citizens deserve.”

Trust us is the working M.O. for resolving complaints. But in a time when police — and policing — are under heightened scrutiny, is that good enough?

Examining the numbers

In order to understand how complaints are heard (and resolved), it’s best to start with a few basic numbers.

The 2020-21 city budget allocates $78.7 million for police expenditures, primary among them 537 full-time sworn officers. Patrol — cops in uniform that average citizens are most likely to encounter — account for more than half of that budget at $44.9 million.

How far does that money go?

Since Jan. 1, 2019, Winston-Salem police answered 182,880 calls for service — 120,398 in 2019 and 64,482 in 2020 through Wednesday.

Over that same time period, officers logged 117,346 arrests and citations; 82 percent were misdemeanors or traffic violations.

That’s a staggering workload for 537 cops in a city with a population approaching 250,000.

Now for comparison’s sake, let’s pivot to the available data for citizen complaints about police conduct, which was provided by the city attorney’s office in response to a public records request.

The Internal Affairs/Professional Standards Division of the Winston-Salem Police Department is the court of first resort. Citizen complaints are investigated there first.

Between 2015-19, police reported 66 complaints and 162 violations. (A single complaint can result in more than one alleged rule violation or involve more than one officer.)

Figuring out what those violations entail — or if a single officer is responsible for repeated violations, for example — is nearly impossible, however.

The department has pages of directives devoted to “Rules of Conduct” — ROC in cop-speak. Police, like the military, thrive on acronyms and regulations.

“There (are) a myriad of possibilities into when each ROC can be violated, and they are investigated on a case by case basis; therefore, we will not provide examples,” wrote Capt. Jose Gomez, a spokesman for the department, in an email responding to questions sent to Chief Catrina Thompson asking for specific definitions and examples of potential violations.

Thompson did not respond to an interview request. Gomez, who works in the chief’s office, did provide eight pages of the ROC.

Per that document, violations can vary from the bureaucratic (listing an incorrect home address) to very serious (conformance to laws, use of force) to eye-of-the-beholder allegations (unsatisfactory performance, conduct unbecoming an officer.)

Perhaps of more interest than the violations — and their miniscule numbers compared to calls for service — is the manner in which they were dealt.

In 2019, for example, internal affairs documented 45 violations in 25 complaints. Of those 45 violations, 27 are listed in police documents as being open, 13 were determined to be unfounded and just three sustained by evidence — one for conduct unbecoming, one for failure to follow departmental directives and one for unsatisfactory performance.

Overall, between 2015-19, 7.4 percent of 162 violations were sustained. Just over a third, 34 percent, are still considered open, and 58.6 percent were determined by Internal Affairs to be unfounded, unsustained or resulted in exonerations.

But what happened in those 7.4 percent of cases — whether the officers were reprimanded, suspended, demoted or fired, whether there were previous allegations of bad conduct or worse — is buried behind the state’s personnel and privacy laws.

Trust us.

Experience plays a part

To be sure, the most serious violations and high-profile incidents find their way into public view.

Justified police-involved shootings, obviously, demand scrutiny. Criminal matters — cops and soon-to-be-former cops charged in recent years with DWI, sexual battery, felony larceny and possession of stolen goods — tend to make headlines, too.

The same goes for encounters caught on video. Remember the police lieutenant who made waves in 2015 for angrily berating someone who was videotaping near the Cherry Street public-safety center?

In Winston-Salem, city authorities generally do not hesitate to make those things known. But that’s not always true elsewhere.

The delay in publicly disclosing the death of John Neville from injuries suffered in the Forsyth County Detention Center while under the supervision of jailers employed by the county sheriff’s office springs to mind.

Trust us.

“The WSPD has a standing practice of conducting yearly reviews of these statistics,” Gomez wrote in an email. “Additionally, the WSPD presents these statistics quarterly to the (Citizens’ Police Review Committee), which is an independent body. Finally, the low number of incidents can be attributed to the level of service provided by the WSPD as a whole.”

And to be clear, the publicly available data about city police indicates that trust in leadership seems warranted.

Still, perception is affected by individual experience.

A middle-aged woman who’s had a couple speeding tickets might view things much differently than a young man who’s had the contents of a gym bag dumped on the ground (or worse) during a traffic stop.

The protesters hitting the streets pushing for more transparency in police matters have a point. So, too, do cops who fairly say “Don’t blame all for the actions of a few.”

Burton, from his spot in the citizens review board, understands differences in perception and believes that the current set-up works for Winston-Salem.

“It’s a good process for giving citizens the opportunity to speak if they have a complaint,” he said. “We look at the facts, hear from people and ask questions about complaints. We give our advice, and (police leadership) take our input seriously.

“I feel like they listen.”

Whether you feel the same way probably depends on the feeling in the pit of your stomach when the blue lights appear in the mirror.

Our child care shortage isn't new. But the pandemic has worsened problems for parents and providers in North Carolina.

Vincent Szwarc wasn’t supposed to bring his 8-year-old daughter, Gracie, to work with him. But when schools in the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school system closed in mid-March, there were days when he had no choice.

Szwarc, a single father, is an internet installer whose job requires early morning starts and travel to rural homes.

He considers himself lucky to have found reduced-rate child care through Imprints Cares. The nonprofit got a $100,000 grant from Forsyth County’s COVID-19 Response Fund to help parents such as Szwarc cover the cost — $225 a week discounted to $100 weekly.

The novel coronavirus pandemic caught Szwarc, like thousands of parents, flat-footed, scrambling to secure care as North Carolina’s child-care industry teetered. Thousands of centers closed and slashed services as their primary revenue source — parents — withdrew children in droves.

By April, more than 40% of child-care centers in the state — deemed essential businesses by the governor — shut down.

Despite millions of dollars in public relief to child-care centers, more than 1,500 North Carolina programs — 1 in 4 — remain closed, according to data from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. Others now operate at reduced capacity. This shortage arrives at a moment when many parents — eager to return to work as their unemployment benefits run out — desperately search for placements.

N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein joined a coalition of attorneys general Tuesday to urge the U.S. Senate to approve $50 billion in funding for child-care centers across the country.

“If providers don’t get the funding they need to stay open, we’ll lose critical small businesses and place even more financial burdens on families already struggling during the pandemic,” Stein said in a news release.

This scarcity in child care isn’t new. The coronavirus, advocates argue, hasn’t created issues in child care as much as exacerbated preexisting problems in a fragile industry. For years, workers have been paid too little, owners have struggled to cover steep operating costs and parents have been asked to fork over more than they could often afford to pay.

“The child-care financing model was broken even before COVID,” said Michele Rivest, the policy director at the N.C. Early Education Coalition in Raleigh. “Then the revenues dropped precipitously after COVID, and it just collapsed the system.”

But advocates say one of these challenges cannot be ignored as the economy tries to restart.

Child-care deserts — areas where too few spots exist for kids who need them — have long plagued the state. With centers closed, even more North Carolinians can’t find an oasis.

The discounted child-care Szwarc found at Imprints ended in mid-June, but he was able to put Gracie in the Imprints summer camp, although it’s costlier. Szwarc said he expects to send his daughter back to school when classrooms open again. He is just hoping he’ll be able to find an after-school program when that happens.

“I personally need the after-school program,” he said. “I go in early morning and sometimes I may not get back in town until close to 6 o’clock.”

‘No Cadillacs’

Catherine Lieberman hasn’t drawn a paycheck since March despite working each day.

Lieberman runs Bell’s School for People Under Six, the center her mother started in 1978. She said the center in the town of Fletcher, slightly more than 10 miles south of Asheville, has never been a tremendous moneymaker.

“There are no Cadillacs in that parking lot,” Lieberman said from Bell’s wide backyard on a cloudless Monday morning in late June. About 20 children dashed all around her, mimicking airplanes and passing a hula-hoop. From behind the face mask she’s wearing because of the pandemic, she chuckled at the scene, grateful to again hear the hum of kids playing.

“April and May were devastating for us,” Lieberman said.

Unlike many centers, Bell’s never shut, but its enrollment plunged from 40 students pre-pandemic to six. Parents stopped sending their children. Some were laid off or working remotely; others worried about health or finances.

Bell’s wasn’t alone. According to the N.C. Early Education Coalition, 250,000 children attended programs before the pandemic. In April, enrollment plummeted to 51,000.

Individual families, the coalition said, account for 60% of programs’ revenues. So, when families kept away, many programs had to pause services.

To balance Bell’s budget, Lieberman laid off staff and assumed school expenses as personal debt. She racked up $3,000 in center expenses on her credit card. At home, she and her husband cut back on eating out and canceled their anniversary trip. For groceries, they’ve swapped fresh for frozen vegetables.

“If I save $20 at the grocery store, that’s $20 for gas,” she said.

This spring, child-care advocates pressed state leaders to step in and prop up the industry.

Legislators directed more than $100 million in federal CARES Act relief to child care. The Emergency Child Care Subsidy Program delivered child-care aid for essential workers. The government also waived copayments for low-income families receiving child-care subsidies.

The state doled out money to providers, too.

Programs serving students on subsidies received public funding, even if the programs were closed. The N.C. Division of Child Development and Early Education, part of the DHHS, also funded pre-K programs through the end of the school year. Open centers could apply for grants, and workers received bonuses.

In May, Lieberman received $13,000 in public relief, a relative windfall after several lean months.

“I was seriously wondering if we were going to make it to June,” she said. “It more than helped us keep the doors open.”

Since bottoming out this spring, child-care enrollments across the state have doubled in recent weeks. But that’s just 40% of attendance before the pandemic.

Bell’s has rebounded some. After implementing new health standards, Lieberman called staff members back to work, and more than a dozen students returned.

Teachers allow one student at a time through the front door, where they disinfect backpacks and take temperatures. By now, students have become so familiar with the daily safety routines, they chide adults for any deviations. Students nap 6 feet apart, and adults wear masks. (Lieberman briefly implemented a child face-covering policy but reconsidered after students would go through 10 masks a day.)

Lieberman capped Bell’s enrollment at half-capacity to maintain the state-recommended safety precautions.

As more parents return to work, demand at Bell’s outpaces availability. With a waitlist of 20, Lieberman fields calls from pleading parents looking for openings.

Recently, “two moms completely broke down and sobbed on the phone: ‘What am I going to do? I can’t even go back to work,’” Lieberman said. “And another parent got very angry. I understand where they are. The problem is there’s just not the capacity. There wasn’t the capacity before COVID in the area, and now, post-COVID, the level of frustration for families has gone up exponentially.”

Not enough room

Even before the new coronavirus swept across the state, close to half of North Carolinians lived in child-care deserts, areas where at least three children under the age of 5 vied for each opening. In several regions, the ratio is more than five children per availability.

Space is so competitive, expectant parents commonly put their children’s names on program waiting lists before they are born.

Out of North Carolina’s 100 counties, 44 saw at least half their children living in child-care deserts, according to the Budget and Tax Center at the N.C. Justice Center, a nonprofit organization in Raleigh . Access gaps don’t discriminate based on county size — 50% or more of children in Forsyth, Mecklenburg, Union and Gaston counties live in deserts. Some rural counties suffer more; four out of every five children in Transylvania and Hoke counties lived within child-care deserts.

This scarcity is expected to worsen. The Center for American Progress in Washington predicts one child-care spot for every four North Carolina children as a result of the pandemic.

Industry leaders said child-care deserts are a byproduct of the sector’s thin profit margins.

“We like to say there’s no gold in diapers,” Lieberman said.

Tuition at Bell’s averages $220 a week, but labor costs alone, Lieberman said, consume 80% of revenues.

Providers can only charge what families can bear to pay. Unlike publicly funded K-12 education, providers must cover fixed expenses like land, insurance, utilities and staff.

North Carolina child-care workers make, on average, about $21,000 a year, a figure that program directors say makes recruiting and retaining teachers a constant challenge.

“We’ve had people who have left to be bartenders or servers because they can make more doing that,” said Stephanie Kelley, the coordinator of child and family services at the Verner Center for Early Learning, which has three Asheville-area locations. “People will say that they love doing the work and they have early childhood degrees, but the pay doesn’t allow for them to be able to live, especially in Asheville, where the cost of living is so high.”

Meager profits and labor shortages have led to a dearth of providers in large swaths of the state. Child-care deserts have been most prevalent in rural areas where families have to travel longer distances and lower earners might struggle to afford programs. In largely rural Buncombe County, half of the children lived in a child-care desert before the pandemic.

Last year, the Economic Policy Institute in Washington found that the annual child-care cost for a 4-year-old in North Carolina was more than $8,000, with infant care costing $9,480 a year — more than in-state college tuition.

Despite high fees and low labor costs, most child-care centers struggle to make their financials work.

For some, a few weeks’ disruption upset their entire operation. As children left, so did revenues. And the need to buy cleaning supplies and protective gear demanded dwindling resources. Access to federal Payroll Protection Program dollars proved difficult for many, advocates say, because they had no prior relationships with banks.

Some centers have yet to rebound. Others have chosen to close permanently. In May, Fayetteville Technical Community College alerted families that it would be ending its child-care program after 24 years.

“This was not an easy decision,” FTCC President J. Larry Keen wrote in a letter to parents. “The COVID-19 pandemic pushed the center’s finances and its future operation into untenable situations.”

System reboot

Michele Rivest was thinking about the immediate child-care crisis when she spoke before the N.C. House Health Committee in late June. Rivest informed policymakers of the returns the state saw in recent months from its multimillion dollar investment in child care.

Rivest highlighted program reopenings, enrollment upticks, the child-care lifelines for essential workers and bonuses for low-paid staff members who showed up to child-care centers each day during a pandemic.

“We were really focusing on the need to stabilize the current child-care industry so we can look back in six months and say ‘Oh look, we still have a viable system,’” Rivest said. “We didn’t get to this next stage, which is, ‘Let’s reimagine what child care could look like in the 21st century, in the near future.”

To survive, advocates say, the child-care industry needs a system reboot.

And, the stakes are high.

Child-care advocates contend it will be hard to pull North Carolinians back to work until the state reshapes child care.

Since COVID-19, counties with larger urban centers have seen most programs reopen, with only 11% still closed in Wake, 19% in Forsyth, and 27% in Mecklenburg as of late June. However, in rural western counties like Henderson, McDowell, Transylvania and Yancey, more than half of the facilities are empty, according to DHHS data. All five in Polk County remain closed.

In Buncombe County, where Bell’s School is located, 40% of the facilities haven’t reopened.

“It’s hard to imagine a situation in which the economy can rebuild without child care, but it’s also just as hard to imagine that the economy can rebuild with a child-care system that continues to underpay educators and rely on parents’ ability to pay,” said Alexandra Sirota, the director of the Budget and Tax Center.

Sirota suggested that the state’s child-care relief should transition from stopgap measures to permanent financial policies.

“What has happened is such a shock to early childhood care that a long-term commitment of public dollars and a real restructuring of the way we support early childhood is going to be necessary,” she said.

At Bell’s, Lieberman said she would welcome any restructuring that could elevate staff wages and alleviate the center’s financial tightrope walk.

“I would like for our society to understand that this age is important and can’t be neglected,” she said.

Lieberman is eager to return Bell’s to full capacity, whenever the novel coronavirus ebbs and safety precautions ease. She won’t predict when that might be.

By the end of July, she intends to take her first paycheck in four months, putting the money toward a car payment and some fresh vegetables.

Three of five detention officers were either suspended or placed on administrative leave in the weeks before charges were announced in John Neville's death, according to records.

Three of the five detention officers charged in John Elliott Neville’s death were either suspended or placed on administrative leave in the weeks before the criminal charges were filed, according to records.

Neville, 56, died on Dec. 4, 2019, at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, two days after he suffered a seizure and fell from his top bunk bed at the Forsyth County Jail.

According to an autopsy report, Neville suffered a brain injury that came about after his heart stopped beating. He asphyxiated while being restrained with his arms behind his back and his legs folded up in a position often referred to as hog-tied.

On July 8, Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill announced that five detention officers and a nurse had been charged with involuntary manslaughter — Lt. Lavette Maria Williams, 47; Cpl. Edward Joseph Roussel, 50; Officer Christopher Bryan Stamper, 42; Officer Antonio Woodley Jr., 26; and Officer Sarah Elizabeth Poole, 36, and nurse Michelle Heughins, 44.

Records requested by the Winston-Salem Journal show that Roussel was placed on administrative leave with pay on June 2, and Williams was placed on administrative leave with pay on July 2. Poole was suspended without pay for three days, starting on June 26, the first day that the sheriff’s office publicly acknowledged Neville’s death after getting questions from the Winston-Salem Journal.

According to the records, Poole was then placed on a probationary period for 12 months after the three-day suspension.

It was not immediately clear whether these actions against Roussel, Poole and Williams were related to Neville’s death. Woodley and Stamper were not suspended or placed on administrative leave, according to the records.

Christina Howell, the spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office, has said that no disciplinary action was taken against the detention officers during an investigation into Neville’s death by the State Bureau of Investigation.

Tony Burton, the human resources manager for the sheriff’s office, said Friday afternoon that he was out of the office and could not immediately provide answers to questions from the Winston-Salem Journal.

Four of the detention officers were fired on July 7, the day before O’Neill’s news conference. Stamper was terminated on July 8, according to the records.

All of the termination letters reference state law that gives Kimbrough the authority to “hire, discharge, and supervise the employees in his office.”

“I am invoking these powers in discharging you as an employee of the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office,” Capt. G.L. East writes in the letters.

Records also indicate that Stamper resigned from the sheriff’s office in February 2017, but was rehired on July 16, 2018. The records do not include the reasons why he resigned.

Protesters have been demonstrating and demanding transparency and answers from the district attorney’s office and the sheriff’s office about Neville’s death. Last week, demonstrators started occupy events that included educational components and marches to the jail and sheriff’s office. Groups organizing the events include the Triad Abolition Project and the Unity Coalition. The ACLU of North Carolina is supporting local protesters’ demands for answers.

Video of the incident has not been released, and O’Neill said he would oppose a public release, at least for now. The News & Observer, which also has reported on Neville’s death, has petitioned for its release, and a hearing is scheduled for July 29 in Forsyth Superior Court.

The former detention officers and the nurse have all been released on a $15,000 unsecured bond. The detention officers are scheduled to appear in court July 23. Heughins is scheduled to appear in court July 30.