Henderson councilwoman criticizes outgoing police chief

May. 13, 2013 @ 11:40 AM

An elected city leader in Henderson is publicly criticizing the outgoing police chief and says comments by the city manager are not supported by her and other members of the city council.

Sara Coffey, almost to the end of her second term on the council, requested an interview to express her opinion on several topics related to the recent retirement announcement of Keith Sidwell, the city’s police chief since January 2007. Sidwell’s last day is May 31.

Coffey said she and other council members were not in agreement with comments by Ray Griffin, the city manager. She said Sidwell instilled good programs, but “probably 65 percent of the citizens never knew who he was” until seeing the retirement story in The Dispatch.

Coffey said Sidwell didn’t do citizens justice, accusing him of not meeting with them and not returning phone calls. She also said complaints were filed with city council and “citizens did not feel like they got resolved because of it being a personnel issue.”

“All they could get was, ‘Oh, it’s been handled,’” Coffey said.

Coffey also accused The Dispatch of being unfair in reporting Sidwell’s retirement.

“All we want is for our community to be safe again,” Coffey said, “and have some leadership in place that can do that. And we don’t feel like that’s what happened with him.”

Coffey also accused Sidwell of being less than honest about why he’s leaving. She said the chief nor Griffin mentioned “underlying issues,” which she said include an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint, reasons given for officers leaving the police department, inaccurate information on crime statistics and a lack of visibility by Sidwell in the community.

Sidwell said a week ago the timing was right because his department was fully staffed, the crime rate had decreased and he was no longer looking to work full-time. He retired with 25 years service in Virginia before coming to Henderson. He is vested for a second retirement here.

Coffey also pointed out the chief did not speak at a public meeting in the E.M. Rollins Elementary School auditorium on Feb. 26. Advised the meeting wasn’t directly tied to three homicides in five days during a 10-day stretch before that meeting, Coffey said, “Nobody knew that, including me.”

Coffey said the city could get a new police chief who would work with the citizens, and be “more suited for our population, somebody that maybe understands our population a little bit more.”

The city council, a policy-making board not tasked with personnel issues in a council-manager form of government, can only hire and fire three positions — the city manager, the city attorney and the city clerk. Coffey was asked if the chief was forced out.

“No, I can’t say that,” Coffey said.

Coffey also requested The Dispatch talk with four other council members. All seven were contacted and given the chance to speak on the chief’s retirement, and asked if the chief was forced out.

Brenda Peace-Jenkins, Vernon Brown and George Daye said they didn’t know. Michael Rainey and Garry Daeke said not to their knowledge. Michael Inscoe and Jim Kearney said he was not forced out.

A review of Coffey’s comments found numbers used without statistical support and therefore subject to debate and interpretation, generalities and state law preventing release of information she said citizens are desiring.

Coffey, owner and operator of a bail bonds business, is the Ward 1 at-large representative. Her seat on the council is one of four up for re-election this fall.

 

Complaints

Griffin announced Sidwell’s retirement on Friday morning, May 3. Coffey called the newspaper the night before, making herself available for comment on his departure and advising there was a pending EEOC complaint.

“We were not in total agreement of everything in that newspaper article making the chief out to be almost larger than life in this city,” Coffey said. “And the only person, seems like, what the article was intended to do was that, he was leaving under great circumstances and he was leaving because he wanted to retire. And that might be all fine and dandy, but there are a lot of underlying issues behind that.”

Asked for specifics on the source of complaints, how many and a time frame, Coffey said, “I couldn’t give you a count. I mean, it’s a whole bunch of them.”

Coffey referenced a letter to the city council from 2012, but was unsure of its date.

“It was sent to all of the city council members for us to discuss and look at by the citizen, and we did, and we don’t feel like a lot of those issues got resolved, and neither do the citizens that have contacted us.

“There’s been more than that this year as far as written complaints that I personally have seen and have copies of. I know that they are there. And I know citizens always come to us council members and complain. They don’t always do it on paper. They come to us a lot, and complain, and we have to listen to them, and then if we ask them to write anything and take it to the city manager, we feel like that’s where it stops.”

Coffey said she has explained to citizens the council is not responsible for hiring and firing the police chief, that complaints should go to the city manager. But she said citizens return to her.

Asked why, Coffey said, “Because you’ve got dead people laying all over the city. You’ve got rapes all over the city. Who else do they come to? They have to come to us.”

She added of Griffin, “He does not want to discuss personnel. And that’s where our citizens get so confused and so unhappy. When an issue presents itself, and they get a standard form letter saying there were no findings, it has been investigated and there were no findings, when they know all the time that they know what happened to them. They’re not going to come in and tell you a lie about something and take it to the extent of actually filing a complaint, or trying to meet with the chief, or meet with the city manager, which several of them have done.”

In explaining the procedure for handling complaints, Sidwell and Griffin said any complaint whether verbal or in written form is fully investigated. The department adheres to the policies and procedures of the Commission of Accreditation of Law Enforcement Agencies, which are based on the best police practices by the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Henderson’s department is a flagship agency in CALEA, representing status as best of the best.

“Every complaint that comes in the department, whether it is oral or in writing, has to be investigated and we put that in writing,” Sidwell said. “And whether it is an administrative investigation, or an investigation for the citizen, those investigations are carried through to completion.

“Now, we can only divulge certain information from an investigation because North Carolina general statue 160A-168 deems what we can and cannot release regarding an internal investigation. To divulge any information regarding personnel records is a Class 1 misdemeanor, and you are not allowed to do that.”

Griffin confirmed discussing any personnel actions would be against the law. He also explained some complaints are developed during a criminal investigation, or pending court action.

“A common delay tactic is to have something on file in the police department alleging police misconduct,” Griffin said. “That’s an old common thing.”

Griffin said information related to personnel or criminal investigations, even for traffic stops, are sensitive due to the possibility of going to court.

“If you found that there was appropriate need to discipline or counsel an officer, you would say that the matter has been addressed,” Griffin said. “And that’s all he says.”

Kari Johnson is a lawyer associated with the N.C. League of Municipalities, through which the city is insured. She’s been in Henderson before to explain a potential citizen review board, which would have to be authorized by the N.C. General Assembly, and which would be bound to North Carolina law on personnel issues.

In 2010, the only North Carolina communities with such a board were Durham, Greensboro, Winston-Salem and Charlotte, which have police forces in the range of 500 officers. Henderson has 51 sworn officers.

Sidwell provided numerical data on complaints. The department, between January 2007 and December 2012, handled a total of 159,901 calls with 188 complaints — a percentage of complaints to calls of 0.1 percent.

Within the numbers, complaints rose between 2007 and 2010 coinciding with two grant programs providing extra officers and aimed at reducing drug activity. There has been a steady decline in complaints since 2009, with 2012 numbers being just shy of half those reported in 2009.

Rainey expressed confidence complaints are dealt with fairly.

“Anything that was brought to us by citizens, it was handled in the proper methods as far as hearings, complaints and investigative work,” Rainey said. “The results may not have been what people wanted to happen, but that’s the way it is.”

 

Council reaction

Other members of the city council were not as outspoken as Coffey.

In positive comments, council members said Sidwell did a good job, officers are properly trained and equipped, and the department is fiscally responsible with grants and asset forfeiture money. The common thread in negative comments was complaints against the department and Sidwell’s visibility.

Daye said in his time as a manager at Harriet & Henderson Yarns, he sought to defuse and resolve complaints with urgency.

Kearney also questioned whether complaints were investigated. And he referenced the aborted attempt at a citizen review board.

“I was a little perplexed as to why we couldn’t get that done,” Kearney said. “Some of it is the law. Still, it seems like the fox is watching the henhouse.”

Rainey said Sidwell took over “a rough situation” and helped curtail violent crime.

“We still have them to a point, but he sent a lot away to the federal prison that we haven’t had in the past,” Rainey said.

“It’s going to be hard to replace him.”

Daeke said it was not appropriate for council to comment on retirements. He did add he thought the chief had “done a really good job here in Henderson” and felt the streets were safer in part through the federal programs through which the department was partnering.

“I hate to see him leave,” Daeke said.

Inscoe had positive comments for Sidwell, and noted habitual felons were removed from the streets. He recognized the four homicides through May 4 as an increase.

Regarding the possibility Sidwell was forced out, Inscoe said, “The chief works for the city manager. The city council’s priorities are not to manage, but to set policy.”

Peace-Jenkins also spoke of complaints and Sidwell’s visibility.

 

EEOC complaint

Coffey volunteered and brought to The Dispatch a copy of the EEOC Form 5 complaint filed by a Henderson officer against Sidwell alleging a charge of discrimination based on race and retaliation.

Coffey said the officer would agree to its contents being released. The Dispatch declined to name the officer or contents of the form signed with an April 30 date.

Coffey said the city became aware of the allegation April 9 through written notice.

Griffin said he was unable to comment on the complaint, other than to acknowledge a filing.

“I know it’s gone to the city manager or the chief,” Coffey said. “It still should have come to us.”

 

Crime is down

In several instances during her interview, Coffey referenced others speaking of the decrease in crime.

“Another thing we’re really concerned about, the statements that keep being made that crime is down, crime is down,” Coffey said. “Now, I’m sorry, I don’t know what they’re looking at as far as crime being down, but we’ve had five murders in five months. That’s one a month.

“I have a real hard time looking at a mother that’s just lost her son to a violent crime, and telling her, ‘Oh, the chief said, or the city manager said, crime is down.’ We don’t really feel good about that. Now, I don’t know what statistics they go by to show crime is down.”

Reminded the council is made aware of the Uniform Crime Report, which the police department reports to the state and in turn is forwarded to a national statistical base, Coffey said, “Numbers, but anybody can go in and do numbers.

“We’re given a copy of the numbers. But I’m telling you the numbers don’t match the crimes.

“There’s been rapes. There’s been carjackings. What am I supposed to tell the public? How am I supposed to tell them crime is down?”

Added Peace-Jenkins, “They feel when we talk about the crime rate is down, they can’t understand it when we have a murder every other week that is unresolved.”

Henderson police currently have no unsolved homicides in 2013, and the number of rapes reported (two) is not significantly askew of the annual totals for 2012 (four), 2011 (four) and 2010 (four).

Arrests have been made for the double-homicide on Feb. 16, and homicides on Feb. 21 and May 4.

Through May 8, Henderson police have investigated 36 homicides since Sidwell arrived in January 2007. Of those, 29 are solved for an 80.6-percent clearance rate. The national average is 66 percent.

In the UCR report, Part 1 crimes include murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larcenies including pocket picked, purse snatching, shoplifting, from motor vehicles, motor vehicle parts, from buildings, from coin machines and a category listed as other. Those categories combine for a mean average.

It is that average that is generally referenced to increases or decreases in crimes for law enforcement agencies.

Henderson’s rate rose in 2008 and 2009, then fell in 2010, again in 2011 and again in 2012.

Griffin, like many state and federal administrators, believes in the Baldridge philosophies when disseminating evaluation criteria to enhance performance. In that is the belief trends are based on a minimum of three years, with preference of five.

“We have three solid data points showing crime is coming down,” Griffin said.

Sidwell said when crime rose through 2009, it was expected and due in part to changes that allowed callers to remain anonymous in the 911 system. Some crimes, Sidwell acknowledged, were not getting reported.

“Once it took hold, that’s when you start seeing the downward trend,” Sidwell said.

More recently, Henderson police have partnered with federal agencies, removing what are typically referred to as “career criminals” from the city’s streets. Another 20 may be gone before a new chief is hired.

Sidwell said the overall crime rate going down has a domino affect.

“I can no more stop a person two offices away from this interview from pulling a gun out of their purse and walking next door and shooting the person in the office beside me,” Sidwell said. “Murder, unfortunately, has happened. However, we can also show that a large portion of those homicides are crime related, and that is nefarious dealings between individuals, victims and suspects, whether it’s drug trafficking, a personal beef, a fight that occurred earlier, and sometimes it’s interfamilial.

“Its unfortunate that human beings see fit to take another life, but they do. But that is a societal problem.”

Daye agrees.

“Crime is down, but he can’t control that, I don’t think, because you never know when a crime is going to be committed,” Daye said.

“We can’t read nobody else’s mind, and God did a good job on that. If we’re going to put blame somewhere, put it where it ought to be. We just can’t tell what another human being is going to do. All we can do is handle it after the situation happens.”

 

Visibility

Coffey described interactions with citizens that paint a picture of older citizens afraid to leave their homes, businesses unable to prosper, and shoppers not coming to Henderson due to fear.

“I want a leadership that can go out and meet with the public, and sit down and get a viewpoint of what the public actually needs, and not someone you can’t talk to,” Coffey said.

Peace-Jenkins said citizens didn’t know Sidwell and only knew him if seeing him on television.

“Probably 65 percent of the citizens never knew who he was and that was seeing his picture for the first time when he was leaving,” Coffey said.

Sidwell said he has accepted every request to speak publicly on behalf of his position and the department when called. Among the groups are churches, the Optimist Club, Kiwanis, Lions, Salvation Army, Community Watch groups, Business Watch groups and Church Watch groups.

He also appears every other week on a radio call-in show at WIZS-1450 AM. Sidwell also appears at community functions, and says he typically stands aside to see his officers interact and evaluate them. He said he does not seek the spotlight.

“I feel that it is just as important for community policing and coactive policing to also have members of my department stand up and shine,” Sidwell said.

Sidwell said officers are placed in leadership positions and become recognizable to the community through them, such as Lt. Irvin Robinson with Crime Stoppers and Lt. Alan Hedgepeth and Lt. Christopher Ball with information released to the public.

Sgt. Jessica West, who was recently promoted, is another who was recognizable with community policing and with the Crime Prevention Unit.

“Those individuals are responsible for the work,” Sidwell said. “Those individuals are responsible for the leadership, and those individuals shine. The department as a whole shines. I am out in the community, I am at meetings, I interact with all of the general public.

“I feel that it is very easy to give information based on perception, and perception to the uneducated and misinformed, obviously at times, can become reality.”

Sidwell said his appearances at crime scenes vary, but decreased once he was on the job for a full year and had assessed his department in action.

“Once through that year that I felt that I had the competency in place, specifically in investigations as well as uniform patrol and leadership,” Sidwell said, “I did not go out to crime scenes as much because true professionals do not like to be micro-managed.”

 

Rollins

Coffey pointed out a public meeting in E.M. Rollins Elementary School’s auditorium on Feb. 26, when Sidwell did not speak to the public. Television stations not normally in Henderson were also at the meeting.

Coffey thought he would have spoken.

Coffey said she and the citizens in the community believed the meeting was about a recent increase in violent crimes, including three homicides in five days, and were not informed of the purpose of the meeting.

“Nobody knew that, including me,” Coffey said.

The Dispatch reviewed city council activities. The Feb. 25 city council meeting agenda packet included a notice sent by Ronald Gregory, superintendent of Vance County Schools, to the council. Peace-Jenkins mentioned the Rollins school meeting during that Feb. 25 council session as well.

Gregory’s notice indicated the purpose of the meeting was “to discuss community safety and protection of youth in Vance County.

“The meeting will be a one-hour session for open discussion about how to make our community a safer place for our citizens and our youth.”

The notice was sent to “stakeholders” of the community, numbering more than 100, including city and county government leaders, business leaders, law enforcement representatives, local judges, attorneys, leaders of civic organizations, church leaders, representatives of Vance-Granville Community College and local educators. The plan was for it to be a starting point for a series of meetings, according to Gregory’s notice.

The Dispatch’s Feb. 24 edition included a story on Page A1 advising of the meeting and its purpose. It also included details on the formulation of the idea, which originated in December.

At the time of the meeting at Rollins, three teens had been shot to death in an eight-month period.

Gregory arranged for student speakers and did not request any law enforcement speakers, public officials or anyone outside the school system. A common theme was students saying they didn’t feel safe.

Sidwell attended, sitting alongside Fire Chief Danny Wilkerson and Sheriff Peter White.

“That school meeting was set in December, and it was postponed to February,” Sidwell said. “The television media blew that entire meeting out of context for what it was never meant to be.

“It was to address school safety, and Ronald Gregory never asked for the chief of police, the sheriff, the fire chief or the mayor to speak. That was because that was a venue that was 100 percent away from what the television media wanted to make it about.”

Sidwell said he was, as always, ready to speak if called upon even unannounced.

“Whenever you go to a public venue such as that, you have to be on your feet and be willing to step up,” Sidwell said. “And I believe the sheriff was. I know I was.”

 

After he’s gone

 

Coffey also pointed out exit interviews are not always done for departing officers, and sometimes reasons given for exits are not fully factual. Griffin confirmed exit interviews from city positions are voluntary.

Coffey was asked about low attendance at meetings such as the Henderson-Vance Community Watch Association. While an estimated 500 turned out for the meeting at Rollins, perhaps on misguided belief, less than 100 typically show for the citywide community watch meetings.

“A lot of it has to do with citizen mentality here and the fact they don’t feel they can get out and trust people to talk about the situations prior to them happening,” Coffey said.

“If they don’t feel like they can trust you, they’re going to come to people that they can trust, like myself, like a couple of other council people. They’re going to tell us these things.

“And then when we try to take it forward, it looks like we’re meddling. It looks like we’re trying to run the police department, and we certainly are not.”

Sidwell and Griffin understand the frustration of those upset over not getting findings of complaints. However, those wanting the findings made public are wanting access to information that is forbidden by law to be given out.

Understanding the crime rate data can be complex. As with any statistic, interpretation is pivotal. And some statistics, such as homicide or involving violence, get more attention.

“I will tell you this,” Daye said. “I heard a lot of complaints against Harriet & Henderson, and they treated people well. But when they left, those people were still left here.

“They had heaven, and now it’s gone. And they can tell you what good it was. And now it’s gone.”

 

Contact the writer at awooten@hendersondispatch.com.

 

COMPLAINTS

 

The following are statistics on complaints lodged against the Henderson Police Department during the tenure of Chief Keith Sidwell:

• 2007: 22 complaints on 33,802 calls (3,380 arrests, 8,807 vehicle stops).

• 2008: 31 complaints on 25,432 calls (2,317 arrests, 9,853 vehicle stops).

• 2009: 45 complaints on 36,311 calls (2,425 arrests, 11,099 vehicle stops).

• 2010: 39 complaints on 33,212 calls (1,871 arrests, 10,182 vehicle stops).

• 2011: 28 complaints on 31,357 calls (2,337 arrests, 6,720 vehicle stops).

• 2012: 23 complaints on 30,144 calls (2,177 arrests, 5,628 vehicle stops).

• Total 2007-2012: 188 complaints on 159,901 calls (14,507 arrests, 52,289 vehicle stops).

• Percentage of complaints to total calls: 0.1 percent.

 

HOMICIDES

The following are statistics on homicides investigated by the Henderson Police Department during the tenure of Chief Keith Sidwell:

• 2007: seven homicides, five solved, 71.4 percent clearance rate.

• 2008: three homicides, three solved, 100 percent clearance rate.

• 2009: four homicides, three solved, 75 percent clearance rate.

• 2010: five homicides, three solved, 60 percent clearance rate.

• 2011: six homicides, five solved, 83.3 percent clearance rate.

• 2012: eight homicides, six solved, 75 percent clearance rate.

• 2013: four homicides, four solves, 100 percent clearance rate.

• Total 2007-2013: 36 homicides, 29 solved, 80.6 percent clearance rate.

• National clearance rate: 66 percent.