According to Henderson City Manager Ray Griffin, it was determined that the best opportunity to hold a meeting of the Henderson City Council’s Public Safety Committee was during yesterday’s council work session.
Member Lonnie Davis, who is the chair of that committee, said that the idea behind the meeting is for the council to figure out a way to instill into people that [the council] is here for them. He also said that the council wants to create an air where people “have a certain amount of respect for police.
“That, of course, works both ways,” Davis added.
Henderson Police Chief Keith Sidwell began his remarks to the council by noting that in 2008, there were three homicides in Henderson, and that his department had a 100% clearance rate on those crimes.
“Clearance” is achieved when an investigation is concluded, usually with an arrest.
The chief went on to say that the national clearance rate for homicides in 2008 was 68%.
In 2009, there have been four homicides in Henderson. So far, the clearance rate has been 75%, but only because one investigation is still ongoing, Sidwell said. He said that he expects to reach 100% clearance this year as well.
Sidwell told council members that the community has to work with the police department and the police department has to work with the community. He said that he has had meetings with many community stakeholders including landlords and property managers, judges, and the district attorney, and that all want to move forward to a positive resolution.
The chief said that people afraid of retribution or who believe that the court system is not working make it “challenging”. To the former, Sidwell said he has taken great pains to minimize citizen involvement by making sure that complainants are anonymous on 911 and by deploying the 800 MHz VIPER radios that require special and expensive equipment to monitor.
Sidwell said that there are “detractors” who use words like “racism” and “harassment” before the council. He said that those words are meant to inflame, not inform. He told the council that when someone comes in to complain about the police department, they are only hearing one side of the story.
On August 24, 2009, Theodous Bryant came before the council to complain about alleged abuses by a member of the Henderson Police Department. He was accompanied by activist Rev. C.J. Dale. After comments by Bryant and Dale, several council members reacted sympathetically to Bryant’s story without input from the department.
“Every complaint that comes through our department is aggressively investigated,” Sidwell said. “I will only tolerate good officers.”
Sidwell described himself in dealing with internal matters as having “a fair but heavy hand.”
He said that the detractors he alluded to should “pick a side”, quit trying to divide the community and pull it together.
Member Mike Rainey asked what a citizen’s recourse is if they do not like the result of a police internal investigation. Sidwell replied that there is recourse to the courts if one believes that criminal behavior has occurred, the district attorney, or the attorney general. He also said that there is civil court.
The Henderson police chief noted several times that complaints against individual officers immediately become personnel matters, and that there are very strict rules and guidelines that must be followed during the process of investigation.
Council member Mike Inscoe asked how many repeat offenders Sidwell sees “day in and day out”. The chief replied that “some of them are household names”.
Inscoe asked if Sidwell is seeing more young juveniles involved in crime now than since he came to Henderson. Sidwell said that the ages range anywhere from seventeen to 60.
In terms of solutions, the chief proposed that all stakeholders be brought to the table: politicians, citizens, and court personnel. He also said that the faith community needs to help correct behavior. He went on to say that he is getting cooperation from property owners and managers who are refusing to rent to people who engage in criminal activity.
Council member Mary Emma Evans asked how the council is to know if the person who comes before the council [to complain] was telling the truth or “spreading garbage”? Sidwell responded that he cannot go outside the rules governing personnel policy, and he repeated his earlier statement that the citizen has the option of going to the district attorney, the attorney general, or civil court.
Sidwell went on to note that when a complaint form is filed against an officer, there is a statement at the bottom of the form to the effect that anything found to be false on the complaint makes the person filing the complaint civilly liable.
“In those cases, the envelope is pushed,” Sidwell said.
Evans said that ward meetings would give citizens the opportunity to express themselves. The Ward 1 representative went on to say that there is room for a better working relationship between the Henderson Police Department and the Vance County Sheriff’s Office. She said that if people could see the sheriff and the chief “come together on a friendlier basis, they would see there is not a crack for them to put one against the other”.
“I think someone’s got to bend,” Evans went on to say.
Although Sidwill expressed a willingness to respond to Evans in great detail, he said that the officers of the two departments “are working very well together”. He said that the two agencies, along with the US Secret Service, had just concluded a joint counterfeiting investigation.
“For us to pontificate about the two agencies not working together would be a disservice,” Sidwell said.
Before the meeting was concluded, Davis suggested that a group be formed in the same manner in which Clean Up Henderson was formed to address the issue of crime in the community.
Member Garry Daeke suggested that perhaps the district attorney could come before the city council and give an overview of what happens in the court system. He suggested that a public forum could be held where questions could be asked.
Davis said there was a need to have “a Rosa Parks moment” and say “‘I’m tired of this crap that’s going on'” and do something about it.
Any action that may be taken as a result of yesterday’s committee meeting will be considered by the council during its next meeting on October 12, 2009.