Friday, June 14, 2024

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Graham, NC 27253
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In unrelated grievance: Plaintiffs in federal suit demand Graham fire police officer

The plaintiffs in a federal civil suit against the city of Graham and Alamance County, over the use of pepper spray to terminate a “march to the polls” in October 2020, are vowing to turn out in force at the next Graham city council meeting to demand the firing of a Graham police officer who has repeatedly drawn criticism for his alleged actions in another jurisdiction, three years prior to his hiring in Graham (see related story this edition.)

Graham’s police department found itself at the center of a controversy last year after hiring a former Greensboro police officer, Douglas A. Strader, who had been among eight Greensboro police officers, who Smith’s supporters insist were involved in the death of Marcus Deon Smith, 38, black male, who died in Greensboro police custody in September 2018.

Greensboro city officials announced earlier this year that they had reached a $2.57 million settlement with Smith’s survivors as part of a federal suit filed in 2019.

Strader was not on Graham’s police force at the time of the October 31, 2020 march, but participants at last week’s meeting with police chief Kristi Cole, required as part of the settlement of that lawsuit, spent much of their time during the one-hour and 40-minute meeting demanding that Strader be fired.

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Strader had been with Greensboro police department for 16 years, eventually rising to the rank of corporal, but was fired in September 2020, based on documents that Greensboro city officials furnished in March 2021 in response to a public records request by The Alamance News. He had been one of eight Greensboro police officers who were on scene during Smith’s arrest in September 2018, the city’s public records show.

None of the officers involved, including Strader, was found to have acted improperly, disciplined, or removed from their posts as a result of the incident with Smith.

The autopsy, which the city of Greensboro made public under the state’s Public Records Law, revealed Smith had died of “sudden cardiopulmonary arrest due to prone restraint; n-ethylpentalone [bath salts and/or plant fertilizer used to produce a high similar to methamphetamines], cocaine, and alcohol use; and hypertensive and atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease” due to a “history of hypertension, smoking, and alcoholism.”

Strader was ultimately fired for an unrelated incident, according to documents furnished by the Greensboro police department. Strader was one of four Greensboro police officers who reportedly fired on an occupied vehicle as it was fleeing a crime scene at the intersection of South Elm and East Washington streets in October 2019.

Activists in Graham have since repeatedly claimed that Strader was involved in Smith’s “murder” – a claim that was repeated last Thursday night during a meeting at city hall with Graham’s police chief.

The Graham police department hired Strader on March 1, 2021 as a Police Officer I, at an annual salary of $43,410.63, based on documents the city provided in response to a public records request from The Alamance News at the time.

Cole has insisted since that Strader had complied with all of the requirements set forth by the NC Criminal Justice Education and Training Standards Commission,” including successful completion of background checks for all applicants seeking law enforcement certification.

The plaintiffs in the suit over the October 31, 2020 march were unpersuaded during their meeting with Cole last week, insisting that she had ignored their concerns by continuing to employ Strader.

“You got a key to the city; and then you brought in a murderer from the city of Greensboro to Graham,” plaintiff Faith Cook of Graham told Cole during the meeting at city hall last Thursday night. “That is not how you build a bridge to the community, and when we talk to you about officer from Greensboro, who was fired – you still ignored it. My question is what community [are you] trying to build a bridge to?”

Rev. Gregory Drumwright of Greensboro, an organizer for the October 31, 2020 march in Graham and a plaintiff in the federal suit, asked Cole last week, “Why did you hire Douglas Strader and why have you not responded to the demands from your community that you love to remove him?”

Cole reiterated that Strader had met all of the requirements for employment with her department.

“We know Douglas Strader has white privilege, which means they can harm other people to the point of death and it not end up on their police record,” Drumwright insisted. “But just in case you did not know that he was a part of the death of Marcus Smith when you hired him – you know it now. And you know that they have been found responsible for his death; why is he still a part of your police force? Because he has white he has white privilege, he continues to police, and you’re telling us that you want to build capital with the community, but the community has uplifted an outcry that you’re ignoring, chief.”

Cole continued to insist that Strader and other officers who had been involved in the incident with Smith had been cleared following multiple investigations.

While Cook and other plaintiffs insisted that Strader should be removed from his position with the Graham police department, particularly given his alleged use of a chokehold-type maneuver to subdue a bystander who, according to the police chief, had been attempting to interfere with a traffic stop near The Pines apartments along Ivey Road in April of this year.

“He sat behind a desk until you let him on the street and he started choking people,” Cook said last week. “You’ve got a man who was part of eight men who hog-tied a man until he took his last breath. That wasn’t enough. He opened fire at a fleeing vehicle when he could’ve easily had a bullet kill somebody else, which is white privilege. You make the final decision.”

Drumwright noted that Cole had said there had been an investigation into the incident on Ivey Road, asking what that inquiry revealed.
Cole said that state law prohibits local governments, including law enforcement agencies, from disclosing the results of an investigation unless someone is terminated, suspended, or demoted.

“So,” Drumwright inferred, “we know the result of the investigation is there was no wrongdoing.”

Asked whether she thought Strader’s hiring was “suitable,” Graham city manager Megan Garner, who began work on November 15, 2021 and attended the meeting last Thursday night, told the group that she didn’t have enough information to form a conclusion about the decision to hire Strader early last year, eight months before her tenure as city manager began.

“I wasn’t here when he was hired, so I don’t know the totality of everything that was reviewed, and I haven’t reviewed it since I’ve been here, so I would be ill-advised to offer an opinion,” Garner told the plaintiffs last Thursday night.

“I understand at the very least that those are alarming incidents but I don’t know enough,” Garner elaborated. “Employees in the state of North Carolina, particularly local government, are provided due process so assuming an employee clears the credentialing to be hired, once they’re employed, they have to have due process, [a reason] to be terminated. Any employee who does some action that warrants termination, the city addresses that.”

“What you’re demonstrating to us – having heard about his immediate past, firing – is you haven’t done anything about it,” Drumwright told the city manager. “You’re using the fact that you weren’t here when he was hired as a scapegoat, but it’s under your administration wherein he’s still employed, and you have done nothing about what you have learned.”

“I’m not sure where you got the idea that there wasn’t an internal investigation,” Garner countered, adding that she is prohibited under state personnel laws from commenting on the outcome of any internal investigation that doesn’t lead to termination, suspension, or demotion.

“The next city council meeting is the second Tuesday in August, and you’re the person who can have the final say-so if she [Cole] doesn’t make a decision,” said Cook. “The second Tuesday in August, I’m coming back to city council. I’m coming back with a crowd – peacefully as always. I’m letting you know – second Tuesday, I’m back with a crowd, peacefully…asking to let the people be heard peacefully, and I expect not to be hacking from pepper spray. I’m coming to ask for safety for these young people who still live here, who not only are still dealing with October 31st trauma but now have to deal with the trauma of a murderer on their city streets policing for them.”

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