GREENSBORO — Several Greensboro citizens came to the town’s meeting Thursday, March 1, to voice their concerns about the town police department’s newest hire.
Thomas Webster IV was released by the Dover Police Department in February 2016, three years after a dash cam captured footage of Webster, a white man, kicking Lateef Dickerson, a black man, in the face and breaking his jaw, and two months after a jury acquitted Webster of a resulting assault charge.
Now in training to be certified in Maryland, Webster is on track to join the Greensboro Police Department in April.
Citizens said they worried about the message the town was sending to people, especially people of color, both within Greensboro and in surrounding areas, by hiring Webster, and questioned the lack of communication with residents before his hiring and why the town’s department needed a fourth officer.
Town officials said Webster was the strongest applicant of about 15 interviewed for the position, passed all background checks and evaluations and was eager to work with the community.
Mayor Joe Noon acknowledged the 2013 dash cam footage was shocking, but said Webster had been found not guilty. Further, Noon said, he would never do anything to knowingly put the town’s citizens in danger.
“The council is giving Webster a second chance,” Noon said. “We’re asking the citizens to give him a second chance.”
Christina Robinson, of Greensboro, spoke for a group of citizens who had given her questions for the council, she said, some of whom were afraid to directly ask themselves for fear of retaliation.
Robinson read one such citizen’s question, asking if Webster’s hiring indicated a shift to a more militarized style of policing within the town.
“Is this what the mayor and council is going for?” Robinson read. “If not, what message do you think this sends to citizens and people outside the town? Is the goal to discourage people of color from moving here?”
Councilmember Michael Mackey, also the town’s police commissioner, said the dash cam footage the public saw was only a snippet of the full story.
“People never saw the complete story of what happened,” Mackey said.
“I know where everybody’s coming from,” Noon said, adding his phone had been ringing off the hook since news broke of Webster’s hiring. “I agree the video looked bad.”
Robinson said even if it is true the public does not know the whole story based on the video alone, what can be seen in the video still affects the public’s perception.
“The optics goes into the trust of the position,” Robinson said.
The next question Robinson read asked why the town police department, which has always operated with three officers, now needed a fourth.
Mackey said Sgt. William Gardner intends to retire sometime before the end of the year; Webster was hired now so he will be trained in time for Gardner’s departure.
“This town can’t afford four officers, and we won’t have four,” Mackey said.
Robinson read a question asking why there were no public meetings concerning Webster’s potential hiring.
Mackey said the town has never involved the public in the hiring process for a town employee before, but he sees where the question is coming from in this particular case.
Greensboro Police Chief Michael Petyo said he personally performed a deep background check on Webster. In addition to the usual polygraph test, psychiatric evaluation and former employer interviews, Petyo said he visited some of the Dover neighborhoods Webster patrolled while an officer there.
“These were high crime areas,” Petyo said. “The residents had nothing but good things to say about him, that he was a people person, he got things done.”
Petyo said Webster’s former supervisor in Dover also told him if he had been chief, Webster would not have been let go.
“I looked at the totality of the applicant,” Petyo said. “This is someone not afraid to do his job, who wants to be embedded in the community.”
Robert Thomas, another concerned citizen, said watching the video, he was most concerned about the tactics Webster used to address Dickerson, who was unarmed.
“This is a training thing, not a black and white thing,” Thomas said.
Petyo said Webster is now in training for state certification and will get much more training once he joins the Greensboro force.
“Training is paramount for everyone in this department,” Petyo said.
Mary Baker, another concerned citizen, asked if there was any truth to two rumors going around social media — that Webster had previously applied to join the Caroline County Sheriff’s Office but was turned down, and that he and Petyo had been roommates in the police academy.
Noon said only the sheriff’s office would know if Webster had applied; the town was not privy to that information.
Petyo said he went through the academy two years after Webster, and only knew him in passing, when Webster worked in Dover and Petyo worked for nearby Wyoming.
Robinson’s final question was who would be responsible if there was another incident while Webster is employed by the town; the City of Dover paid Webster $230,000 over six years after his release from the police department, on the condition he would never again seek employment there, and paid Dickerson $300,000 to drop a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city.
Town Attorney Brynja Booth said Greensboro would be responsible.
Robinson said the citizens’ questions were not an attack on the police department or the town, and the circulating rumors and fears could have been staved off from the beginning if the town had been more transparent.
“This is the problem when we don’t address things beforehand,” Robinson said. “We get misinformation.”
“This has been a learning experience,” Noon said.
Town Manager Jeannette DeLude said an “open house” will be held once Webster is through training, to give the public a chance to meet him. She said similar events are held for every police officer hired by the town.
Noon said Webster had offered to attend the town meeting and speak to citizens himself, but town officials asked him to wait.
The discussion concluded with DeLude, Petyo and Noon offering to talk to any citizen, at any time, about any concerns.
Robinson also offered her help to the town as a citizen.
“Anything I can do to help ease the tension, reach out,” she said.