Greensboro's City Council is weighing whether to open an independent investigation into the death of Marcus Deon Smith. The 38-year-old Black man died in police custody in 2018 after being wrestled to the ground, hands and feet bound together, face down on the pavement. Since his death, activists in the community have demanded justice — calling him “Greensboro's George Floyd.” The case has prompted some councilmembers to more closely examine the city's broader policing practices.
At a recent outdoor press conference, local activists call for police accountability and a speedy resolution to the civil suit filed against the city by the family of Marcus Smith. Before breaking into songs of freedom and justice, several speakers share their frustrations with city officials and state their demands.
Rev. Nelson Johnson is among them. He leads the Beloved Community Center and his voice booms through the speaker over nearby street noises and wind gusts.
“Marcus died because he was hogtied!”
Hogtying is a term sometimes used to describe the maximum restraint known as the RIPP Hobble device that was used to bind Smith's hands and feet together behind him. There was no mention of that device in the initial police press releases which instead stated that Smith had become combative and collapsed. Smith's death was ultimately ruled a homicide, but no charges were brought against the eight officers involved, seven of whom have since received merit raises.
No investigation was held. The lawsuit has yet to be settled. Activists here, including Johnson, are angry.
“He died because he was placed on his stomach, his feet pulled up behind his back, tied to his hands, and the weight of his body did not allow him to breathe,” says Johnson. “All of the other factors are smoke screen and diversions.”
For more than two years this standoff with the city has languished, frustrating supporters who want to see justice served — until two weeks ago. That's when, during a Greensboro City Council meeting, at-large Councilmember Michelle Kennedy broke ranks, announced that she'd had enough, and surprised some of her colleagues by calling for an independent investigation.
She says she was moved to act following the Smith legal team's recent successful court order. It required Greensboro police to turn over bodycam video showing dozens of hogtying instances carried out by its officers over a decade leading up to Smith's death. Kennedy says the city's legal team fought against the release of those videos.
“And so, it seems hypocritical to me that on the one hand we're saying, we want fair access to police bodycam video and to be able to share it with the public under the lens of transparency, but in an instance where it may not be of benefit to us, we want to fight against that,” says Kennedy. “And I can't — that doesn't hold water for me.”
Kennedy says the city has made some important changes to policing in the wake of Smith's death. The RIPP Hobble device used to restrain him has since been banned, and the city has implemented a mental health crisis team. Kennedy says in the first year of the program they responded to hundreds of calls — trained clinicians helping people in crisis and de-escalating potentially life-threatening situations like the one that took Smith's life.
Councilmember Justin Outling says he was surprised by Kennedy's call for an independent investigation into the events surrounding Smith's death.
“The question as to why now I think is a really good question,” he says. “You know there has been ongoing civil litigation and really revealing of the facts in a way that you really get down to what happened including public body-worn camera video that's been available to the public for years now.”
Shortly after Smith's death, the council voted unanimously in favor of an independent investigation, but it reversed its position two weeks later, on advice from legal counsel following the federal civil rights lawsuit filed against the city. Outling says both parties in the suit will eventually come to an agreement over a settlement amount, or it'll be resolved through the courts, and he believes direct comparisons between the Smith lawsuit, and the relatively swift resolution in the George Floyd settlement are unfounded.
“Here, I think the video shows that the officers were trying to help Mr. Smith,” says Outling. “I don't think you see that in the case with George Floyd. Here you see the officers place Mr. Smith in a prone restraint and that interaction probably lasts less than a minute. That's in sharp contrast to what happened in Minnesota where you see an officer put his knee on someone's neck for over 8 minutes.”
Regardless, for councilmembers like Michelle Kennedy, she hopes that gathering more objective information about Greensboro policing practices will shine additional light on the case, begin to heal the community, and point to further protocol changes moving forward.
Change won't bring back Mary Smith's son, Marcus. She says she and her family still talk about him often, many times through tears.
“The only thing I could tell you about him that he was just a great guy,” says Smith. “He had his problems, but he was a great guy. Any mother would love to have him for her son. Our justice system must be reformed. It must be reformed. It must be.”
At Tuesday's City Council meeting, members received information and advice in closed session from city attorneys and discussed what the framework for an investigation might look like. Once that's been established the issue will likely receive a vote in the days and weeks ahead.