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IHOP incident sparks calls for police reform

A local minister who frequently addresses the City Council told the council he believes the police department needs improvements after an allegation of trouble in the local IHOP restaurant parking lot prompted a response from many officers.

The matter circulated on social media and came up amid the public input phases of the Feb. 8 council regular meeting and Monday’s council regular meeting.

The Rev. Nehemiah Smith on Monday told the council that earlier in the day on Feb. 8 the IHOP’s general manager claimed to police that three men were causing a disturbance.

Smith said that this has since been disproved, that IHOP investigated and that the general manager was fired.

Although Smith did not specify the names of each of the three men when addressing the council, he and Bronson Williams regularly dined at the IHOP and the two became caught up in what happened on the premises on Feb. 8.

Williams is a local broadcast journalist who also frequently addresses the council.

The IHOP is on the southwest side of the U.S. 64 interchange with Wesleyan Boulevard and is part of a southern California-based worldwide chain of restaurants.

During Monday’s council meeting, Smith said he believed the incident on Feb. 8 could have concluded quite differently because the police department, in response to the call, brought about a situation that should never have happened.

Smith said after the first responding officer arrived, he spoke to that officer and thought nothing more about that officer’s presence.

“After all, we were three men standing outside having a conversation, not fighting or wielding weapons, not in some great brouhaha — merely having a conversation,” Smith said. “And yet, after the initial officer, nearly eight additional officers arrived on the scene, nearly eight. And for what? Three men having a conversation.”

“We left the premises after some conversation with the officers, confused,” he said. “We eventually met with IHOP’s national representative and the franchisee.”

Williams, in a broadcast on his television station, WNCR, with Smith participating and also in a post on Facebook, gave a narrative in more detail of what happened on Feb. 8.

According to Williams, as he exited the IHOP, resident Samuel Battle, who also frequently addresses the council, came to the restaurant and began engaging in a conversation.

Williams said the restaurant general manager was outside with a person dealing with signage.

Williams said that the general manager went back inside and that the next thing he knew, an officer in a police car entered the restaurant’s parking area.

Smith on WNCR said that first responding officer told him he and the others had been standing outside for 15 minutes — and now had to leave.

Smith said after he asked that officer what he and the others had done, the officer said the restaurant general manager said, to the effect, that this is a family restaurant.

During Monday’s council meeting, Smith also spoke of him and others having requested the audio of the call to the emergency operator on Feb. 8.

“And that is when the entire incident became even more disturbing,” Smith said.

Smith said while the call was in progress, the dispatcher asked the restaurant general manager, “Are they outside?”

Smith said the dispatcher next asked, “Are they Black?

He said the audio next sounded muffled but said one could hear the dispatcher ask, “or Hispanic?”

“At that moment, the call became conditional because once the manager said, ‘Yes, they are Black,’ I believe that that condition made them decide how many officers to send to the location,” he said.

He told the council he believes there needs to be some reform at the police department.

“I’m not for defunding the police at all, but I am for reforming the police,” he said.

Smith said he believes if these people do not have the training they need to have or the training is inadequate, then there needs to be some retraining.

Smith also told the council the restaurant general manager never came out and told him he and the others had to leave the premises.

“As a matter of fact, the national IHOP office told us we could have stayed out there all day if we wanted to,” Smith said. “And so, there needs to be a reformation here with the city police. They need to really look at their ranks, need to look at who they have as police officers.

“And why does it take eight police officers to respond to three men having a conversation outside of a restaurant that we’ve been eating in every day since October?” Smith said.

“So it’s not that we were not known there,” he said. “Something needs to happen — and I hope that you will look into it.”

Councilman Richard Joyner, who was chairing Monday’s council meeting as mayor pro tem in place of Mayor Sandy Roberson, said the council would ask City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney to look into the matter with interim Police Chief George Robinson.

Small-Toney said, “Yes, we already are in the process of doing that.”

IHOP’s companywide media relations, in response on Tuesday to a Telegram request for comment, issued a prepared statement from local IHOP franchisee Praveen Kondaka.

In the statement, Kondaka said, “At IHOP, we do not and will not tolerate racism, bigotry or harassment of any kind.”

Kondaka confirmed there was an investigation into the events that took place on Feb. 8.

“The actions displayed by our manager at our restaurant in Rocky Mount goes against what we stand for and our commitment to you as our guests and for that I sincerely apologize,” Kondaka said. “To that end, we have taken action and decided to part ways with the general manager.”

Kondaka also said the restaurant was closed from 2-4 p.m. on Feb. 10 for the purpose of conducting diversity and inclusion training with all of the staff.

“All guests deserve to feel respected when they visit us at IHOP,” Kondaka said.

DMV job fair draws large crowd

The parking area at the Rocky Mount Sports Complex on a warm and sunny Tuesday was the scene of lines of vehicles with people interested in getting a job with the state Division of Motor Vehicles.

Bridget Parrish was one of those participating in a drive-up career fair to seek employment at the adjacent recently relocated DMV headquarters along North Church Street or with the DMV elsewhere in the state.

Parrish, 52, of Rocky Mount, has a particularly interesting background: She was an officer for the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia from 2003-16; and she was a detective for about eight of those years on the D.C. police force.

“And I need something to do,” Parrish said. “And I’m still full of energy and I can work.”

Parrish said she had not thought about a specific position with the DMV, but that she is open to anything clerical and anything else she might be a fit for. She has a lot of investigative skills and can do such work as background investigations.

Another person participating in the career fair was Rochelle Alston, 47, also of Rocky Mount.

“I’m here to claim a new job,” Alston said. “I’m looking forward to becoming part of whatever is out there for me.”

Alston currently is working in quality control at Sonoco Plastics in Wilson.

As for why she wanted to apply for a job with the DMV, Alston said, “I want to get away from the 12-hour shift. I want to do Monday through Friday so I can do church on Sundays.”

She presently attends Refreshing Springs Restoration Center along Hill Street in the Oakwood area of the city.

She said she presently works three days on at Sonoco Plastics and then gets two days off before working two days on and then getting two days off.

Asked what will happen to her if the DMV hires her, she replied, with a smile and a laugh, “I don’t shout, but I’m going to try to shout then.”

She said if the DMV hires her then she would like to work more hands-on with people in human resources.

Another person participating in the career fair was Sophia Thigpen, 38, of Fountain.

Thigpen said she has a job working at a call center in Greenville, but that one always wants to weigh one’s options.

“So I just wanted to come out here and see what they had to offer,” Thigpen said.

She said she probably would like to work in customer service or anything dealing with customer service because that is her background.

Asked what she would say to the DMV to convince the department to hire her if interested, she said, “That I’m a people person. I’m a team player. I think I will be a great asset to the team.”

DMV Commissioner Torre Jessup, 50, told of having seen the view from his office of the lines of vehicles.

“I think that this is amazing participation,” Jessup said.

The plan had been to have the career fair in the parking area of the DMV headquarters.

“But what we found is that a whole lot of people expressed interest pretty quickly,” Jessup said. “So we had to cut off the registration, but I think we’re beyond the registration. People are coming whether they registered or not.”

Asked what he would say as to the question of why interested people should work for the DMV, he said, “For me, it’s about public service.”

“For me, the ideal candidate really understands what that means,” he said.

He said North Carolinians expect top-quality service.

“And we try to strive for that at DMV,” he said. “And we’re looking for good people who can do that.”

He emphasized public service is a commitment.

“This is an organization, as we have said, that’s on the move, not just from Raleigh to Rocky Mount, but we’re on the move in terms of improving our processes, investing in our people, improving our technology,” he said.

The Twin Counties secured a public relations coup with the Council of State’s 10-0 vote in March 2019 for a proposal to shift the DMV headquarters from off New Bern Avenue in Raleigh to the former Hardee’s Food Systems complex along North Church in Rocky Mount. The General Assembly required a process for relocating the DMV from the then-headquarters in the capital city because of health and safety issues beyond the state’s control.

Gov. Roy Cooper in December 2019 signed the lease for the location in Rocky Mount, sealing the deal on what had been the most competitive of 10 site proposals.

The DMV in December completed the move from Raleigh into five of six buildings at the North Church location.

Virus cases begin to drop in local jails

Local jail and prison populations in the Twin Counties are experiencing clusters of COVID illnesses at an alarming rate, though these cases are beginning to decline somewhat as new protocols have been put in place.

Nash Correctional Institute, a state-run facility located just outside of Nashville, last week reported the fourth death at that facility. According to a statement by the state Department of Public Safety, the offender, who had pre-existing medical conditions, tested positive for COVID-19 on Jan. 22. He was hospitalized on Jan. 31. His condition worsened, and he died at the hospital on Feb. 17.

“We are continuing our extensive efforts to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 in our prisons. The health and safety of the staff and the offender population is our top priority,” state Commissioner of Prisons Todd Ishee said in a statement Friday when the latest death was announced.

According to information provided by the state Department of Health and Human Services website, roughly 16 percent of that prison population currently has active cases of COVID-19. Of the 658 inmates who have been tested since the pandemic began, 488 have tested positive at some point. Of that number, 97 cases are considered active at Nash Correctional Institute.

While Nash Correctional Institute has faced COVID outbreaks in the past, the Nash County Detention Center and the Edgecombe County Detention Center are currently facing their first outbreaks and have been for the past two or three weeks.

In an interview on Monday, Maj. Allen Wilson of the Nash County Sheriff’s Office shared the current status of the Nash County Detention Center, which he directs.

Wilson said that 77 inmates and 16 staff members at the jail have tested positive for COVID during this outbreak. However, only one case is considered active at this time, he said.

Wilson said that the Nash County Sheriff’s Office has been and continues to take steps to limit the spread of COVID-19. These measures include quarantining all incoming inmates for three days until they have been tested. Masks are provided to all inmates and all officers are required to wear a mask at all times when in the facility, he said.

“We have also designated areas to house inmates until they are tested and areas to house them if they are positive,” Wilson said.

No COVID-related deaths have been reported at that facility.

The Edgecombe County Detention Center also is facing COVID troubles.

Edgecombe County Sheriff Clee Atkinson said in an interview that 43 inmates at that facility have tested positive for COVID so far. In addition, 13 staff members have tested positive. However, only four cases of COVID at that facility are now considered active, Atkinson said.

No one at the Edgecombe County jail has died of COVID-related causes, the sheriff said. However, one staff member has been hospitalized because of COVID.

The relatives of some inmates are concerned that not enough is being done to protect the inmates at that facility.

In an email sent to the Rocky Mount Telegram, one relative stated that “there have actually been no increased protocols, no increased frequency of disinfection or cleanings, and no quarantining of anyone within the facility beyond initial arrival” since the outbreak began.

Atkinson said that staff members are taking precautions against the spread of COVID within the facility.

“Inmates that were tested positive have been quarantined for 14 days,” Atkinson said. “All new processed inmates will be tested for COVID-19 and isolated for 10 days in a separate area to ensure no symptoms. All inmates have been provided again with two face coverings. Inmates are provided an orange daily with their meals to boost Vitamin C for their immune system. Orange juice is also being ordered.”

Atkinson also said the facility is strengthening cleaning protocols.

“Staff members are to make sure inmates are provided with plenty of soap and practice constant hand washing,” he said. “Everyone is also reminded to practice social distancing. We are deep cleaning the detention center daily. We are also deep cleaning attorney visitation areas after each attorney-client visit. Inmates were informed to notify the nurse immediately if they have any flu-like symptoms.”

In the email, the relative also stated she fears that improper mask use is making the situation worse.

“One corrections officer was seen walking through cell block D Thursday of last week with his mask down under his chin. His shift ended early because he complained it was hard to breathe wearing the mask while making rounds, developed a cough that grew worse throughout the shift and wasn’t feeling well — this after he had already circulated unmasked throughout the facility,” the relative said.

Atkinson said the message has been reiterated to all staff members that they are required to properly wear face coverings.

“All staff have been told that if they have a fever or any flu-like symptoms to stay at home,” Atkinson said. “Anyone entering the building, including law enforcement, are required to wear face coverings while in this facility. We have eight touch-free hand sanitizing stations placed throughout the building as well as touch-free temperature scans set up at entrances to the building.”

Atkinson said he feels that the criticisms expressed about the way the situation is being handled have no basis in fact.

“Just as with all aspects in life, we cannot prevent misinformation from being spread,” he said.

Red Cross to host series of local blood drives

The American Red Cross has scheduled several blood drives over the next three weeks in the Twin Counties to help meet urgent needs caused by the massive winter storms that have affected much of the nation.

The record-breaking cold and winter storms have forced the cancellation of more than 10,000 blood and platelet donations in February in parts of the U.S., according to a statement by the American Red Cross.

As a result, the organization is urging healthy people, especially those with type O blood, to give now to ensure blood products are available for patient emergencies when help cannot wait.

When winter weather forces a blood drive cancellation, the effect is more than just a canceled appointment — it means less blood products available for patient emergencies here and across the country, the press release said.

Tina Rocco knows firsthand how important it is to have blood on hospital shelves. After welcoming baby Gemma by cesarean section, she began hemorrhaging badly and was rushed back into the operating room.

“I was later told it was several pints of blood and an amazing doctor that saved my life,” Rocco said in the statement from the American Red Cross. “That allowed me to hold my first daughter and go home all together as a family of three.”

Before that day, Rocco had not known anyone who needed blood transfusions. Now, the grateful mother says, “You truly never know when you or someone you love might need it.”

To help meet the urgent need, several blood donation events are slated in the Twin Counties.

An American Red Cross blood drive will be held from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursday in the Continuing Education Building at Nash Community College.

Three other blood drives will be held next week in Rocky Mount. One is scheduled from noon to 3 p.m. on March 3 at Braswell Memorial Library. Parkwood Baptist Church will host an event from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. on March 4. That church is at 1731 Hunter Hill Road. Another blood donation event also will be held from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. on March 4 at the West Mount Volunteer Fire Department at 7955 West Mount Drive.

In addition to these events, two blood donation opportunities will be held next week in Nashville. The Sandy Cross United Methodist Church will host a blood drive from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. on March 1 at 3725 Sandy Cross Road in Nashville. The Town of Nashville also will host an event from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on March 6 at the Nashville Town Council Chambers at 114 W. Church St.

Two blood donation events are being held this week in Edgecombe County and one is being held in March. From 1:30-5 p.m. Tuesday, blood donations will be collected at the Braswell Center at 1500 Western Blvd. in Tarboro. Another event will be held from 12:30-4:30 p.m. Thursday at the Edgecombe County Administration Building at 201 St. Andrew St. in Tarboro. A third event will be held from 2:45-7 p.m. at the St. James United Methodist Church at 211 E. St. James St. in Tarboro.

Special protocols are in place for donors at these events because of COVID-19.

The Red Cross is testing blood, platelet and plasma donations for COVID-19 antibodies. The test may indicate if the donor’s immune system has produced antibodies to the coronavirus, regardless of whether a person has developed COVID-19 symptoms. Red Cross antibody tests will be helpful to identify people who have COVID-19 antibodies and may now help current coronavirus patients in need of convalescent plasma transfusions, according to the press release.

Convalescent plasma is a type of blood donation collected from COVID-19 survivors that have antibodies that may help patients who are actively fighting the virus. Plasma from whole blood donations that test positive for high levels of COVID-19 antibodies may be used to help COVID-19 patients, the statement said.

COVID-19 antibody test results will be available within one to two weeks in the Red Cross Blood Donor App or donor portal at RedCrossBlood.org. A positive antibody test result does not confirm infection or immunity. The Red Cross is not testing donors to diagnose illness, referred to as a diagnostic test.

To protect the health and safety of Red Cross staff and donors, it is important that people postpone donations if they do not feel well or believe they may be ill with COVID-19. Each Red Cross blood drive and donation center follows high standards of safety and infection control, and additional precautions — including temperature checks, social distancing and face coverings for donors and staff — have been implemented to help protect the health of all in attendance.

Donors are asked to schedule an appointment prior to arriving at blood drives and are required to wear a face covering or mask while at the drive, in alignment with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention public guidance, the statement said.

To help ensure life-saving patient care is not affected, people are urged to make appointments to donate in the coming days and weeks by downloading the Red Cross Blood Donor App, by visiting RedCrossBlood.org, by calling 1-800-RED CROSS (1-800-733-2767) or by enabling the Blood Donor Skill on any Amazon Echo device.