Charlotte council may study police review board reforms

Charlotte council may study police review board reforms

Charlotte council may study police review board reforms


by CLEVE R. WOOTSON JR & GARY L. WRIGHT / Charlotte Observer

Posted on March 31, 2013 at 6:48 PM

Updated Sunday, Mar 31 at 6:48 PM

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Charlotte’s City Council on Monday may take steps to strengthen the Citizens Review Board after an Observer investigation found that the board, set up nearly 16 years ago to look into allegations of police misconduct, has always sided with police.

Proponents of reforming the review board hope to pressure city council to give it more power. They’re trying to gather dozens of residents to speak at the council meeting or wear black in silent protest.

At least one city council member has told the Observer he plans to recommend that the council’s community safety committee conduct a review of the board. If passed Monday night, the motion would be the first official step toward reform.

Among proponents’ suggested changes: giving the board the authority to subpoena witnesses and to overturn Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department disciplinary decisions after investigations into allegations of officer misconduct.

Jason Huber, a professor at the Charlotte School of Law, believes the Citizens Review Board has failed in its mission. A study by the law school questions whether the board is following its mandate to serve as a public watchdog.

Huber plans to attend Monday’s City Council meeting.

“We would hope the City Council overhauls the Citizens Review Board’s structure to make it fairer for the citizens who believe they’ve been abused by police,” Huber told the Observer.

Community members have said overhauling the board would reinforce the community’s faith in the police department.

“Everybody on the council understands that there is concern in the community, but we want them to understand the extent of that concern.” said Matt Newton, a Charlotte defense lawyer who has helped organize an effort to bring dozens to Monday’s city council meeting in support of reforming the board. “We perceive there to be erosion in the public trust of the (police department) and the government, and we just want to reinforce that trust and reinstill the faith that we have in an efficient, proficient police force.”

Since its establishment in 1997 to look into allegations of police misconduct, 79 complaints have been filed with the Citizens Review Board. No one has ever won before the board.

The 11-member, volunteer board was established to restore public confidence in police after three unarmed African-Americans had been killed by white police officers.

If residents don’t agree with the outcomes of CMPD Internal Affairs investigations into allegations of police misbehavior, they can appeal to the review board. The complaints must involve the use of excessive force, unbecoming conduct, unlawful arrest, search or seizure or a shooting.

But the board’s limitations and record of never siding with complainants suggest it is among the weakest in the nation, review board experts and civil liberties advocates told the Observer.

“Right now the board is a cruel joke – an illusion held out to the citizens that a board exists that can give them justice against the police,” George Daly, a civil rights lawyer and the Citizens Review Board’s first chairman, wrote in a letter to the Observer.

“If the City Council refuses to give the Board the power to find the facts, then it is continuing to hide behind the peculiar Southern myth that policemen can do no wrong.”

Critics, including two prominent former Citizens Review Board members – Daly and former Mecklenburg Commissioners Chairman Harold Cogdell – don’t believe complainants had much of a chance to win their cases.

The review board has little authority. It has no independent power to investigate. And residents must meet an unusually high standard of proof for the board to even hold hearings on their complaints of inappropriate police behavior.

The review board has met behind closed doors – first with the complainants, then with police – and voted to dismiss almost every case without holding a hearing on the allegations of police misconduct. The board has only held four hearings. After each of those hearings, the board ruled in favor of police.

One complaint is pending. A couple has accused a police officer of using excessive force in killing their dog. The board has asked police for additional information before deciding whether to hold a hearing.

Among changes the review board needs, according to critics:

• The burden of proof to gain a formal hearing should be lowered from the “preponderance of evidence” to “probable cause” that CMPD made mistakes in its investigation into allegations of police misconduct.

• The review board should have independent investigative powers. Now, the board can’t initiate its own investigations.

• Residents who can’t afford to hire lawyers should be given legal representation.

• The review board should have the power to overturn CMPD’s disciplinary decisions. The board now can only advise the police chief and city manager if they believe the disciplinary decisions by CMPD were serious mistakes.

City Council member Patrick Cannon, the chairman of the community safety committee, declined to comment before Monday’s meeting, saying he’s awaiting input from the public and other members of the committee.

Cannon has indicated, however, that he intends to ask that the community safety committee look into the Citizens Review Board’s work to hammer out what, if any, changes are needed. Any recommendations would have to be approved the City Council.

“I’ve had some level of conversation with some members of the body,” Cannon told the Observer in March. “I think there’s some open minds about making any changes that would be for the betterment of the board.”

In a letter to the mayor and city council, Police Chief Rodney Monroe didn’t recommend any changes to the board, saying it “serves the needs of the community.” Later, in an interview with the Observer, he said he was open to the city council re-examining the board.

“If they want to look and study it more, I’m all for anything that’s going to give (residents) more trust and confidence,” he told the Observer. “I’m not going to sit back and say don’t do it.”

Monroe outlined in the letter how CMPD investigates allegations of police misconduct. CMPD’s disciplinary process, the police chief wrote, is “a direct reflection of the department’s integrity and professionalism and, as such, is taken seriously by every member of the department.”

Monroe praised the Citizens Review Board, calling it an asset to the community that plays a critical role in the department’s disciplinary process.

“I support the Citizens Review Board as a way of providing members of the community who feel they have been mistreated by the police the opportunity to present their cases to a body that is independent of the Police Department for review,” Monroe said. “It is another level of accountability and the public is better served because of the Board’s existence.”