CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A Charlotte City Council committee plans to vote Monday on changes to a city ordinance that could dramatically strengthen a citizen board that examines cases of police misconduct.
If passed by the Council-Manager Relations Committee – and by the full City Council next month – the legislation would significantly beef up the Citizens Review Board, which has never ruled in citizens’ favor since it was created in 1997.
In April, then-Mayor Anthony Foxx asked a task force to evaluate the efficacy of the Citizens Review Board. Task force members presented their findings last month, and committee members asked city staff to draft a proposed ordinance.
The changes would overhaul the board in ways big and small. Citizens who appeal to the board no longer would have to meet an unusually high bar to have Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer misconduct cases heard.
Instead, they’d have to provide “substantial evidence that an error occurred.” The ordinance would also revamp the board’s website and allow complainants to fill out some forms online.
The recommendations come seven months after an Observer investigation showed the Citizens Review Board, created amid a string of officer-involved shootings that stoked racial tensions in the city, had never sided with citizens in its 16-year, 79-case history.
A growing cross-section of the city became increasingly interested in changing the board since the investigation. Supporters for change include the NAACP and CRB Reform Now, a group that seeks to raise awareness about the board and to lobby City Council members.
Matt Newton, a Charlotte lawyer and one of the organizers of CRB Reform Now, said members of his group don’t consider their work done until the council approves a new ordinance changing the board.
“We hope, and I have confidence, that the city attorney will return with the task force’s recommendations ... memorialized in the proposed ordinance,” Newton said.
“I don’t know of any reason why it shouldn’t. The City Council only meets two more times” before a new council takes office. It’s important that (the proposed ordinance) makes the City Council as soon as possible.”
The review board came into the spotlight again last month after a CMPD officer was accused of shooting an unarmed man 10 times.
Police say the man, Jonathon Ferrell, 24, may have been looking for help following a traffic wreck in the Reedy Creek community of northeast Mecklenburg County. He knocked on a woman’s door around 2 a.m., but she thought he was a robber and summoned police.
Randall Kerrick – one of three officers dispatched to the scene, but the only one who fired his gun – was charged with voluntary manslaughter hours after the shooting. But in the days that followed, civil rights leaders said the shooting underscored why citizens needed to have a voice in police discipline decisions.
At its meeting last month in the midst of the shooting controversy, the Council-Manager Relations Committee voted to have city staff draft a statute incorporating recommendations by a task force that has studied the board. If the city sticks to its timeline, the full council could vote on the recommendations by November.
The task force did not suggest that the board be given subpoena power or independent investigative power that authority advocates have said are key to determining whether an officer acted improperly. City Attorney Bob Hagemann told committee members that giving the board those powers would require new state legislation, which could take months or years to get enacted.
Task force members said they opted instead to include recommendations that could be put in place immediately.
“The subpoena power, the investigative power, those things mean we have to go before the statehouse in Raleigh. Who knows how long that could take?” Patricia Albritton, a member of the task force and chair of the city’s community relations committee, told the Observer after presenting the recommendation. She said the recommendations were “things we can put in place now.”
The review board’s future even made it into the mayoral debate.
“It needs more teeth,” said Edwin Peacock, the Republican nominee, adding that Charlotte-Mecklenburg police could consider having the State Bureau of Investigation look into the department.
Patrick Cannon, the Democratic nominee, who helped lead creation of the review board, said he supports the current study.
“We want to see a fair and balanced process,” Cannon said. “A lot of that stuff, some of it has to happen at the state level.”