By: Isabel Carson
The Citizens Review Board (CRB) project started with a public records request over 3 years ago, developed into a nationwide study, and returned to local and state-wide legislative advocacy. After Reviewing CRB documents, talking to former complainants who had been through the process, and reaching out to Board members—it became apparent to the Clinic that there was a flaw in the system. The flaw was not solely evidenced by a 0-79 track record for the CRB, but by the perceptions of both complainants and Board members, and the utter lack of accessibility or transparency for the process.
When the Observer published its first story on the CRB in February 2013, the project picked up momentum. As the Clinic continued to move forward, it was met with unrelenting and invaluable community activism. CRB Reform Now, a coalition formed after a single conversation between the Clinic and a local public servant, moved to the forefront in amplifying and solidifying the community’s voice—putting pressure on City Council to be accountable in its actions and garnering the attention of the media throughout the process. While the Clinic and the Coalition took different approaches within the political atmosphere and throughout the stakeholder process, both had one goal—to serve the citizens of this community through meaningful and articulated reform.
On Monday, November 25, the voices of City Council members unanimously rang out in favor of reforming the Citizens Review Board. This vote marked a huge success for the community coalitions, the Clinic, and the greater Charlotte community. After ten long months of media coverage, community activism, research, and revised proposals, the City has taken a step in the direction of meaningful reform.
The adopted changes include:
- Extending the time for a complainant to file an appeal to 30 days
- Providing the CRB with the entire Internal Investigations file rather than a summary of the investigation prepared by the Police Chief
- Changing the threshold burden the complainant must meet before the CRB will conduct a full fact-finding hearing to “substantial evidence of error regarding the disposition of the disciplinary charges entered by the chief of police”
- Changing the standard at the full fact-finding hearing to “whether, by the greater weight of the evidence, the Chief of Police clearly erred”
- Providing “cultural awareness training” for the CRB members and enhancing the visibility of the complaint and hearing process of the CRB
While these changes are a direct reflection of some of the thoroughly researched and supported recommendations from community stakeholders, change does not stop here. As the Clinic prepares to take this project state-wide, we recognize those areas where the ordinance still remains deficient.
First, there is no opportunity for the CRB during the appeals process to subpoena and question or cross examine the police officer who is the subject of the complaint. Because the Council-Manager Relations Committee and Task Force have framed this review process as a continuation of the Police Department’s internal administrative processes, the only parties to the appeal proceedings are the police department and the complainant. Without subpoena power, the CRB does not have the ability to evaluate the credibility of the subject officer or to verify statements made about the subject officer. Any and all evidence about the underlying conduct (which is the main subject of the Police Chief’s discretionary decision) is simply hearsay. While the citizen complainant is explicitly subject to cross-examination, he/she is not afforded that same right against the subject officer. This could easily become a game of he said – she said.
Second, the language used for the new standards of review does not clearly define what is required of the complainant. The “substantial evidence” standard seems out of place in the initial hearing phase of the appeals process. Under the new ordinance, the only reason the CRB chooses to conduct a full evidentiary is if it determines that further fact-finding is necessary. This leads one to question: how can a complainant meet a substantial evidence standard if the CRB thinks there is insufficient evidence to come to a final disposition? Both the initial standard of review and the final hearing standard of review (“greater weight of the evidence”) focus on whether there was an error in the Police Chief’s decision. What access does the complainant have to the internal processes of Internal Investigations and the Police Force? What evidence can the complainant offer other than his/her direct conflict with the subject officer (the conduct complained of)? Again, without the opportunity to cross-examine the subject officer or independently investigate the actual conduct complained of, the standard of review and lack of independent investigatory/subpoena power leave the CRB appeals process as a one-sided arena.
Third, while the new ordinance touts encouragement of creating visibility within the CRB appeals process, it does not lay out any explicit guidelines to ensure public participation/awareness or transparency. Many municipalities with civilian oversight boards maintain independent websites, list the names of the board members, provide contact information for a board representative, and publish yearly reports of the Boards’ activities, findings, and dispositions. These annual reports are done without exposing private personnel information—but rather by offering a big picture perspective of the Board’s effectiveness. Our city website provides a brief and uninformative description of the general duties of the CRB. As a product of the stakeholder process, the City has provided more information about the complaint and appeals process, but these are found on an entirely separate webpage. In order to promote visibility and accessibility, all information pertaining to the appeals process and CRB activities should be located on the same webpage. Board members’ names should be listed. Statistics and annual findings should be published rather than filed away by the City Clerk.
The Clinic recognizes the strides this City’s representatives have taken to address community concerns and promote democratic participation throughout the process of CRB reform. The changes made and the time and effort devoted to the stakeholder process were a true testament to Charlotte’s perpetually progressive potential. While we are thankful for the opportunities to instill change, we know that change does not ever signal the end. Our motivations are not solely to serve the citizens of Mecklenburg County, but the citizens of North Carolina as a whole, and the fundamental rights of each citizen in this country to participate and seek redress in a meaningful and just way.