Charlotte Citizens Review Board – Who Watches the Watchmen?

When a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Officer is accused of misconduct, the Internal Affairs Bureau investigates the alleged behavior. The Bureau is dedicated to preserving the public trust and confidence in the Police Department and seeks to maintain the highest standard of fairness while conducting investigations. However, the Bureau is also a part of the Police Department, which leads many in the community to be suspect of the Bureau’s impartiality. 

In Charlotte, this suspicion came to a head in the mid-nineties. On November 19, 1996, a white police officer shot an unarmed 19 year old five times at a traffic stop, killing him. This incident led to a large community protest outside of the District Attorney’s Office for failing to prosecute the officer involved. On April 8, 1997, police officers fired 22 shots at a car passing through a police checkpoint, killing the 48 year old passenger. Spurred by community outrage over these incidents, Charlotte created the Citizens Review Board.

The Board serves as a forum to which individuals appeal the Chief of Police’s disciplinary determination against officers accused of misconduct. The Board is composed of 11 members — five appointed by City Council, three appointed by the Mayor, and three appointed by the City Manager. When the Board receives notice of an appeal, it holds a preliminary meeting to consider the appeal. The Board then determines whether to hold a full hearing on the appeal which includes testimony from the complainant and the police department, presentation of evidence, and questioning by both parties. After the hearing, the Board can ask for further investigation by the Internal Affairs Bureau, accept the Department’s action, or reject the Department’s action. If the Board rejects the Department’s action, it will make recommendations to the Chief of Police and the City Manager.

When ruling an appeal, the Board asks whether by a preponderance of the evidence it appears that the Chief of Police abused his discretion in taking no action, or an insufficient action, on the complaint. Since 1997, the Board has addressed approximately 60 complaints. The Board held only four full hearings. In the entire 15-year history of the Board, it has never found in favor of the complainant. While it’s possible that the Chief has never abused his discretion, the Clinic decided to conduct an in depth analysis of the Board’s history to determine whether the Board was fulfilling its mandate or simply rubber-stamping the Police Chief’s actions.

To this end, the Clinic filed two Public Records Requests seeking documents relating to the Board, its meetings, procedures, dispositions, member information, and more. While the Clinic did receive a substantail amount of documentation, the City witheld information it deemed exempt from disclosure as personnel records.

However, the records the City did disclose raise significant questions. For example, as you can see in the Clinic’s slideshow presentation, many of the Board’s meeting minutes and closed session general summaries are simply boilerplate forms which contain virtually no facts about what transpired.  The Clinic is currently working with the City Attorney’s Office to implement record-keeping procedures for the Board that will help make its Board meetings more transparent.

The Clinic is also attempting to locate past complainants that have been through the Citizens Review Board appeals process. We have been able to collect a number of researchable names from the documents obtained through our public records requests. However, the records contain no contact information for the complainants so the Clinic members have put on their Sherlock Holmes hats to perform extensive public records and internet research in order to find them. By speaking with these people the Clinic will be able to get a better understanding of the process as a whole from the perspective of the complainant. If you have submitted an appeal to the Board in the past, or are planning to file one, please contact us.

The Board does not have its own website and little information about it can be found on the Police Department or City websites. The only substantive reference to the Board we found was in the Internal Affairs Bureau’s FAQ page under “Can I challenge the decision?” Through our work with the City and the Board we also hope to raise public awareness of the Board’s existence.

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