Citizen oversight of police practices and procedures is vital to a healthy relationship between the community and the men and women charged with enforcing the law. Complaints of police abuse or misconduct must fall on a receptive audience and trigger thorough investigation. Every citizen who alleges injury or harm from a police officer will not have their day in court, and expensive litigation should not be the only way to ensure that the police do not abuse their power. In 1997, Charlotte tried to offer that audience and venue for citizen complaints by creating the Civilian Review Board. However, in 16 years the Board has not substantiated any citizen’s complaint, and has never opposed an internal decision of the police department. With this knowledge, our clinic sought to find out why. Why does the data appear so one-sided? Why does it appear that no citizen presents a valid case? All the answers point to change.
This reform is not designed to point the finger at board members as ineffective or biased participants in the citizens’ appeals process. Rather, proponents of this study recognize that Board Members play a central role as volunteers for a vital public service that, if effectively and efficiently conducted, ensures the community that police are disciplined for their conduct, deters police misconduct, and informs the public of police policies and procedures. This service, however, has been inefficient at best thus far, with zero complaints ruling in favor of citizens out of the 78 complaints that have come before the Board in the past 16 years. The lack of efficiency and effectiveness boils down, not to the individual Board members, but the structure and type of the Board itself, and the procedural barriers set forth in the ordinance that created the board in 1997.
By researching the various models of Citizen Oversight Boards that exist throughout the United States, scrutinizing the language and provisions of Ordinance 849 (which created the CRB), and compiling data through public records requests and community outreach, the Clinic has identified several aspects of the CRB that are in dire need of improvement.
As a preface, the process goes like this:
1. Citizen files a complaint
2. The police department conducts an internal investigation of the complaint.
3. The Police Chief determines whether a citizen’s allegations are “sustained, not sustained, exonerated, or unfounded”
4. The citizen is informed of this decision with a letter notifying him of his option to appeal.
5. If the citizen chooses to appeal, he submits a standard appeal form describing the nature of the events which in turn goes to the CRB.
6. In a closed session, the CRB then considers the request for appeal and the case summary as prepared by the Police Department, and decides whether BY A PREPONDERANCE OF THE EVIDENCE the Police Chief’s disciplinary decision constituted an abuse of discretion.
7. IF the CRB decides, preliminarily, that there was an abuse of discretion it sets a date to hear the appeal. (This has only happened 4 times)
8. The appeal takes place in a closed session where each party has the right to be represented, each party presents his case, and the CRB asks questions.
9. Finally, the CRB decides whether the complainant met its burden and showed that BY A PREPONDERANCE OF THE EVIDENCE that the Police Chief abused his discretion.
For the Board to maintain effective and objective oversight, several aspects of this process must be altered. To name only one, the Ordinance sets an extremely high procedural burden for a citizen complainant to overcome before receiving a full adversarial hearing. Using practically no record, (a bare-bones form letter of appeal and an in-depth case summary prepared by the police department) the Board has to find that the citizen has proven his case by a PREPONDERANCE OF THE EVIDENCE (a significantly high burden to overcome). The procedural burden effectively serves as a barrier, blocking citizens from ever arguing their case before the Board. This is evidenced by the fact that only 4 complainants, since the inception of the CRB, have overcome that burden to receive a full appeals hearing. This initial hearing should be lowered to mirror the procedures before a court in determining probable cause.
The community has taken note of the issues plaguing Charlotte’s ineffective citizen-oversight model. While some believe that the CRB is not simply a rubber stamp on Police Conduct, most commentary that has arisen in the community recently calls for a critical reassessment of the CRB’s effectiveness. Even Mayor Foxx has spoken out on the need to critically assess and potential reform the CRB’s review process. The pressure is on, and the time for reform is now. As stated in the Observer article, reform is more likely to come in response to public outcry. One complainant’s story has already been published in the Observer, expressing extreme dissatisfaction with the process. This is the time to speak out and demand a more accountable police force, a more accessible forum for citizens’ voices, and a better relationship between this community and its law enforcers. If you or anyone you know has a story to share, or can shed light on a personal experience with the CRB appeals process, the Clinic wants to reach out to you and hear your experience. The more we hear from the people involved in the process, the better the CRB can be tailored to effectively serve this community.