Poking Holes in the Process: We need to Amend the Civilian Review Board

February 24, 2013

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. 

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Public Records Requests in North Carolina: What We’re Not Given, and How The Civil Rights Clinic is Trying to Change That.

February 22, 2013

The Civil Rights Clinic’s Public Records Project is well on its way to drafting a letter to the North Carolina Attorney General addressing the insufficient response format to a public records request in North Carolina

Currently, under North Carolina General Statutes, there is neither an established period in which the state must respond, nor a mandated response format.  When a request is denied, North Carolina Statutes simply state a person who is denied access to public records may apply to the appropriate division of the General Court of Justice for an order compelling disclosure or copying.

The Public Records Project has implemented a research plan focusing on the North Carolina statute and the approaches of other states to address public records requests and responses.  Currently, the Clinic has researched all 50 states’, and the District of Columbia’s public records statutes, classifying states as those with similar or comparable statutes, those with less stringent requirements than North Carolina, and those with more stringent requirements than North Carolina.  The goal of the statutory research is to determine how other states have either improved or justified their disclosure method, as well as what North Carolina can do to improve its disclosure and response format to resemble that of the Federal Freedom Of Information Act, which requires a detailed index stating the specific exemption for those documents not disclosed known as a Vaughn Index. Though the Clinic’s Public Records Project is concerned predominantly with state law, the Federal Freedom of Information Act’s response format, the Vaughn Index, is a model the clinic is striving towards.

Research so far has shown severe ends of the spectrum. For example, while North Carolina provides no real substance on how a state agency is to format its denial to a public records request, Georgia requires that any decision to withhold all or part of a requested record shall be made known to the person requesting such documents, along with the specific legal authority exempting the requested record from disclosure by Code section, subsection, and paragraph within a reasonable amount of time, not to exceed three business days.

The Civil Rights Clinic’s next step is to delve into case law, Attorney General’s statements, and administrative rulings regarding public records request among all fifty states.  The end goal for the Public Records Project is a letter to the North Carolina Attorney General seeking an opinion addressing the insufficient response requirements to a public records request, along with a proposal for a new standard for public records request responses. It is the hope of the Civil Rights Clinic that research will lead to improvements, not just within North Carolina, but to other states with similar or comparable statutes and those with less stringent requirements.

By Katie Webb

Legal Dose Episode 2, Spring ’13

February 22, 2013

Depression and Law School Part I.

Legal Dose Episode 2, Spring ’13

February 22, 2013

Depression and Law School Part II.

In the Shadow of The Box

February 18, 2013

Approximately one in every 163 adults is incarcerated in Mecklenburg County. That amounts to about 3,800 people in jail and prison at any given time. As of last July, 6,874 were on probation. The unfortunate reality facing many of these individuals with a criminal past is that they walk out of a prison cell, straight into a box.

This “Box” is often a simple question on employment applications that requires the applicants to check “yes” or “no” as to whether they have previously been convicted of a crime. According to Devah Pager, author of The Mark of a Criminal Record, once the applicant checks the box, employers are twice as likely to deny employment to an applicant with a criminal record than an applicant without one. People who complete their time and are released find themselves chained to their past, with a dark shadow standing over them every time they fill out a job application or sit down for an interview. They all stand in the shadow of The Box.

According to the Center for Community Transitions and the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office, 97 percent of those incarcerated in Mecklenburg County will return to the community, many with little or no resources, and nearly a 50 percent chance of being rearrested within a year. In a study done by the Indiana Department of Corrections, if employed, ex-offenders’ recidivism dropped from a high of 44.7 percent, down to 28.5 percent for someone without a GED or high school diploma; the numbers go as low as 17.3 percent if that individual has a college degree and employment.

The challenges individuals with criminal backgrounds face disproportionately impact people of color, the working poor, and minorities; populations which are convicted and incarcerated in numbers disproportionate to their population. According to the Department of Justice, African-American and Hispanic males were imprisoned at a rate between 2 to 7 times that of white males nationwide during 2011. This imbalance has created a disparate impact on job seekers from minority communities. The Box greatly exacerbates the re-entry adversity which thousands of potential employees, their families and communities already face.

In an effort to promote and assist with the communal reintegration of those with a criminal history, the Ban The Box movement seeks to remove the requirement that applicants disclose all past convictions on a preliminary application for public employment with the City of Charlotte. Past efforts in the community have shown that employment dramatically lowers the recidivism rate for participating ex-offenders by as much as 35 percent below the national average. Research from the Center for Community Transitions shows that finding and retaining employment are major factors in preventing return to prison. Over 20 cities have passed similar legislation including Durham City, Durham County, San Francisco, Seattle, and more. Some states, like Massachusetts, have successfully adopted legislation at the state level.

The cost? An opportunity to explain. City employers would not be prohibited from making background checks, but would instead have to extend a conditional offer of employment prior to a check taking place. Qualified applicants would be able to discuss their criminal history in an interview and explain why it should not disqualify them, as well as provide evidence of their rehabilitation. Adopting the ordinance would not only lower recidivism, preventing the overcrowding of prisons and jails, but would also significantly decrease the cost to taxpayers of housing inmates.

Ex-offenders may have few or no resources to begin to unshackle themselves from their past convictions and gain lawful employment. Through this proposal they will have a chance at becoming functional, contributing members of society once again, while simultaneously decreasing their chances of recidivism. The Ban The Box Coalition plans to present its resolution and proposed ordinance to the City Council Monday, February 25th, at 6:15pm. Everyone is invited to attend and show their support. With our help, ex-offenders have a chance to get out from under the shadow of The Box.

By Daniel Melo

Legal Dose Episode 1, Spring 2013

February 15, 2013

The first episode of the Legal Dose for Spring 2013 is available on youtube for your listening pleasure!

Undoing the Kink in MeckLINK

February 15, 2013

In the past few weeks, I came across numerous articles discussing mental health and access to healthcare for those with mental illness in the Charlotte Area. This prompted me to do more exploration on the issue.  I discovered that Mecklenburg County has a program, at the heart of the controversy, called MeckLINK.  MeckLINK is an organization which serves individuals suffering from mental health, substance abuse, or developmental issues, and provides a resource for evaluation and referrals to community mental health providers. Most everyone knows someone affected by a mental illness; many of those affected are impacted by the current dispute between the Department of Health and Human Services in Raleigh and Mecklenburg County regarding the oversight of millions of dollars of Medicaid funding.  As a community member, I found myself primarily concerned over the stability and effective provision of mental health services to those in need, thus prompting my interest in the issue.

What is the current state of Mental Health in Mecklenburg County and what is MeckLINK? 

Mental health is seventh on the Mecklenburg County’s top-ten list of current health priorities.  A national study revealed that 19.8% of North Carolina adults have suffered with a mental illness.  In Mecklenburg County, more than 150,000 individuals who suffer from mental illness, including substance abuse, rely on Medicaid funding for care.  One method of addressing community mental health needs was the County’s formation of “MeckLINK.”

MeckLINK Behavioral Healthcare is a component of the Mecklenburg County government with a mission “[t]o assist persons, families and communities affected by mental illness, substance abuse, or developmental disabilities to achieve their life goals.” According to their website, MeckLINK provides individual assessment of needs and then coordinates with community mental health providers to “link” the individual with the appropriate services.  Most relevant to the current unrest is the fact that MeckLINK also provides these services for individuals with “limited financial resources or no insurance,” including individuals who rely on Medicaid for healthcare.  Delivery of services and sufficient funding constitutes a major concern for any community attempting to prioritize mental health, as well as to those who suffer from illness.

So, what is currently happening in the News? 

At the end of 2012, the North Carolina Health and Human Services Secretary, Albert Delia, made the decision to remove oversight of Mecklenburg County’s federal and state Medicaid funding from MeckLINK. This decision came as a shock to the County, who had already taken drastic steps toward implementing the MeckLINK program as a managed care organization, including spending millions of dollars to initiate MeckLINK and hiring hundreds of employees. Mr. Delia ordered the Medicaid program’s reassignment to a private corporation, Cardinal Innovations Healthcare Solutions.

This decision received major pushback, from not just the Mecklenburg County government, but also, from providers and residents within the County. The County was frustrated with the decision, not only because of the time spent establishing the program, but also because of its belief that MeckLINK would work. Through MeckLINK, Mecklenburg would become the only county in the state to operate a managed care organization at the community level. By keeping Medicaid money and oversight within the community, the County’s goal is to reduce costs and to increase accountability and care.

One reason for the decision to move oversight to a private corporation was Mr. Delia’s belief that MeckLINK would not be operational by the deadline of February 1, 2013. Thus, on his last day of office, Mr. Delia reassigned the program to Cardinal Innovations Healthcare.

This January, Mecklenburg representatives and the new North Carolina Health and Human Services Secretary, Aldona Wos, reached an agreement giving MeckLINK another chance. Mecklenburg County has until March 1, 2013, to launch the program. If the county fails to demonstrate that MeckLINK will function as promised, then its services, including the millions of dollars in state and federal Medicaid money, will be permanently reassigned and the hundreds of employees hired by the County will be out of jobs.  Additionally, Mecklenburg County will be out the millions of dollars it spent to initiate the program.

Thankfully, in the first of two progress reports, required by the January agreement, MeckLINK received a favorable report. According to WFAE, on  January 30, 2013, a state consultant indicated that MeckLINK is “on track” for meeting the March 1st launch deadline.

What is at Stake if MeckLINK fails?

The goal of giving MeckLINK oversight of the Medicaid funding “is to . . . reduce costs by keeping people out of institutions and to be more accountable and consistent with services.” Apart from losing control of the supervision of Medicaid dollars within the County, what else is at stake if MeckLINK fails?

According to a statement from the Mecklenburg County Public Information Department, the state’s decision to give MeckLINK more time will avoid litigation. Given the number of people who rely on Medicaid funding for healthcare and the need for access to mental health services, it is doubtful that litigation would assist the county’s goal of prioritizing mental health.

Additionally, given the ever-present newsreel concerning the dangerous inadequacies in mental health care, instability in the provision of mental health services is an alarming prospect.  The outcomes of untreated illness include substance abuse, homelessness, and physical ailments. The fight to overturn the initial reassignment declaration began as a result of concerns raised by both consumers and community advocates that reassignment would reduce the quality of services provided.

Finally, should MeckLINK fail, the county will be forced to lay-off hundreds of employees, and the $3 Million dollars used to initiate the program will have been for naught.

 My Perspective   

I am not an expert in Medicaid or in Mental Health services in Mecklenburg County, however, I am an interested and concerned citizen. After conducting research, I can say that I am pleased that MeckLINK is making progress. For the sake of mental health care in Mecklenburg County and the highest quality mental health services for individuals on Medicaid, I hope that the program will remain on track through the deadline.

I fear the delay that would result from MeckLINK’s failure. Additionally, I fear that removing oversight of these critical funds will result in the disjointed provision of care in Mecklenburg County.  Mecklenburg is the only county in the state attempting to establish a managed care organization of its own. I fully believe that the state should support a county fighting for a way to increase accountability and stability in mental health care. The state should support a county whose mission is to prioritize mental health for its citizens. As a community member, I support the County’s fight and hope for the success of MeckLINK.

By: Emily Ray

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