In the most recent issue of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement’s quarterly publication, the Review, our Clinic was featured! Clinic alumni Isabel Carson and Celia Olson wrote an article with Professor Jason Huber for the Review that highlighted our Clinic’s efforts on the Citizens Review Board (“CRB”) project. The CRB was established to bridge community-police relations here in Charlotte, and our Clinic has worked diligently over the years to create transparency within the CRB. We have had so much success with this project here in our community and continue to advocate for transparency across North Carolina.
By: Hailey Hawkins
Clinical education is founded on teaching through experience, and allows students to grow by working in their community. The members of the Civil Rights Clinic past and present put in a great deal of work and passion on a daily basis. Occasionally, when people put so much passion and energy into the daily work, including the struggles and pitfalls, it is easy to lose sight of the big picture. Also, when looking at the milestones at any given time it is important to consider everyone who laid the groundwork to make these accomplishments possible, as many of these projects were the result of three to four years of hard work. As such, this list is meant to celebrate the accomplishments of those individuals in the clinic for 2013 and years past, and serve as inspiration for all future clinic members.
Release Dismissal Agreements– Over a year ago the Civil Rights Clinic began an inquiry into the use of release-dismissal agreements by state prosecutors. On January 29, 2013 the North Carolina State Bar’s Ethics Committee proposed a Formal Ethics Opinion, yet the language did not make it equally applicable. In response to the proposed Formal Ethics Opinion, the Civil Rights Clinic, North Carolina Advocates for Justice, North Carolina Center for Actual Innocence, and the Duke Law Wrongful Convictions Clinic submitted letters to the Committee with proposed changes to the language of the Opinion. On October 15, 2013 the North Carolina State Bar issued a Formal Ethics Opinion, including the language suggested by the Clinic. To see the opinion: http://www.ncbar.com/ethics/ethics.asp?page=2&from=10/2013&to=12/2013
Civilian Review Board– The Civilian Review Board began as a research project for the Civil Rights Clinic nearly three-years ago. However, in February 2013 the media became involved, and the issue came to the forefront for Mayor Foxx and City Council. On April 1st the City Council heard Clinic members advocate for reform of the Citizen Review Board based on their research, focusing primarily on the standard of review and the need for transparency. The City Council voted to send the Citizens Review Board to committee for further review and scrutiny based on the Clinic’s suggestions and research. On November 25th, the City Council voted unanimously to reform the Civilian Review Board. For more information on this topic, please see https://cslcivilrights.com/2013/12/01/crb-reform-one-step-closer/
Public Records Request– 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. This data was compiled into a letter that was sent to North Carolina Attorney General for consideration.
Ban the Box– In an effort to promote and assist with the communal reintegration of those with a criminal history, the Ban The Box movement sought to remove the requirement that applicants disclose all past convictions on a preliminary application for public employment with the City of Charlotte. On February 25th, 2013, the Ban the Box movement presented a proposed ordinance to City Council with over 100 community supporters in the audience. The City Council voted to send the Ban the Box initiative to committee for further review. For more information on this topic, please see https://cslcivilrights.com/2013/03/06/charlotte-city-council-kicks-the-box-to-committee-for-further-study-2/
A.S. v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg County Board of Education– We are happy to report that, in a joint effort with Council for Children’s Rights and Professor Keith Howard, Civil Rights Clinic members successfully represented a 7th grade student in a Superior Court Appeal of the Mecklenburg County School Board’s disciplinary, 180 day alternative reassignment to Turning Point Academy resulting from an alleged altercation between the student and teacher. Superior Court Judge Ruben Young conducted a hearing on September 3, 2013 in Mecklenburg County Superior Court. And on November 11th, he entered an order (1) finding that the Board’s disciplinary action was arbitrary and capricious and (2) remanding the matter back to the Board for reconsideration. While we did not win on all of our claims, all involved were very satisfied with the result.
Media– In addition to the numerous Charlotte Loafing and Charlotte Observer articles about the Civilian Review Board and Ban the Box, the Clinic received multiple opportunities with the media. Claudine Chalfant of News 14 Carolina paid a visit to the Civil Rights Clinic and reported on the work that the Clinic has done to help the community. On December 10, 2013 the Clinic was invited to make an appearance on Charlotte Talks to discuss its work with the Civilian Review Board.
These notable milestones do not encompass the other projects that have grown this year. The Certificates of Relief project has been taking in clients and developed a system that will continue to help individuals for years to come. This past semester a clinic member connected with the LGBTQ Center to assist individuals with changing their names and address many of the issues arising in the LGBTQ community. Clinic members continue to serve as hearing officers for the Charlotte Housing Authority.
Overall, 2013 serves as a great reminder of what can be accomplished with hard work and perseverance, and sets the stage for how much more can be done in 2014.
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.