Year in Review

January 4, 2014

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.


CRB Reform: One Step Closer

December 1, 2013

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.


Citizens Review Board article in Creative Loafing

October 19, 2013

Citizens Review Board proposed reform will change little

Creative Loafing published Clinic member Isabel Carson’s recent article on the latest happenings surrounding the reformation of Charlotte’s Citizens Review Board. Click the link above to read more.


Civil Rights Clinic Releases Report on Charlotte’s Citizen’s Review Board

July 2, 2013

Recently, Charlotte’s Citizen’s Review Board (CRB) has been the subject of scrutiny over its 78-0 record, having never sided with a citizen complaining of police misconduct. The bleak statistics surrounding the CRB lead the Civil Rights Clinic to take an in-depth look at the structural issues within the ordinance creating the CRB.

As part of an on-going three year project, the Civil Rights Clinic recently compiled information about the civilian oversight of police in cities across the country—what authority the boards’ had to conduct investigations, the board structure, the accessibility of the information, and the standard of review for alleged police conduct. Additionally, the Clinic looked at CRB meeting minutes, as well as contacted former board members and complainants about the process. After reviewing the data, the Clinic released a report with recommendations for changes to Charlotte’s CRB as well as a model ordinance. The report, authored by Clinic member Isabel Carson, with contributing research from Clinic members Lindsey Engels, Katie Webb, and Daniel Melo, proposed changes to the standard of review, the availability of information on an independently maintained website, independent investigatory power, and the necessity of building trust between the police and the community they serve through transparency. The Clinic proposed four primary changes, outlined below in an excerpt from the report:

Drawing on the current structure of Charlotte’s municipal accountability scheme, Part III identifies the inconsistencies and weaknesses within the Citizens Review Board, and suggests four primary changes: 1)lowering the pre-hearing standard from preponderance of the evidence to probable cause; 2)shifting the focus of the standard of review from abuse of discretion to whether actual misconduct occurred;3)providing independent investigatory, subpoena, and audit powers to the Citizens Review Board; and 4)establishing stronger lines of communication and accessibility between the city and its residents.”

The Clinic recently met with the task force charged with gathering community input for recommendations to bring back to Charlotte’s City Council as part of the stakeholder process, and has also spoken to Charlotte’s ACLU chapter on the issue.

If you would like to read the full report click CRB Report.

You can also visit CRB Reform Now for more information and ways to get involved in reforming Charlotte’s CRB.

CRB Reform Webpage


Charlotte Citizens Review Board – Who Watches the Watchmen?

March 13, 2012

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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