In 1997, after years of resistance from public officials, the Charlotte City Council voted to establish a Citizens Review Board that had the power to investigate allegations of police misconduct. The decision came after separate killings of three unarmed black citizens by white police officers, and city leaders saw the review board as something that could help restore and maintain Charlotteans’ confidence in their police department.
In the nearly 16 years since, the 11-member volunteer board has heard 78 complaints about potential police misconduct, according to an Observer investigation published Sunday. Of those, four cases made it to the next step of a full hearing that involved citizens and police representatives presenting their case to the board. In each of the four, the board ruled in favor of the police.
That adds up to zero for 78 for citizens – or, from CMPD’s perspective, 78 for 78. Either way, it’s a number that raises the eyebrows of review board experts nationwide, and it troubles local attorneys and leaders who believe that citizens don’t stand much of a chance in front of the board. That belief should also trouble police and the city council.
Here’s what the numbers don’t necessarily say, however: They don’t say that injustice was done in any one of those 78 cases, or that the board exists solely to rubberstamp police perspective.
The numbers also don’t tell us that CMPD turns a blind eye to misconduct. The Internal Affairs Bureau has heard 1,400 citizen complaints between 2004 and 2011 (citizens must go through Internal Affairs before appealing to the review board). Of those cases, Internal Affairs found misconduct in 26 percent – including 37 percent in the last three years.
Still, the 16-year review board shutout has some concluding that appeals of Internal Affairs decisions might be bound for failure. A former review board chair, civil rights lawyer George Daly, told the Observer that the board gave only the “illusion” of a citizen’s right to complain. Another attorney, William “Shel” Robinson, has advised the family of a CMPD shooting victim to go straight to court instead of submitting a case to the review board.
Such skepticism might help explain the small number of cases the review board has heard, compared to the hundreds or thousands heard in other cities during a similar time period. Another possible contributor: Many cities allow citizens to complain directly to a review board instead of Internal Affairs. Some boards have the authority and investigative personnel to launch separate investigations.
The city council should explore whether allowing Charlotte’s review board that flexibility is preferable to giving Internal Affairs first opportunity to investigate cases. It also should consider giving citizens and their attorneys access to Internal Affairs reports involving their complaints, as well as allowing the review board to directly interview police officers. Other cities’ review boards do so.
Police Chief Rodney Monroe said he believes Charlotte’s review board helps the public have confidence in the department’s internal investigations. After all, a perfect record can rightfully be seen as affirmation that Internal Affairs is making the right calls on misconduct.
But to some, zero for 78 signals how much of a disadvantage citizens have if they think they’ve been wronged by police. That skepticism alone should prompt the city council to explore how the review board is doing, because skepticism is what the board was supposed to repair.