In “0-78,” (Feb. 17) and “CMPD’s perfect review board record” (Feb. 19), the Observer describes the workings and record of the Citizens Review Board. The newspaper, however, obscures the most basic point about the board’s work.
The CRB ordinance does not give the board the power or the responsibility merely to point out mistakes or object when it thinks the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department could have disciplined an officer differently. The CRB only can advise the police chief (and the city manager) when a “preponderance of the evidence” (more evidence than not) establishes that the chief or his Internal Affairs designees have “abused their discretion” in imposing discipline. This “abuse of discretion” standard explains why – in the Observer’s rhetoric – the CRB supposedly only “sides” with CMPD. As told repeatedly to reporters over the four years spent on the story, “abuse of discretion” means acting “without good reason” or “acting so arbitrarily that the act could not have been the result of a reasoned decision.” For the board to recommend to the police chief to discipline an officer differently, the CRB must conclude that CMPD acted so arbitrarily that it did not make a reasoned decision in disciplining an officer or that CMPD acted without any good reason. It is not enough for CRB members to believe that CMPD made a mistake or that CRB members would have disciplined the officer differently if they had been making the decision.
CRB members listen to citizen/complainants’ and CMPD’s versions of events. CRB members learn how the results of CMPD’s investigation lead to any decision about disciplining an officer. In neither meetings (at which most CRB appeals are resolved) nor full hearings has the CRB found that the CMPD so abdicated its investigative role or violated its standards in disciplining officers that the CRB could conclude that the department acted “arbitrarily,” “without good reason,” or without making a “reasoned decision.” The Observer ends its article with the uncontroversial statement – by a Minnesota civil servant – that “everybody makes mistakes” to suggest the CRB somehow misses this truth and decides that CMPD never makes mistakes in disciplining officers. That conclusion, however, is patently false. The CRB has not determined that CMPD never makes mistakes. The CRB has determined – per its ordinance’s standard – that CMPD has not abused its discretion in the 78 cases reviewed by the board. Suggesting otherwise might generate heat and controversy, but it shines no light on the actual issues of how the CRB functions and whether more should be done to determine if our police department adequately polices itself.
The Observer suggests multiple ways to change the CRB, ranging from subpoena power to directly questioning officers (which already can happen in hearings) to hiring its own investigative staff. Such suggestions might have merit, and the public can debate them. The Observer largely ignores, however, the root reason why the CRB has always decided as it has. If the Observer, City Council, or our community wants different results from the CRB, they need only lower the “abuse of discretion” standard imposed upon the board. A “suggestion of error,” “clearly erroneous,” or de novo (or totally new) standard all could yield dramatically different results in CRB appeals.
Despite its lengthy story, the Observer also ignores the CRB’s other work in advising the police chief on various policies. For example, the CRB suggested – and CMPD implemented – changes about how to trigger and collect patrol-car video and audio recordings. This collaboration has improved the recording process and allows more video or audio records to be used when making – and reviewing – disciplinary decisions. These records often remove any doubt about what actually occurred and whether CMPD properly disciplines officers.
CRB members also cannot respond to allegations about individual cases. State personnel laws and the CRB ordinance mandate confidentiality of CRB proceedings, which are part of police officers’ employment records. The Observer mostly ignored this requirement. While a complainant may get his picture published with a one-sided version of events, CRB members cannot respond with the complete version of what they learned from the CMPD – or independent third-party witnesses – in concluding that no abuse of discretion occurred in how officers were disciplined in particular cases.
The Observer mentions that any problem with the CRB’s record may stem from its creating ordinance, not the actions of CRB members. In fact, the board generally has diligently performed its duties and done so within the rules established in the city’s ordinance and North Carolina’s laws. Our community may want and need a debate on whether CMPD needs more civilian oversight. Nobody on the CRB would suggest that police officers are infallible. The Observer, however, would perform a greater service if its investigation illuminated the real causes of the statistics it reports. The volunteers serving on the CRB also should be thanked for their service and for rigorously applying our laws as actually written, not just as how some citizens – and apparently the newspaper – would like them to be written.
Gregory West, a health care administrator, chairs the CRB. Wright, of Robinson, Bradshaw & Hinson, serves as one of the CRB’s attorneys.
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