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After scrutiny, council votes to examine review board

By Gary L. Wrightand Cleve R. Wootson Jr.
gwright@charlotteobserver.comcwootson@charlotteobserver.com

The Charlotte City Council on Monday voted to examine the mandate and powers of the Citizens Review Board, a move that could ultimately give residents a better chance of proving that they’ve been victims of police misconduct.

The council voted unanimously to have the Council-Manager Relations Committee look into the Citizens Review Board’s work over the past 16 years and determine whether the standard of proof for residents to win their cases should be lowered.

City officials will also assemble a group of stakeholders that Mayor Anthony Foxx said he hopes will “scope out the issues” surrounding the 11-member volunteer review board.

Nearly 50 people turned out Monday to pressure the council to take steps to both boost the review board’s power and give residents more of a chance to win their appeals. Most wore black and held up printed signs that said “Transparency.”

The Observer reported last month that since the Citizens Review Board was established in 1997 to look into allegations of police misconduct, it has always sided with police.

That record and the review board’s limited power suggest it is among the weakest in the nation, review board experts and civil liberties advocates told the Observer.

Jason Huber, a professor at the Charlotte School of Law who believes the review board has failed in its mission, praised the City Council’s move Monday.

“It’s a small step in the right direction,” he told the Observer after the council’s decision. “It’s a solid beginning to reforming the Citizens Review Board.”

Matt Newton, a Charlotte lawyer who organized the effort to encourage the council to reform the review board, said: “All we’re asking for is a level playing field. We don’t want to see a bandage placed on this. We want to see some meaningful changes.”

The Citizens Review Board was set up to restore public confidence in Charlotte-Mecklenburg police after three unarmed African-Americans had been killed by white police officers.

During Monday’s City Council meeting, Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Cannon recalled the tension in Charlotte before the Citizens Review Board was established.

“When those motorists were being shot and killed, this community was on the fringe of going way under, where riots were about to take place in our city,” Cannon said. “Although it may need some work, in my opinion, (the review board) has put the citizens’ voice in a process that it wasn’t a part of.”

But Cannon added: “I’m looking to see a review board that sides with fairness.”

Gregory West, the Citizens Review Board’s chairman, told the council the board isn’t a rubber stamp.

“One thing I can guarantee you is that we grill the police department and internal affairs,” he said.

In nearly 16 years, residents have filed 79 complaints about police misbehavior with the Citizens Review Board. But the board, after meeting behind closed doors, first with the complainants and then with the police, has voted to dismiss almost every case without holding a hearing.

Residents who appeal to the review board must meet an unusually high standard of proof for it to hold hearings on their allegations of police misconduct. The board has only held four hearings. After each hearing, the board ruled in favor of the police.

The Citizens Review Board has little authority. It doesn’t have the power to overturn CMPD’s discipline of police officers. Board members can only advise the police chief and city manager if they believe the disciplinary decisions were serious mistakes.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Rodney Monroe told council members that the department has strengthened its policies concerning officer conduct.

Shooting at moving vehicles, for example, has been prohibited. CMPD has made Tasers, a less-lethal weapon, part of officers’ mandatory equipment, and added video cameras to patrol cars.

Monroe said use-of-force complaints against officers to CMPD have declined by 60 percent since 2005. Unbecoming conduct complaints have dropped by nearly 30 percent.

Some of the residents who turned out Monday night told council members about their negative and sometimes violent interactions with police. One said officers beat her grandson with a flashlight as he lay on the ground during an arrest. Another said officers needlessly harass him just because he has a criminal record.

Kare Romanski, who is disabled by a chronic spine condition, said an officer slammed her onto the hood of a car in 2009 after she spotted him sleeping in his patrol car. She appealed to the review board, hoping the officer would be required to get training for dealing with impaired people. She lost.

“I didn’t want his badge,” she told council members while standing beside her service dog, D.J. “Everybody has a bad day. This officer had a really bad day. I had a worse one.”

George Daly, a Charlotte civil rights lawyer and the first chairman of the review board, told the council: “It is very dangerous to insulate the police from being held accountable when they do wrong. … Police sometimes do wrong. There should be an avenue for citizens to correct that.”

Wright: 704-358-5052Wootson: 704-358-5046
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The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.

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