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Citizens Review Board critics worry changes moving too slowly

By Cleve R. Wootson Jr.
cwootson@charlotteobserver.com

After months of lobbying and protests, groups pushing for changes to a board that investigates allegations of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department misconduct are worried the process could take months.

They fear rewriting an ordinance on the function and powers of the Citizens Review Board will stretch past the November elections. That would require more effort to re-educate City Council members about a board that critics say doesn’t serve as an adequate check on police.

“We know that there’s going to be a new mayor and a completely new composition of our City Council, and we don’t want to start from scratch on this,” said Matt Newton, a Charlotte defense attorney and one of the leaders of the advocacy group CRB Reform Now.

Willie Ratchford, executive director of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Community Relations Committee, heads a task force that’s looking at potential changes to the review board. He said he will present a report to the Council-Manager Relations Committee Aug. 19.

Ratchford said the effort was the first time he could remember the city asking the public for input on changing an ordinance, so there’s no precedent for how long the process should take.

“I would hope that anyone would take the time and get this right,” he said. “You just can’t rush into this. This is going to require some time.”

Committee members haven’t analyzed all the data, but in online surveys of Charlotte-Mecklenburg residents and police officers, only 27.7 percent of respondents indicated the process was fair to citizens. About 59 percent said the process was fair to police.

Kare Romanski, who filed a complaint with the Citizens Review Board after alleging that a CMPD officer used excessive force, verbally abused her and wrongfully arrested her on Aug. 24, 2009, told the Observer she’s “not impressed with the pace.”

People who think they’ve been victims of police misconduct can appeal to the review board if they are not satisfied with the results of a CMPD investigation into their complaints. Since it was established, citizens such as Romanski have filed 79 complaints about police misbehavior with the Citizens Review Board.

Few hearings called

But an Observer investigation in February showed that the 11-member volunteer board has voted to dismiss almost every case without holding a hearing.

In April, then-Mayor Anthony Foxx asked the community relations committee to gather the thoughts of the public and stakeholders. That process concluded July 15. But it’s unclear when the Council-Manager Relations Committee or the full council will take action on the recommendations. City leaders tasked with looking at and possibly changing the board have not committed to a timeline.

Through a spokesman, Mayor Patsy Kinsey declined a request to be interviewed for this story, and in a statement she didn’t indicate a timeline for when the city could take action on the Citizens Review Board.

“As a member of (the Council-Manger Relations Committee), I eagerly await the task force’s report and look forward to working with my committee colleagues to craft a recommendation based on the report for the full council’s consideration.”

Patrick Cannon, who chairs the Community Safety Committee and spearheaded the issue 16 years ago, said he also was unsure about a timeline.

“I can only hope that it will not be long and drawn out,” Cannon said.

But he said that city staff members could quickly bring new council members up to speed on issues that have been raised by critics of the board.

Residents who appeal to the review board must meet an unusually high standard of proof before the CRB will hold hearings on their allegations.

The board has only held four hearings in 16 years. After each hearing, the board ruled in favor of the police.

The Citizens Review Board has little authority. It cannot take disciplinary actions against police officers or award damages to citizens. Board members can only advise the police chief and city manager if they believe CMPD’s disciplinary decisions were serious mistakes.

Wootson: 704-358-5046; Twitter: @CleveWootson
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