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Task force: Public wants change to CMPD discipline process

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

A task force scrutinizing how police misconduct allegations are handled is poised to recommend changes that would give citizens more power to prove their claims against Charlotte-Mecklenburg officers.

The Citizens Review Board, appointed by the mayor and City Council, has never in its 16-year history sided with citizens who’ve complained about officers.

In response to an Observer investigation into the board’s history, the city directed a task force to study the review board’s mandate and powers. On Monday, that group presented a City Council committee with initial recommendations from the public.

Among them:

• Give the board the power to subpoena witnesses and the authority to conduct independent investigations.

• Lower the standard that citizens must reach in order to get a hearing before the board.

• Provide more procedural fairness to citizens who file complaints, including giving them legal help.

• Hire an attorney and an administrator to oversee the board.

The task force finished collecting information in July.

Since April, task force members have met with police, the public and advocates for reforming the review board.

Monday’s presentation gave City Council members a sense of how the public wants to change a body that’s charged with deciding whether the police chief made the appropriate disciplinary decision.

The task force also collected 83 online surveys from the public and 388 from members of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department. Sixty-five percent of the public responses indicated the review board process needs to be changed, and nearly half said the process is unfair to citizens. Only 14 percent of officers agreed the review process needed to be changed.

Warren Cooksey, the chairman of the Council-Manager Relations Committee, said the small number of citizens who responded online is not enough to infer anything about most Charlotteans’ view of the review board.

“This is not a statistically valid sample nor does it tell me anything about the community’s opinion of the CRB,” he said.

People who feel 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. But residents who appeal to the review board must meet an unusually high standard of proof before it will hold hearings on their allegations, an Observer investigation in February showed.

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

Monday’s committee meeting was mostly informational, with council members asking a litany of procedural questions.

After Willie Ratchford, who heads the task force, presented a summary of public opinion, committee members asked the task force to make official recommendations. Those could be heard in front of the committee as early as its next meeting in September.

Mayor Patsy Kinsey suggested that a council workshop may be needed before the full City Council can vote on what changes to make to the board, if any.

Advocates for reform have criticized the process, saying it’s taking much longer than the council originally mandated. Former Mayor Anthony Foxx stated that the information-gathering process should take less than 90 days.

“We were hoping that this would be an issue that our council members would have been more informed about today and then could have passed onto the floor of City Council,” said Matt Newton, one of the leaders of a group advocating for CRB reform.

But council members balked at the idea that the process was taking too much time.

“There’s no reason to be afraid of this,” said David Howard, an at-large council member. “I think the spirit of what (former Mayor Anthony Foxx) said was to get it right. … There’s nothing slowing us down. If we understood it today, we’d make recommendations.”

Since April, the task force has met with individual stakeholder groups: members of the Charlotte School of Law who are studying the board, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police and a group of citizens advocating for CRB reform. They’ve asked groups to help pinpoint what works, what doesn’t and what should change.

In 16 years, citizens have filed 79 complaints about police misbehavior with the Citizens Review Board. But a Charlotte Observer investigation showed that the 11-member volunteer board, after meeting behind closed doors, first with the citizens, then with the police, has voted to dismiss almost every case without holding a hearing.

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.

In a memo to the council, police Chief Rodney Monroe said he doesn’t think the makeup or powers of the board need to be changed. He has told the Observer that he believes his department does a good job of policing itself and that the CRB has been responsible for department policy changes that have held police more accountable.

Monday, he told the committee that his department was investigating complaints the right way. He said community surveys the department conducts show that people have a high level of confidence in his officers’ professionalism and courtesy.

“Over time we’ve seen those confidence levels increase,” he said.

He added that the department has a good track record of investigating citizen complaints and punishing officers who do wrong.

“The (U.S.) Justice Department is out there watching everything we do,” he said. “When it comes to uses of force, you see a number of police departments out there that have been hit with civil rights violations and I’m happy to report that Charlotte doesn’t come close to that type of thing.”

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