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Critics say police panel report stops short of needed change

A long-anticipated report on Charlotte’s Citizens Review Board recommends only minor reforms, stunning critics who called for major changes in how the city handles allegations of police misconduct.

The report released Friday by a task force suggests city leaders bolster communication with the public through the Internet and publish its rulings.

Established in 1997, the board was designed to restore public confidence in police after three unarmed African-Americans were killed by white officers. The 11-member volunteer panel hears complaints from residents unhappy with disciplinary decisions following police internal affairs investigations.

The task force report took on added significance with last weekend’s police shooting that killed Jonathan Ferrell, 24, a black man.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police have charged Officer Randall Kerrick, who is white, with voluntary manslaughter in the shooting. Ferrell was unarmed and may have been seeking help after a car wreck in the Bradfield Farms neighborhood in northeast Mecklenburg County. An attorney for Kerrick has said the officer’s actions were justified.

Local attorneys who contend the review board fails to provide effective oversight of CMPD said they were disappointed the task force didn’t recommend changes that would overhaul how the panel works. They vowed to keep pushing city leaders for changes.

“It’s hard for me to believe this is it,” said Matt Newton, a Charlotte defense attorney and one of the leaders of the advocacy group CRB Reform Now. “Certainly, in light of the current tragedy, we have an opportunity to find common ground and make recommendations that will lead to a strong Citizens Review Board.”

Report defended

Harvey Katowitz, vice chairman of the Citizens Review Board and a member of the task force, defended the report.

Activist groups sought far more sweeping changes than the task force was prepared to recommend or thought was necessary, Katowitz said.

“They were looking to really revamp the CRB,” he said. “We’re an appellate group, and they wanted us to become an investigative group.”

Even though the task force didn’t agree with their recommendations, Katowitz noted that the task force included their ideas in the report because they were instructed to give city officials a full range of views.

Council committee meeting

City Council members will discuss the issue Monday at a meeting of the Council-Manager’s Relations Committee.

Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Cannon, who pushed to create the Citizens Review Board in 1990s, said he hopes the city’s Council-Manager Relations Committee will “receive the report, while coming back with some real recommendations that might make the board a little stronger than what it currently is.”

He said the CRB “calls for more teeth than what it has.”

City Manager Ron Carlee said he would meet with Police Chief Rodney Monroe, City Council members and others before staking out a position.

“I’ve tried to keep an open mind,” Carlee said.

He said he and other officials would try to strike the proper balance between ensuring people their right to air grievances and allowing police officers to do their jobs.

Carlee noted that citizen review panels have stoked tensions in other cities. “I don’t know anywhere where they aren’t controversial,” he said.

Charlotte’s review board received scant attention until an Observer story in February reported that the panel has sided with police in every case.

79 complaints filed

Seventy-nine people have filed complaints with the review board. Members met behind closed doors – first with citizens, then with police – and voted to dismiss almost every case without a formal hearing.

Unlike in some other cities, the board has no independent power to investigate, and citizens must meet an unusually high standard of evidence for the board to even hold a formal hearing.

Police oversight experts and civil liberties advocates told the Observer the panel’s track record and limited power suggested it was one of the weakest citizen review boards in the nation.

CMPD officials and others defended the review board, saying the department conducts thorough investigations and disciplines officers properly.

But in April, City 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 also assembled a group of stakeholders that issued this week’s report. They held meetings and compiled recommendations from the public, police and activists.

In addition to enhanced communication, the task force report noted that the “lack of perceived power/authority by the CRB” and wrote that granting the board subpoena power was a recurring theme.

Report ‘grossly inadequate’

Jason Huber, a professor at the Charlotte School of Law and one of the board’s most vocal critics, said the report is “grossly inadequate.”

The review board process makes it nearly impossible for citizens to win their cases, Huber said. For example, he said, citizens now must prove that the police chief abused his authority in deciding whether to discipline an officer.

Huber said the board should simply determine whether police misconduct occurred.

Katowitz, the review board member, said the changes the task force recommended – designed to improve transparency and communication – will benefit citizens.

“The police department does an excellent job of adjudicating most of their complaints,” he said.

He said he was disappointed that a dozen or so activists handed out literature about changing the panel to others at meetings and exerted undue influence.

“We were trying to get average people,” to voice their concerns, Katowitz said.

“We reviewed what citizens said, and it was kind of what the literature said, which was kind of disheartening.” Staff writer Steve Harrison contributed.

Clasen-Kelly: 704 358-5027 Portillo: 704 358-5041
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