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Raising the public’s confidence in police

It has taken 16 years and 79 disputed cases, but Charlotte’s toothless board for reviewing alleged police misconduct might finally get some teeth.

A City Council committee on Monday backed a dozen recommendations regarding the Citizens Review Board, and the full City Council could adopt the changes in November. They go a long way – though not far enough – toward building public confidence that allegations of police misconduct will be thoroughly vetted and fairly resolved.

“0-78.”

That stark Observer headline in February summarized the story: 78 times residents had complained to the CRB that they had been wronged by police; 78 times the CRB sided with police. In 74 cases, the complainant didn’t even get a hearing.

Probably the biggest factor behind those numbers? The unusually high bar citizens had to clear even to have their complaint heard. The ordinance that created the CRB dictated that “a preponderance of the evidence” had to show that the police chief had committed an “abuse of discretion” in how he disciplined (or didn’t discipline) the officer.

It is one of the strictest standards among the country’s 100-plus review boards. And it is that extremely high standard, CRB lawyer Julian Wright argued, that largely accounted for citizens’ 0-78 record before the board. Change the standard, Wright suggested, and you change the outcome of some cases.

Now, the City Council appears poised to ease the standard to hold a full hearing to “substantial evidence that an error occurred in the investigation of the citizen’s complaint or the disciplinary decision concerning the officer.” That lower standard is appropriate, and gives the citizen a fighting chance.

To be sure, a tiny percentage of police actions are at issue here. Officers act appropriately under trying conditions every day. When they don’t, they are typically disciplined.

From 2004 to 2011, more than 3,500 allegations of police misconduct were filed with CMPD. Internal Affairs found misconduct in more than 2,100 cases. They levied more than 500 suspensions, 54 firings and more than 900 written reprimands.

Now and then, however, citizens believe Internal Affairs has not given them a fair review. That’s where a robust Citizens Review Board comes in. Besides changing the standard of review, the City Council might also give the CRB the authority to question the accused officer directly. The council is also likely to raise the visibility and transparency of the board through a dedicated website and other avenues.

The council committee on Monday stopped short of full reform, accepting a task force recommendation not to give the CRB broad subpoena power or authority to launch its own investigations. Task force members said that would require legislative approval, which could delay reform. The City Council should enact most changes while simultaneously seeking Raleigh’s permission for others. Subpoena power, in particular, could give the board the authority it needs to fully review an Internal Affairs decision.

The Citizens Review Board has failed in one key regard. It was created in 1997, after three officer shootings of unarmed residents, to reassure skeptical residents that they were on a balanced playing field with police. Sixteen years later, many residents still believe that field is tilted. This time, the City Council has a chance to get it right.

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