Striking a middle ground, a Charlotte City Council committee on Monday recommended reforms that would overhaul how a citizen board monitors police discipline.
If the full City Council approves the measure next month, it would represent a victory for civil rights activists and others who question why the Citizens Review Board has never ruled in favor of a citizen since it was formed 16 years ago.
But the proposal does not go as far as some critics would like. For example, it denies the board the authority to independently investigate allegations of misconduct.
The 11-member volunteer panel hears complaints from residents dissatisfied with disciplinary decisions following Internal Affairs investigations by Charlotte-Mecklenburg police. City Council established the board to restore public confidence in the department after three unarmed African-Americans were killed by white officers.
Under the new recommendations, citizens would no longer face unusually strict criteria to get full hearings.
They would have to show substantial evidence that an error occurred instead of a preponderance of the evidence for the board to grant a full hearing.
The proposal would also lower the bar for citizens to win their cases. They now must present a preponderance of the evidence the police chief abused his discretion when deciding discipline for an officer.
With the changes, they would have to prove only the greater weight of evidence indicates the chief of police clearly erred.
City Manager Ron Carlee outlined a proposed ordinance at the Council-Manager Relations Committee meeting Monday.
With relatively little discussion, committee members Patsy Kinsey, Warren Cooksey, James Smuggie Mitchell and David Howard voted 4-0 to recommend the measure to the full City Council.
The tone stood in sharp contrast to a City Council meeting later in the day, where community organizers and others spoke passionately about the need for stronger police oversight. Some audience members held signs that read Reform Now.
They cited recent police shootings, including last month when a CMPD officer was accused of killing an unarmed man, Jonathon Ferrell.
Corine Mack, a community organizer, said she and others are upset that African-Americans are disproportionately stopped and frisked by police.
Unless the city dramatically strengthens the Citizens Review Board, she said it is like a guard dog with no teeth.
Jay Holman, a legislative advocate for the civil rights group National Action Network, asked young men in the audience to stand.
This is our future, Holman said as they rose. We cannot fail them.
The recommendations come seven months after an Observer investigation found that the Citizens Review Board sided with police in every case.
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.
In some other cities, citizen review panels have the power to conduct independent investigations, and citizens face lower standards of evidence.
Police oversight experts and civil liberties advocates told the Observer that Charlottes track record of never siding with a citizen suggested the board did not have enough authority to hold CMPD accountable.
In April, then-Mayor Anthony Foxx asked a taskforce to evaluate how the Citizens Review Board operated. Members issued a report last month that city officials studied.
The proposed ordinance backed Monday largely mirrors those recommendations.
Carlee defended the Citizens Review Board, saying the panel got a bad rap. He said he reviewed all 79 cases the board handled and nothing jumped out as obviously suspect.
He also said that CMPD appropriately disciplines officers when they violate department policy.
But he said the proposed changes would create a more fair and transparent process for citizens unhappy with discipline.
Nothing this important can be taken for granted, Carlee said. Like in so many areas, trust and verify.
A cross-section of activists, including the NAACP, have lobbied the city council to grant the board broad powers to investigate allegations of misconduct.
Matt Newton, a Charlotte attorney and an organizer for CRB Reform Now, said the proposal contains recommendations that will make it easier for citizens to get their cases heard.
But overall there are areas that come up short, Newton said.
Newton said citizens should have the opportunity to cross-examine officers accused of misconduct. The proposal, however, does not force officers to testify before the board, he said.
How can they cross-examine an officer who isnt present? he asked rhetorically. Its a little discouraging right now.
Citizens Review Board member Alan Adler said he agreed.
Board members need to hear from officers without any roadblocks and gatekeepers, said Adler, who was also a member of the taskforce.
Carlee said he expects that some officers will testify before the board. In other instances where officers decline to appear, he said the panel can review an Internal Affairs report, which could include statements from the accused officer.
Officers should not be forced to appear because the proceedings are set up to determine whether the department erred in its disciplinary decision, Carlee said.
Taskforce members advised against giving the board subpoena power or the authority to conduct independent investigations, which critics say are crucial to determining whether police misconduct occurred.
City Attorney Bob Hagemann has said granting the Citizens Review Board subpoena power would require state legislation, which could take months or years.
Activists said they are planning to lobby state lawmakers to make such changes.
Several speakers told City Council the board should have access to all Internal Affairs documents when a citizen makes a complaint.
Carlee said that the panel already receives Internal Affairs reports and that he would explicitly spell that out in the proposal presented to the full City Council.
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