Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts and Mayor Pro Tem Vi Lyles say they support the public release of policy change recommendations sent to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department from a citizen board that reviewed the police shooting death of Keith Scott.
Meanwhile a police spokesman said Monday that Chief Kerr Putney “is eager to receive and review” the recommendations from the Citizens Review Board, and that Putney “is exploring a plan to release the recommendations ... specific to department policy to our community.”
After meeting for three days in private, the Citizens Review Board deadlocked in a 4-4 vote on Putney’s decision to not discipline officer Brentley Vinson, who shot and killed Scott. Members adjourned Thursday, announcing they will send recommendations to Putney but won’t say publicly what policies or procedures the board thinks should change.
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Some national law enforcement and police-transparency experts are critical of the city board’s practice of secret deliberations. They say police department policy change recommendations, drafted by a city-appointed board of citizens, should be a public record.
I don’t know of any board that makes recommendations and keeps them private.
Liana Perez, National Association of Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement
“I am absolutely supportive of putting that out,” Roberts told The Charlotte Observer. “If it’s legally allowed to be released, I am completely behind releasing it.”
“It’s our responsibility to do that,” she said.
Vinson’s own attorney said he’d be open to some records related to last week’s Citizens Review Board being made public.
“I don’t have a problem with the evidence that came out, the stipulations, the board’s questions, the board’s ruling or anything else. What I would object to is personnel records being released to the public,” said attorney George Laughrun.
Scott was killed Sept. 20, 2016.
Protests over Scott’s death by police began peacefully but turned violent over a two-day period in Charlotte, with police officers using tear gas and other means to disperse crowds of people in uptown. The North Carolina National Guard was called in and city leaders imposed a curfew. Protesters demanded CMPD and city leaders release video from the scene where Vinson shot Scott.
Last week’s recommendations come after the review board heard an appeal from Scott’s family lawyer to evaluate whether Putney erred in deciding that Vinson had followed all police policies and procedures.
The tie vote among the eight board members who attended last week’s proceedings does not change Putney’s administrative decision. The Mecklenburg County District Attorney’s office has said it will not bring criminal charges against Vinson.
Charlotte at-large council member Julie Eiselt, chair of the public safety committee, said she’s not sure the records from the Citizens Review Board should be released.
“Are we putting anyone at risk before we put that out? That’s what I want to know,” she told the Observer.
Charlotte’s local ordinance requires the Citizens Review Board to hold private meetings when discussing specific police officers. Board members sign confidentiality agreements – a move by the city to prohibit members from disclosing CMPD personnel information.
Although the Citizens Review Board’s hearings and witness testimony happen behind closed doors, elected City Council members and city managers are allowed to decide some associated records and personnel information may be released to the public.
North Carolina state law allows the release of personnel information and records if Charlotte City Council members and City Manager Marcus Jones agree making the documents public is “essential to maintaining public confidence in the administration of city services or to maintaining the level and quality of city services.”
Some information is strictly prohibited from public disclosure, even with a city council vote. Those strictly confidential items include records in an ongoing criminal investigation and any employee testing documents that could compromise the exam questions or testing methods for future use. State law also prohibits, without exception, releasing identifying information about undercover police officers or informants.
Vinson is also allowed to sign over to the city and the police department his rights to a private personnel file and associated records.
Secrecy is ‘nonsensical’
Recommended policy changes shouldn’t be kept secret, says Kenneth Williams, a nationally-recognized expert on police use of force and a professor at South Texas College of Law Houston.
“It’s nonsensical,” Williams said. “I have never heard of that before. It doesn’t seem like it would serve much of a purpose.”
In Texas and some other states, he said, similar citizen boards appointed by city leaders hold public discussions and proceedings to review police actions. In other recent police review cases in Portland, Oregon and Denver, Colorado, citizen boards released publicly their findings and other records.
Citizen police review boards exist to provide for public accountability and transparency, says Liana Perez, an independent police auditor for the city of Tuscon, Arizona and current director of operations at the National Association of Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement.
“I don’t know of any board that makes recommendations and keeps them private,” Perez said.
North Carolina public records law is designed, in part, to ensure policy recommendations can’t be decided on in secret, says Jonathan Jones, director of the N.C. Open Government Coalition.
But, Bob Hagemann, attorney for the city of Charlotte, says state and local laws protect the group’s confidential discussions and private records because personnel-intensive matters underpin the entire process.
Laughrun, Vinson’s attorney, said personnel information that should be kept private, include evaluations he presented from Vinson’s file and measures of how he performed under stress, among other items.
Laughrun said he would agree to future public Citizens Review Board hearings as long as all parties, attorneys and the board members themselves, who are volunteers, unanimously agreed.
Charlotte’s Citizens Review Board has been in place for nearly 20 years and has never ruled in favor of a complainant who filed an appeal against CMPD.
Complaints against police go first through an internal affairs process. Appeals on police department decisions go to the Citizens Review Board. Its members may hold hearings for in-depth examination of evidence if a majority of the board believes the police department has erred.
In these hearings, the board gathers in a conference room, joined by a court reporter and a city-employed clerk who are responsible for keeping notes and transcribing the private hearings. During the hearings, lawyers cross-examine witnesses and the Citizens Review Board members are able to ask questions of the witnesses, who are under oath.
The process looks and feels much like a court trial but with one key difference: it’s completely private.
“There are all kinds of facts we learn from confidential information,” said Davis, attorney to the Citizens Review Board. “To flesh out to the chief why we have particular concerns, we have to lean on facts from a confidential process.”