For the first time since Charlotte’s Citizens Review Board was strengthened in 2013, members have asked to review evidence and hear from witnesses in a case involving allegations of police misconduct.
Critics who had urged reform say the request – in a case involving a police officer’s search of a home without a warrant in January – is a sign that it’s easier for people alleging police misconduct to have their voices heard by the independent board.
The City Council established the board in 1997 to restore public confidence in the Police Department after three unarmed African-Americans were killed by white officers. Proponents wanted a group independent of the department to determine whether the police chief made the right disciplinary calls.
But critics argued the board had become a rubber stamp for the department’s disciplinary decisions. In the 79 cases the Citizens Review Board had taken up – and the four cases since the reforms – it has never ruled in favor of citizens, according to an analysis by the Observer. A chief complaint: Citizens faced unusually strict criteria to even get a full hearing before the board.
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A city task force studied the board with community input and recommended changes, which were adopted by the City Council.
“It’s certainly encouraging because it indicates that the reform that the community advocated for and that the City Council adopted seem to have resulted in lowering the standard for getting a hearing,” Charlotte School of Law professor Jason Huber, one of the authors of a 2013 study of the board, said of the board’s decision in the most recent case. “Because the bar was so high, it was virtually impossible to get a hearing before the full board.”
After the changes in 2013, residents no longer face such tough criteria to get full hearings before the board. Now they have to prove that “the greater weight of evidence” indicates “the chief of police clearly erred” in a disciplinary decision. The board now also has access to the entire Internal Affairs investigative file, instead of just a summary. The board can also question the officer against whom a complaint is lodged. The person appealing to the board can make a statement to the board and provide supporting information.
Claims of an illegal search
The case that’s moving forward to an evidentiary hearing is an appeal by David Dardon-Strickland, a disabled Army veteran and the vice president of a Charlotte security firm. Dardon-Strickland claimed a police officer illegally searched his home in January and issued bogus traffic citations. The charges were ultimately dropped.
The evidentiary hearing, similar to a trial, allows board members to examine evidence but also will allow Dardon-Strickland and police to cross-examine witnesses and make closing statements.
The board has 45 days to schedule an evidentiary hearing, which will help members determine whether any discipline against the officer involved, Michael Retort, was adequate.
“The only thing I want from this is for my voice to be heard and for this to stop,” Dardon-Strickland told the Observer. “I want there to be some kind of peace between the community and the Police Department.”
Retort, a motorcycle officer, did not return messages left at his home and office.
In a statement, CMPD spokesman Rob Tufano said the department is “following the terms of the Ordinance and the Rules of Procedure that the Board enacted.”
He said Retort has been a CMPD officer since 1994 and has never been suspended.
The complaint stems, Dardon-Strickland said, from an incident near his daughter’s middle school in January.
Dardon-Strickland said he was in a car line waiting to pick up his daughter. Another car had been in a wreck and was leaking gasoline. Dardon-Strickland, who has flashing yellow lights on his car because of his security job, turned the lights on and instructed people nearby to get away from the hazard. Later, he says he told Retort, who was directing traffic near the school’s entrance, about the crash.
“His immediate response was, ‘I don’t need your help,’” Dardon-Strickland said. “I drove away. Twelve days after that, this officer knocks on my door at 7:30 in the morning.”
Retort, accompanied by a second officer, asked to come inside the house, but Dardon-Strickland says he refused because the officers didn’t have a warrant. The officer asked him to retrieve his identification.
“As I’m walking to my back bedroom, I can hear my front door open, and he comes in and he has a flashlight,” Dardon-Strickland said. “They asked if they could come in and I said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘You are violating my rights now.’”
Dardon-Strickland said Retort told him he was investigating to see whether Dardon-Strickland’s tinted windows were too dark. Retort also told Dardon-Strickland that his license plate cover obscured the number and that his flashing lights were illegal, Dardon-Strickland said.
Dardon-Strickland said the officer asked to search his car but Dardon-Strickland again refused because of the lack of a warrant.
Dardon-Strickland was ultimately given citations for having an illegal window tint, for a license plate holder that obstructed the plate and for illegally operating blue lights. All of the charges were dropped, according to a search of criminal records conducted by the Observer, but they still show up on a criminal background check.
Subpoena power sought
Although it’s easier for cases like Dardon-Strickland’s to reach the next step, Huber, the law professor, stressed that critics have asked for more reforms of the Citizens Review Board. They want the board to have subpoena power to compel witnesses to testify and have said the board should be able to conduct independent investigations, instead of relying solely on the files put together by CMPD’s Internal Affairs Department.
“If we get down the road and we see ... the results are still the same, then there may need to be some more changes,” Huber said. “I think it’s important to be patient and let the new system play itself out and then take a hard look at the results.”
Julian Wright, an attorney for the board, said the progress appears to be what proponents of change were seeking.
“I don’t think a single instance makes a trend or a single instance of something happening is an accurate predictor of what can happen in the future,” Wright said. “I do think it’s fair to say that the ordinance was changed to make these kinds of ... hearings more common.”