A seat on Charlotte’s police oversight board sat empty for a hearing in the Keith Lamont Scott case, though city staff knew about the vacancy for more than a month.
By the time staff notified Mayor Jennifer Roberts to make an appointment for the seat, the high-profile hearing in the fatal shooting of Scott was eight days away.
The Citizens Review Board held closed-door, trial-like proceedings to weigh whether CMPD Chief Kerr Putney was correct in finding that Officer Brentley Vinson was justified in shooting and killing Scott on Sept. 20, 2016. The 11-member board examines evidence and hears from witnesses before voting on whether complaints against the police department are valid.
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This time, though, there would be just eight votes. In addition to the vacant seat on the board, two other eligible members were absent for Scott’s hearing.
The vote was 4-4 – believed to be the first time in the Citizens Review Board’s 20-year history that there’s been a tie. The board has never ruled against police.
The board was left with an even number of eligible participants for the Aug. 10 vote, in part, because the city’s Office of the Clerk waited five weeks to tell the mayor’s office she could make an appointment, a Charlotte Observer investigation found.
Still, Roberts told the Observer this month she wouldn’t have appointed a new member to the board for Scott’s hearing anyway, because the person would have missed initial meetings in June, and that would raise questions about the integrity of the vote.
The mayor’s office and other city officials acknowledged this week that they wrongly believed, ahead of the hearings, that a person appointed by Roberts would be ineligible to vote in the case because an initial hearing had already passed.
That confusion arose, according to city officials, because that attendance rule applies to a different city board that also deals with police personnel matters.
The review board had voted 8-2 in June that there was “substantial evidence of error” in Putney’s decision that the shooting was justified.
In the three-day August session, the board was asked to find whether most evidence in the case showed Putney had erred. Members deadlocked.
But, they unanimously agreed to send Putney a set of confidential department policy change recommendations. Charlotte’s Citizens Review Board plays only an advisory role with CMPD and it cannot overturn Putney’s decisions, even with a majority vote.
Officials confused policies
Vacancies on city boards sometimes last several months and once, a few years ago, a position on the Citizens Review Board was left unfilled by a previous mayor for nearly one year, according to the city’s communications and clerk’s offices. Three seats on the board are appointed by the mayor, three by Charlotte’s city manager and five by the City Council.
There’s no required timeline for notifying the mayor of a vacancy and there’s no deadline for the appointment to be made, said Sandy D’Elosua, director of city communications. The clerk’s office did not violate any rules in waiting to tell Roberts about the vacant position ready for an appointment, she said.
The vacancy was Roberts’ first chance, as a first-term mayor, to select a volunteer citizen to serve a three-year term on the Citizens Review Board.
In Scott’s case, Roberts says, she worried putting a new member on the board after the initial hearing had passed would be unfair to all parties involved.
“It’s really unfortunate,” Roberts said of the timing of the vacancy.
Roberts’ office was notified July 31 of the vacancy. The hearing began Aug. 8. Roberts said a new appointee, on that schedule, would not have had enough time to properly prepare for a case as complex as Scott’s.
Immediately after the June vote in Scott’s case, the city publicly said that Citizens Review Board rules would have blocked a new member from participating in the August hearings. The Observer published that explanation, attributing it to city officials.
After further investigation this month, the Observer found this was false and city officials now acknowledge they gave incorrect statements.
Citizens Review Board Chairwoman Sandra Donaghy and board attorney Cary Davis have since confirmed to the Observer that Roberts’ prospective appointee would have been eligible at the start of Scott’s hearings on Aug. 8.
Roberts’ recent appointment to the Citizens Review Board, Magaliz Giraud, now faces a similar situation.
She’s eligible to vote in a different police use of force complaint coming before the Citizens Review Board in September. In that case, Giraud has already missed the initial hearing.
City officials, including Roberts, say it’s unclear whether Giraud will sit in on that hearing and that it is not up to city employees or elected officials to direct board member action.
In the upcoming Sept. 6 case, Roberts says, it’s possible there’s enough time for Giraud to be prepared. Giraud’s appointment was announced Aug. 16.
Board member kicked off
The delayed appointment in Scott’s case didn’t solely cause the split vote early this month.
The vacancy was one of three empty seats that contributed to a divided board. The other two positions were filled at the time but those two members, David Smith and Theresa Halsey, missed the meeting due to work conflicts, city officials have said.
The vacancy occurred after board member Deborah Stevenson was kicked off the Citizens Review Board in July after repeated absences from meetings.
Members of city boards and commissions are automatically removed if they miss three consecutive meetings in a calendar year. The June 27 initial hearing in Scott’s case was Stevenson’s third absence in a row.
Stevenson told the Observer she’d previously missed meetings April 25 and June 20 because of a car accident injury in the spring and a vacation in the summer. After that, she’d been given an official warning from the City Clerk’s office that missing the June 27 meeting would result in her dismissal from the board.
On June 25, Stevenson emailed the City Clerk’s office with notice that she’d most likely be absent on June 27, she told the Observer. Stevenson was dealing with a medical emergency for a close family member, she said. But city rules do not allow for excused absences so Stevenson was removed from the board.
Stevenson was the only absent member on June 27. She wouldn’t say how she might have voted in the Scott case.
Stevenson told the Observer she’s not allowed to speak publicly about the Citizens Review Board but has tried to stay active in public life. In February, Stevenson appeared before the Charlotte City Council and Mecklenburg County commissioners to applaud CMPD offering a Citizen’s Academy, which educates participants on police policies, training and methods. The 15-week academy is required training for Citizens Review Board members.
Stevenson said her June family medical emergency was unforeseen and she had planned to attend the Scott case hearings.
She says the board’s operation often made it difficult to attend other meetings.
The board advertises that it may meet up to twice a month on the second and fourth Tuesday. But those meetings aren’t always held because the board may not have an appeal to hear or other business to conduct. Stevenson said the infrequency and unpredictable nature of meetings made planning difficult.
Typically, the Citizens Review Board meets on an “as-needed” basis and has strict timelines on how quickly it must take up complaints against the police department.
By the time of Scott’s June hearing, the board had met twice in 2017. In 2016, the board met five times. In 2015, it met six times.