Before a police watchdog group in Charlotte deadlocked over whether the shooting death of Keith Lamont Scott was justified, one of its members criticized the process as being skewed toward police, the Observer has learned.
In a July email to the members of the Citizens Review Board and one of its attorneys, David Smith argued that the board should stand by its 8-2 vote on June 27 finding “substantial evidence of error” in police Chief Kerr Putney’s decision not to punish the officer who shot Scott on Sept. 20.
Smith, a lawyer, called on board attorney Julian Wright to cancel an Aug. 8 “fact-finding” hearing designed for board members to more closely review evidence of the shooting before making a final decision.
The board’s bylaws appear to spell out a two-phase process for hearing complaints against police. But in his email, Smith argued that the August hearing gave police an unfair second chance to make their case. If the review board had ruled with Putney in June, the complaint filed on behalf of Scott’s family would have been thrown out, with no second hearing taking place, according to the board’s rules.
“To me, it did not make sense that if (the Scott family) was found to be correct in their version of events that we need to have a (second) hearing. I find that troubling,” Smith wrote on July 16, according to a copy of the email obtained by the Observer. “That is not justice. The board voted in favor of the Scott family, and after voting, we were all ready to go home; end of story.”
On Aug. 10, following three days of closed-door testimony and deliberations, the board split 4-4 on whether Putney acted correctly when he decided not to discipline Officer Brentley Vinson, who fatally shot Scott last fall. The killing set off two days of riots throughout the city and hurled Charlotte into the nationwide debate over how police treat African Americans.
Two days after Scott’s death, Putney said the shooting was justified. The District Attorney’s Office later announced that no criminal charges would be filed.
The review board plays only an advisory role with CMPD and cannot overturn Putney’s decisions. Yet the tie vote keeps alive the 20-year streak of the police-watchdog group of never having sided against police.
Smith retracted his email the day after he sent it, according to Wright. In August, Smith was one of three members who missed the climactic hearing and vote on what is seen as the most significant case ever to come before the review board.
But his arguments touched off a behind-the-scenes legal fight over the CRB’s ability to be fair either to the Scotts or police – a complaint that has dogged the confidential proceedings of the volunteer board since its founding in 1997.
Two weeks after Smith sent his email, Charlotte attorney George Laughrun, who represented Vinson, filed a motion calling on the review board to remove an unnamed board member who Laughrun had learned “was going to make a motion to rule in favor of the Scott family before the hearing ever began.”
Laughrun said the member should not be allowed to take part in the August proceedings because he was “unduly prejudiced to Officer Vinson and the Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department as a whole,” according to a copy of the motion acquired by the Observer.
Laughrun did not stop there. In a separate filing obtained by the Observer, he also argued that the entire board should withdraw, given that its June vote to move the case ahead had shown it was “pre-disposed to rule in favor of the Scott family.”
On Aug. 8, neither motion was approved. According to sources who asked not to be named due to the confidentiality agreements all parties sign before review-board proceedings, Laughrun was told his motion to have the unnamed board member removed was moot because the member would not be participating. His second motion calling on the board to excuse itself from the hearing was rejected outright.
When asked if the debate set off by his email had any role in his absence from the August hearing, Smith would not comment.
A city of Charlotte spokeswoman said both Smith and Theresa Halsey, the board’s vice chair, did not take part due to “business conflicts.”
When contacted about her absence, Halsey would not comment.
A third missing board member, Deborah Stevenson, lost her seat in July due to repeated absences. She told the Observer that she missed the initial Scott hearing in June due to a family medical emergency.
Two other board members who voted with the majority in June sided with police in August. Their identities are not known.
In a statement this week, Wright and fellow board attorney Cary Davis said all 10 remaining board members were eligible to take part in the August hearing. “No board member was recused or otherwise prevented from participating,” the attorneys said in a statement.
The board’s tie vote along with the absences of three of its members confused and angered some members of the community who believe key issues surrounding Scott’s death remain unresolved.
During a recent Charlotte NAACP political forum, several candidates for City Council said the three missing votes were unacceptable.
“If anyone else doesn't show up to their job, what happens? They’re fired,” said Ryan McGill, a Democrat running for an at-large seat.
At-large candidate Braxton Winston said the board’s deadlock cost the city a chance to move beyond the shooting.
“What happened on Sept. 20 has affected everybody in this city,” he said. “That a vote did not take place that would have furthered the conversation on police policy and that could have furthered CMPD’s ability to carry out its mission statement is untenable to me.”
Despite Smith’s contention that the board’s first vote should have been final, the group’s “rules of procedures” appear to spell out a two-part process for hearing complaints against police.
Once a complaint is filed, the board holds an initial hearing – similar in some ways to a grand jury session – to decide whether “to conduct evidentiary fact-finding proceedings.” To move an appeal to this trial-like phase, a majority of the members “must determine that there is substantial evidence of error” in how the police chief chose to discipline an officer.
Complaints that lack “sufficient merit” in the board’s opinion are dismissed, and no second hearing takes place.
Reporter Steve Harrison and researcher Maria David contributed.