A Big Step In Police Oversight

Citizens Review Board may reverse CMPD decision in Keith Scott shooting
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On Monday, the Charlotte City Council voted unanimously to strengthen the composition of the city’s Citizens Review Board, a body of 11 volunteers charged with fielding complaints of police misconduct and recommending action. The changes include stricter membership requirements, more robust training, and a commitment to try to match the board’s diversity to the city’s.

On Tuesday, the Citizens Review Board voted 8-2 to hold an evidentiary hearing in August in the case of Officer Brentley Vinson, the officer who shot and killed Keith Lamont Scott in September. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, after an internal review of his actions, determined that Vinson did not violate department use-of-force policy and did not discipline him. But the CRB decided that “there was substantial evidence of error in the decision that the Scott shooting was justified,” said board attorney Julian Wright.

Perhaps the first decision by the City Council had some bearing on the second. There’s no way to know for certain, since Review Board meetings, which necessarily deal with personnel matters, are closed to the public. But there’s no denying the growing pressure on the city to establish a stronger level of citizen oversight over CMPD, an issue brought to the fore in the aftermath of the Scott shooting.

“Systemically, we’ve got a lot of issues, as do a lot of communities,” Julie Eiselt, who chairs the CIty Council’s Community Safety Committee, told me last week. The committee recommended to the full council the Review Board changes adopted Monday. “But are we going to be able to look in the mirror?”

At the same time, it’s important to understand what the Review Board’s decision doesn’t do. At a CMPD briefing Wednesday morning, reporters peppered Major Stella Patterson, who commands the department’s Internal Affairs Bureau, with questions about its implications. One suggested that the department was in “uncharted waters” that might cause it “angst.”

The question was hyperbolic. For one thing, the Review Board hears only appeals of CMPD’s decisions on accusations of misconduct. The department conducts an internal review of officers’ actions after incidents like the Scott shooting, and the chief decides on disciplinary action (or none). The police internal review is separate from the District Attorney’s criminal investigation, which determines whether the officer should be charged with a crime.

In Vinson’s case, Chief Kerr Putney determined he hadn’t violated department policy on use of force, and he continues to work as a patrol officer. If the board decides in August that Vinson did violate department policy, it can recommend that the chief change his initial decision and discipline Vinson, possibly by suspending or firing him. The final decision would belong to City Manager Marcus Jones, Putney’s boss.

For another, this isn’t the first time the CRB has moved a case of police misconduct from the initial hearing stage, where the Vinson case was Tuesday, to the second-level phase of an evidentiary hearing. In 2013—after The Charlotte Observer reported that the CRB had ruled with police in all 78 cases it had heard in its 16-year history—the city relaxed some of the strict requirements that complainants had to meet to win any kind of hearing before the board. Since reform, the CRB has held three evidentiary hearings, one in 2015, two more last year.

But the board still has never recommended that the CMPD chief change his initial decision. If the board does this time, then it really would be in uncharted waters—and Putney and Jones would have a hard time not accepting that decision.

One of the activist groups that pressured the city to make changes to the CRB was a Charlotte police accountability organization called SAFE Coalition NC, which was founded in 2013. State organizer Robert Dawkins has lobbied council members for even more substantial changes to the board, such as independent investigatory and subpoena power and the authority to discipline officers on its own, separate from the police chief and city manager. Council members support those changes—but they’d require legislative approval. Eiselt and others undertook their own lobbying effort to the General Assembly this spring, and “we were told it wouldn’t work this year,” she said.

Dawkins said SAFE Coalition will keep pushing. But one of the obstacles to reform, he told me recently, is amnesia. “It’s an always evolving process,” he said. “We’ve been trying to bring to the city ideas that are best practices that can be done on the policy side. Unfortunately, the only time we’ve been able to get changes is when we leverage these bad incidents.” What seems like urgent reform one month can fade from memory until the next police shooting of a civilian, and whatever its aftermath is.


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