New Civilian Review Board to Oversee Police

Feb 1, 2018

In February the city of Charlottesville will begin considering applicants for its first ever Police Civilian Review Board. The board has been a long time coming, and has been mired in politics. WMRA’s Jordy Yager has more.

After the violence of August 12th in Charlottesville, the city hired Tim Heaphy and a team of lawyers to find out what went wrong and why. But one of their key findings was a problem that dates long before the 12th.

TIM HEAPHY: There’s this broad division here in our community. We talked to people here, who have very serious antipathy toward the police and toward city government.

Heaphy served as the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Virginia for five years. He knows Charlottesville’s relationship to law enforcement, because he was part of it. He knows that for years, African Americans have been arrested, stopped and frisked, and jailed at a disproportionately higher rate than white Charlottesville residents.

But he says there’s another sentiment in the city as well.

HEAPHY: We also talked to a lot of people who believe very strongly in the efficacy of law enforcement and the integrity of our officers. Those people live in this community side by side.

As Charlottesville’s first Civilian Review Board begins to form over the next several months, these two communities are at its epicenter.

Lawton Tufts works at the University of Virginia’s law school, and spent three years at the public defender’s office in Charlottesville.

LAWTON TUFTS: There’s either two views of the police department: either they’re doing a great job and they should be patted on the back. Or two, there’s areas for them to improve at and there’s concerns from the community that maybe they’re not doing as great a job and they need to get additional training or they need to be held—have some sort of transparency.

Either way a Civilian Review Board would help, he said. And last month, councilors voted to form the city’s very first one. It’ll examine people’s complaints against officers, and possibly instances where police have stopped and frisked people, or used force against them. The department has reviewed all this for years, but, citing privacy and investigatory concerns, few of these details ever see the light of day. And that lack of transparency has allowed mistrust among some residents to grow.

HEAPHY: There are a lot of people that didn’t want to talk to us because our client was the city, or because I had worked in law enforcement and they don’t trust law enforcement.  That is a very real thing … We’ve been dealing with that in this community for a long time, and it needs to be addressed.

Residents and officials in Charlottesville have been discussing a review board for years. And now that it’s finally happening, it’s the who that has people concerned. Adeola Ogunkeyede is the civil rights and racial justice director for the Legal Aid Justice Center. Last month she asked councilors, who better to look at complaints against police than those who have been personally impacted?

ADEOLA OGUNKEYEDE: I think Council has to be aware that people are looking at this moment for you to counter the history in Charlottesville of intentionally ignoring the perspective of communities of color, low-wealth communities in Charlottesville and take affirmative steps to ensure that the composition of the Civilian Review Board reflects those perspectives.

And that’s part of the who. But the other part is more complicated. For the last nine years a separate body, known as the Police Citizen’s Advisory Panel, has tried to bridge the gap between the community and police. Several members even got taught how to review stop and frisk incidents. But, by all accounts, the panel was stagnant. David Simmons, the former head of the panel, said there’s a reason for that.

DAVID SIMMONS: We were empaneled, we didn’t have a budget, we didn’t have a staff…and so the question was: who is helping us with that? And we tried to the point of just being frustrated.

Last month, Simmons approached Council for more resources, to form a civilian review board themselves. But he was met with opposition. Councilor Wes Bellamy served on the panel for more than a year.

WES BELLAMY: I love this panel, but our panel is ineffective.

Simmons and other panel members balked, saying what did you expect? Councilor Kathy Galvin said that after this past summer, they needed an independent body, a board whose mission isn’t to promote the police department, but rather to oversee it.

KATHY GALVIN: And I understand at the same time your frustration, I hear it, nine years is a long time to be trying to do something, not getting heard, not getting resources. At the same time, because of that, there’s a public perception issue … I applaud all of the work that you’ve done. I do think we need a fresh start.

Shortly thereafter, councilors voted 3-2 to dissolve the panel and create a new review board that will have 7 members appointed to one-year terms with a  $2,500 budget. The board’s by-laws will be drafted by those initial members—not Council. They’ll also define their own mission, as well as the number and term lengths of future members.

But what does the Charlottesville Police Department itself think about all this?  Lt. Brian O’Donnell has been with the department for 21 years.

BRIAN O’DONNELL: It’s important, we want it, and I think a review board would help to bring the community and the police department back together. And again, there are people who will always be super pro-police, there will always be people who are anti-police. So the gap that we’re hoping to bridge with this, is reasonable people on both sides, coming together and understanding that there’s a process to — and oversight that they can be a part of to review our practices.

Applications for the civilian review board are due by Monday, Feb. 5 and can be found on the Charlottesville city website.