Even before last year’s omnibus police reform bill passed the General Assembly, Charlottesville had already begun to form a police civilian review board, or PCRB. It began meeting last summer. The new statewide rules bolster the authority of such boards. As part of an occasional series on local police reform, WMRA’s Randi B. Hagi has this report on how the Charlottesville board is working.
The new legislation, which goes into effect next July, empowers local civilian review boards to investigate complaints against law enforcement officers, issue subpoenas, and make disciplinary decisions in cases of serious misconduct.
Harold Folley is a civil rights and racial justice organizer with the Legal Aid Justice Center in Charlottesville. Folley said local residents have been advocating for a strong oversight body since the infamous Unite the Right Rally, which he calls...
HAROLD FOLLEY: … the summer of hate. So in 2017, in about August, September, folks came together and were like, "hey, we need to do something," because we were just in shock and awe about how the police just stood there.
Folley said they were also incensed about how Black residents were disproportionately stopped and frisked. In 2014, the city's population was 19.5% Black, but Black residents accounted for 70% of those stopped and frisked by the Charlottesville Police Department. Charlottesville first established the police civilian review board in 2018, but the initial group only wrote the board's bylaws and an establishing ordinance – which the city council then revised in 2019.
FOLLEY: When city council passed the ordinance and bylaws for the initial CRB, they watered down the bill. They carved out so much stuff, and it made the bill so weak. But the good thing is that the summer of uprise has changed the whole outlook from the state.
From Folley's perspective, an effective review board would be able to bridge the trust gap between community members and the police, comb through law enforcement policies to identify any that are racially biased, and provide a trusted means to file grievances against officers.
For now, the board can receive and look into complaints, and get access to internal affairs files within the Charlottesville Police Department. But their current bylaws clearly state that they are an advisory body, and, quote, "shall not have disciplinary authority." If the board is dissatisfied with an internal investigation within the police department, they can only request that the city manager hire an outside investigator to re-examine the incident. The new state laws change all this – allowing oversight boards to conduct their own investigations and, quote, 'make binding disciplinary determinations in cases that involve serious breaches of departmental and professional standards.'
FOLLEY: You know, I got a call from a young lady whose uncle got out of prison, and we had to wear a mask because of COVID. And the police ran up on him and were like, 'take your mask off! Who are you?' And I said to her, 'hey, why don't you get your uncle to call me, and I'll help him to do a complaint.' And the first thing he said was, 'I'm not going to do a complaint because they're not going to hear me.' And that's the problem I think, not only in Charlottesville, but I think through the state, that most folks have these encounters with a police officer, and the police officer gets off because the person who has the encounter feels like, 'I'm not going to be able to be heard.'
As The Daily Progress has reported, review board members have had their frustrations about interactions with the city council – including not being invited to a listening session on policing, and the council deciding to change those bylaws that the initial board drafted. However, Bellamy Brown, who joined the review board five months ago, said things are looking up.
BELLAMY BROWN: There was kind of the back and forth with the prior board, but I believe right now, the relationship is one of openness and receptivity to the success of the board.
He believes the board is now set up for success.
BROWN: I believe that the Charlottesville Police Civilian Review Board has the capacity to be an agent of positive change, to ensure police accountability and community integration, and building the bridge between police and the community. And with the city council's help via granting these powers, I think that we'll be able to accomplish that.
SENA MAGILL: We want to make the ideal a reality.
Sena Magill is a member of the city council, and Charlottesville's vice mayor.
MAGILL: And I am very passionate about this, and I am also very, very passionate about making sure we do it right. And I know our citizenry, many people are feeling like we've been dragging our feet, that we should just jump in and do it, but I just feel like the worst thing we could ever do for the whole state is do it wrong.
Magill noted that she could only speak for herself. But she said the council does need to approve the review board's operating policies and procedures, including those powers newly enabled by the state legislature.
MAGILL: Developing this more fully is going to require … the PCRB, the city council, the city manager, the legal team, and the police department all coming together to work through how these policies will actually enact in reality. And, you know, we're going to have to go back and rewrite the ordinance and the bylaws for our current PCRB.
One of the next steps towards fully empowering the review board will be to hire a paid director, and figure out how the city will provide administrative assistance when needed.
MAGILL: My whole goal is to have a strong and robust oversight board that is also stable.