The Charlottesville City Council debated the creation of an independent police citizen review board last Monday night as a means of holding the Charlottesville Police Department accountable to citizen concerns and building relationships within the community.
Since 2008, a Police Citizen’s Advisory Panel has existed in Charlottesville in order to aid the chief of police and city manager in “building positive citizen relationships, encouraging widespread police and citizen engagement.”
However, the effectiveness of the panel has come into question and has been criticized by speakers at recent council meetings since the violent white nationalist . Speakers at past meetings have claimed the management of police personnel was insufficient in preventing violence between “Unite the Right” demonstrators on Aug. 12 and counter-protesters.
Although the exact details of a citizen review board are currently subject to further Council deliberation, it would differ from the panel in that it would be an independent body separate from both the Charlottesville Police Department and Council and would be a citizen-led body, though its bylaws would still be subject to Council approval.
At Monday’s meeting, Assistant City Manager Mike Murphy presented the recommendations of city staff concerning the formation of a citizen review board to the Council.
“It’s my belief that we need to engage a broader part of our community in deciding what the charge of any civilian review board or advisory panel is going forward,” Murphy said. “We believe we need to go out and consider whether that group exists with their current charge, which is about engaging the public, or have a separate civilian review board.”
“I think it's clear to me that some of the things that group did originally or was intended to do is needed today as much as ever,” Murphy added. “We need to build relationships in the community between community members and police.”
David Simmons, current chair of the advisory panel, along with members Tara Hodges and Heather Walker, also addressed the Council Monday in order to answer questions about the panel’s proposal regarding the potential establishment of a citizen review board.
The advisory panel’s proposal stated that it has been unable to effectively operate because Council has not provided it with sufficient resources and the panel opposed the creation of a citizen review board.
“In its current form, the Charlottesville Police Citizens Advisory Panel (CPCAP) has not been fully effective and that a change is needed,” the proposal reads. “A board focused solely on civilian review of complaints is unnecessary and will be counter-productive.”
The proposal also states that the advisory panel is capable of implementing a civilian review process and that a separate board would cater only to a narrow segment of the community.
“We agree that civilian review is a necessary component to building and maintaining those relationships,” the proposal reads. “It’s essential to use civilian review in conjunction with other collaborative strategies that engage the community and police in dialogue.”
Simmons said the Council was responsible for any failures of the current advisory panel.
“You [Council] did not provide us with the working tools to do the things that we needed to do,” Simmons said. “You did not provide the staff. You did not provide the resources, but we struggled through that. We have persevered.”
In response to a question from Councilor Bob Fenwick concerning the merits of reforming the advisory panel, Simmons said that it could improve if Council provided the appropriate resources.
“I believe if given the right tools we [the advisory panel] would be able to reach those same goals,” Simmons said. “We would not be an adversarial entity with our law enforcement agencies. I feel that the civilian review board will be adversarial and create more distrust, less transparency within the community.”
“What we’re basically asking is that you take the current panel, you give it some of the tools that it's needed all along to be successful … and then you add this component of complaint review so that we can provide some oversight,” Simmons added.
Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy, who currently serves as a member on the advisory panel, questioned the ability of the group to effectively reach out to community members in its operations.
“We've heard very clearly from the community on several different occasions that they would like to see a citizen review board, that has been loud and clear,” Bellamy said. “Who on that panel right now has the ability to build relationships and trust with members of the community who feel as if there is a disconnect?”
Bellamy also said that Simmons’s accusations that a citizen review board would only be responsive to certain parts of the community were false as individuals of varying backgrounds have spoken out in favor of the board.
“I really take offense to the comment that this [citizen review board] is a certain section or portion of the community, because this is a large portion of the community of a lot of different races, socioeconomic statuses, backgrounds and so forth who have been emailing, calling and contacting us for this citizen review board,” Bellamy said.
In response, Simmons accused Bellamy of failing to share valuable information concerning public demand for a citizen review board with the current advisory panel.
“Councilor, you have served on this committee, you also were privy to some information you are sharing,” Simmons said. “You did not share that with us or our panel. You did not share the part about citizens calling for this review piece.”
Councilor Kristin Szakos said she was unwilling to accept the proposal of the advisory panel due to a lack of information about the specifics of either a reformed advisory panel or a citizen review board.
“I really appreciate the work you all [advisory panel] have put into this,” Szakos said. “I don't feel that we are ready to take your whole proposal at this point and just say yes, I think that clearly there’s a big gap in information that we don't have.”
Szakos also said that further community engagement was necessary before a final decision could be made on the matter.
“If the public has not been engaged in how [the citizen review board is] created, it doesn't have the pen of trust we need to actually to do something that's intended to build trust,” Szakos said. “I think rushing it is not a good idea.”
Councilor Kathy Galvin said that an alternative to the current advisory panel was essential but that the establishment of a task force to examine the implications of a citizen review board was necessary before moving forward.
“I'm feeling compelled that we do need to be doing something very different,” Galvin said. “I do think we need a fresh start and in order to do that, I'm prepared to say that [we need] a citizen review board task force to find out what it would be like to have a citizen review board in Charlottesville.”
Bellamy opposed Galvin’s notion of a pre-citizen review board task-force as he said it would infringe upon the independent status of the board.
“The whole point of this [review board] is to be independent,” Bellamy said.” When we create a taskforce and then we say … ‘here's the kind of direction we want you to go or here's exactly who we want to be on the panel,’ it becomes a lot less independent. People want this to be separate from us just telling everyone how it should go.”
Bellamy also emphasized that the board should be free from Council influence in terms of policy development.
“We allow that board, whoever is appointed based off the applications, to create their own bylaws,” Bellamy said. “We allow them to do their own research for creating their own best practices and they decide, not us doing it — we allow them to do it.”
Without prior knowledge of the other Council members, Bellamy and Galvin introduced a resolution to “dissolve the existing police advisory panel and to create a citizen’s review board with representatives from the community appointed by the Council based on an open application process for all community members.”
Based on concerns of structuring a citizen review board earlier expressed by Galvin, Mayor Mike Signer proposed an amendment to the resolution which would establish an “initial citizen review board” to allow for its development after it is established.
Szakos also proposed an amendment which would increase the implementation time of the board from three to six months to allow the appointed members greater flexibility in designing the board’s potential bylaws.
Galvin went on to say that the current advisory panel should be dismantled but that extensive community outreach would be needed before a citizen review board could be effectively established.
“I agree with dissolving the Charlottesville Police Citizen’s Advisory Panel but right now we're trying to make something work that hasn't been created yet and you need to get an understanding through the community input as to what the options are for that kind of citizen review board,” Galvin said.
In closing, Bellamy emphasized a need to shift power away from the Council and towards the community in the creation of a citizen review board.
“I just don't believe that we need to appoint a body to tell the independent body how they need to interact and operate,” Bellamy said. “In terms of how the body will operate, that is for them to decide. We need to start shifting some of the power from just up here and allow the community to make some decision in regard to what they need, how they want to do it.”
After continued deliberation, the Council decided to postpone a vote on the amended resolution to the next Council meeting in order to allow for the administrative details to be further developed and discussed.