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City Council establishes initial police civilian review board amidst criticism

Several public speakers condemned the Council’s lack of transparency in the appointment process

<p>Applicants for the police Civilian Review Board responded to audience submitted questions at a candidate forum hosted by the City of Charlottesville earlier this year.&nbsp;</p>

Applicants for the police Civilian Review Board responded to audience submitted questions at a candidate forum hosted by the City of Charlottesville earlier this year. 

In a contentious 3-2 decision, the Charlottesville City Council appointed seven members to an inaugural police civilian review board at its meeting Monday night. Mayor Nikuyah Walker and Councilor Wes Bellamy casted the dissenting votes in the decision. 

The CRB — as an independent body that will draft its own bylaws and statement of purpose — is charged by Council with encouraging independence, accountability and transparency within the Charlottesville Police Department to build trust, relationships and civilian engagement with the Charlottesville community.  

During the public comment segment of Monday’s Council session, a number of speakers condemned the Council for failing to appoint certain candidates to the board — notably local civil rights attorney Jeff Fogel and prominent activist Rosia Parker. Several people also criticized an overall lack of transparency in the appointment process and the supposed failure of the Council to appoint individuals who had negative interactions with law enforcement personnel. 

Don Gathers — former chair of the Charlottesville Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces and a CRB appointee — questioned various aspects of the Council’s appointment process despite being appointed the board himself. 

“Were there any alternate positions considered for the CRB should any one of the appointees be unwilling or unable to serve?” Gathers asked. “And did not the resolution include a directive that one individual be from low-income housing? If so, of the seven names presented, which of those represents an individual from this particular segment of the community?”

In response to concerns regarding the absence of a low-income community member from the board, Walker and Councilors Kathy Galvin and Heather Hill each said there was an appointed individual who was of a low-income background but did not further specify. 

Parker addressed the Council directly and said she would continue to advocate for police accountability despite her not being appointed the CRB. 

“I’m going to make sure that the police have accountability whether I’m on the CRB board or not,” Parker said. “But until someone gets accountability, I’m going to keep fighting.” 

Part of the CRB appointment discussion happened in a closed session meeting of Council before the regular session. Council normally holds a roughly 30 minute closed session meeting before each regular meeting, as permitted by Virginia codes, for the “appointment … of specific public officers, appointees, or employees of any public body.” 

Typically, the Council announces any appointments to city boards and commissions — as chosen internally by Council members during closed session meetings — at the beginning of regular Council meetings with little to no discussion surrounding the process and confirms or rejects the proposed appointees through a vote. Monday’s meeting marked a change in this tradition. 

Gloria Beard, a City resident who was appointed to the board, said that while she had not personally experienced any negative interactions with police officers during her life, it was essential for there to be individuals on the board who had such experience and knowledge, specifically citing Fogel — an established Charlottesville civil rights attorney who was arrested by CPD after a minor complication with white nationalist Jason Kessler. 

“I do believe people that have had encounters with the police need to be there,”  Beard said. “If we don't get this thing together, I don't really even want to be be on the board to be honest with you.” 

Katrina Turner, a candidate for the CRB who was also appointed to the board, expressed her dissatisfaction with the absence of Fogel and Parker.

“We asked for a board with accountability on it,” Turner said. “This is just proving to us that you're not standing behind us, to me anyway. Even though I’m on the board, I’m very upset because we fought for this board.” 

After a lengthy recess following community matters, the Council chose to respond to concerns brought up by speakers, but some were hesitant to delve into the specifics of the CRB appointment process. 

Councilors Mike Signer and Kathy Galvin were against the notion of publicly discussing the CRB appointment process as she said the merits of the individuals who applied should not be openly debated in public. Galvin added that an online survey released by the City in April to elicit feedback on the CRB candidates from the community was only one component of the appointment process. 

“The survey and the results that were packaged together, that was additional information, but this was not an election — it was simply not a vote,” Galvin said. “This was a Council appointment that we were making as we all make appointments, it was not a vote for elected office.”

The results of the survey were alluded to by councilors, but the specific breakdown of the data was unclear. In an interview with Fogel, he said he received the most votes, Gathers the second most while Parker received the third most. 

In response to Galvin, Bellamy said the appointment process for the CRB was fundamentally different from any other board or commission the Council had appointed previously given the public nature of the process, especially considering Council held a public forum at the Jefferson School with each candidate.

After the audience pressed the Council to further discuss the preceding closed meeting —  which councilors suggested was about the appointment of members to the CRB — Hill stated that she chose not to support appointing Fogel to the board based on comments submitted through the survey. 

“I looked at this less as individuals but looking at a body of people that could represent various perspectives that can work together to achieve what we are asking to achieve,” Hill said. “I was very open to the discussion around all of the candidates, and I really felt firmly that Mr. Fogel was not someone that I could support.” 

Fogel lamented that the Council did not reach out to him to respond to the comments in the survey but added that the appointment process was largely decided early on. 

“I would have had no problem with them talking about me,” Fogel said. “I just wish they had given me the opportunity to respond to the concerns they were expressing in very, very strong terms. But as I said, I think this was a done deal from the begining in terms of who would not be allowed to serve on that board.” 

Bellamy defended Fogel and expressed dissatisfaction with his absence from the board. 

“I’m appalled that we don’t have a civil rights attorney on this board,” Bellamy said. “I’m fine with stating that — Mr. Fogel and I we've had several disagreements … someone doesn't have to agree with us as councilors all the time — or we don't even have to … necessarily like someone personally for us to put them on a board, our job is to be objective and get the best people.” 

However, Signer said Josh Bowers — a board appointee and a professor in the University’s School of Law — had an extensive background in civil rights law and criminal defense which qualified him for a position on the board. Bowers was not present at Monday’s meeting. 

In an interview with The Cavalier Daily, Fogel said a number of appointees have contacted him and are considering not serving on the board because they saw the process as flawed and expected Fogel to be on the panel. Fogel added that many of the appointees were going to meet with him and discuss how to move forward. 

During the appointment process, Walker said she wanted to appoint four members to the board based on the top four individuals chosen by the community via the survey, but added that not all of those individuals were ultimately chosen.  

“My recommendation going in was that we select the top four members that the community chose … and the Council chose the remaining members of the board,” Walker said. “We looked at it in session, and I think that those individuals should have been on the board.” 

Moving forward, Signer said the Council could potentially hold an open discussion for the appointment of applicants to the CRB as was conducted during the selection of Walker as Mayor this past January. 

“Maybe in the future we can just have an open discussion of the appointment,” Signer said. “We did that with the mayor decision — it was very transparent, it was very new, it was uncomfortable.” 

Fogel said he plans on participating in the board’s public meetings and was optimistic about his and Parker’s ability to potentially work with the board given their relationship with some of its members. However, he was skeptical about the Council’s willingness to adhere to the board’s directives. 

“The concern is also in the end, the City Council is reserving itself the power to decide whether or not to agree with what this panel comes up with,” Fogel said. “And I suspect they're not going to agree with what this panel comes up with, they're not going to cooperate in a way that has to be had with the police department in order to do this effectively.”