The Charlottesville Police Civilian Review board continued to struggle with the extent and scope of its powers at the body’s meeting this past Tuesday as it looks to begin drafting bylaws for consideration by the City Council. In particular, board members hope to be able to acquire the ability to collect data and conduct their own research for the purposes of drafting bylaws.
Walt Heinecke, a City resident and an associate professor in the Curry School who was in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting, said the board’s ability to collect its own data from the community would be essential to developing its bylaws.
In response, Josh Bowers, a board member and a professor in the law school, said the board was still planning on requesting that the Council grant the board the authority to collect its own data.
“We agree that we need to collect data,” Bowers said. “It’s hearing the stories and accounts of people in the community about their experiences with police and their needs — we haven't given up on that, or at least I haven't given up on that.”
Currently, the CRB’s authority is largely confined to those powers afforded to it through a adopted by the Council to establish the body. The currently established board has been tasked by the Council to draft a set of bylaws for the future operation of the CRB, define the body’s proposed mission statement and identify policies and procedures for holding the Charlottesville Police Department accountable.
However, while the resolution permits the board to conduct research of existing complaints submitted to CPD as a component of the bylaw formation process, it does not allow for the current body to actively collect its own data or act upon it in any manner external to the development of bylaws.
Any proposed draft of bylaws would also have to be approved by the City Council and is expected to appear before Council for consideration sometime next spring or early summer, as board members are appointed for one-year terms.
As a result of what some see as excessive limitations upon the body by the Council, board members Sarah Burke and Juan Gonzalez — a criminal defense investigator and a local attorney, respectively — have been tasked with the development of a working set of bylaws for the existing board. These working bylaws would only guide the current board through its mission of drafting a formal set of bylaws for future police Civilian Review boards and would still have to be approved by Council.
“Our chief goal and objective this year is to draft bylaws that will guide and provide authority to future iterations of the CRB, but we realized pretty early on that it is hard to do that in a vacuum so what we're doing first is crafting bylaws for the operation of this year’s board,” Bowers said.
Burke said these working bylaws will likely focus on clearly defining the current board’s powers with regards to its ability to conduct effective community engagement in the formation of bylaws for future boards.
“I think the way this group is working, I would like to see us have a much better sense of what City Council is going to permit us to do before we spend the rest of the time writing bylaws that could just be rejected,” Burke said.
More specifically, CRB members have expressed interest in travelling to other localities, such as Fairfax County, the City of Virginia Beach and Charlotte, N.C., to observe the policies and procedures of similar police review panels and how they operate — something Burke said would be difficult given the board’s current $2,500 yearly budget.
Burke said she and Gonzales will present a draft of working bylaws to the board at its next meeting Sept. 25 for revision and feedback.
Nonetheless, board members said that the body had already received numerous concerns and complaints from community members regarding the development of the board’s bylaws and negative interactions with law enforcement personnel in the Charlottesville community.
With the sudden influx of complaints and concerns from community members to the body, board members expressed concerns regarding the privacy of those individuals who are doing so.
“We’ve started to receive some emails from community members expressing concerns about our work, concerns about the police, concerns about what happens at every meeting,” Bowers said. “There's a tension there because I think it's very important that we respond to community members who contact us, [but] at the same time we don't want to derail our work to any great degree.”
Likewise, board member Gloria Beard, a local retired medical patient care technician, said there needs to be a mechanism to allow for the board to show that it acknowledges the concerns submitted by the community, even if it can't immediately act on them.
“When people reach out, usually they need help, they want help,” Beard said. “If somebody reaches out to you or whomever, and tells you something that you know is really serious … there's got to be some way for somebody to listen to these people and respond.”
However, board member and local artist Guillermo Ubilla stressed the importance of informing individuals who submit complaints to the board that their submissions are likely subject to Freedom of Information Act requests. As a result, the confidentiality of the submissions could not be ensured by the board at this time.
FOIA requires local governmental entities to grant public access to certain documents and other data which are possessed or communicated by such public agencies or bodies with regards to official business. While complaints submitted directly to the board may be subject to the Freedom of Information Act, those accessed via an internal affairs investigation of CPD would be excluded under Virginia state law due to FOIA exemptions for law enforcement records and personnel files.
Adeola Ogunkeyede, legal director of the Civil Rights and Racial Justice Program at the Legal Aid Justice Center who was in attendance at the meeting, said the board should not underestimate its ability to effectively lobby the Council to grant the board additional powers in terms of holding CPD accountable as soon as possible.
“I'm a little concerned that this board thinks it’s powerless to change the will, or what seems to be the expressed will of City Council, with respect to the powers that you currently have right now,” Ogunkeyede said. “[Especially] when it comes to sort of the community’s call for immediate action in response to issues that affect them with respect to police community relations.”
Ogunkeyede added that the board should leverage the complaints it has already received from community members in asking the Council to grant the board the authority to begin formally acting upon the submissions in some way.
Parker — who, along with fellow board member Katrina Turner, has been tasked with community outreach for the board — said some community members are still hesitant to file complaints. Currently, Charlottesville residents can file complaints against CPD, but the board does not have a formal or legal basis for independently collecting such complaints as of yet. The board has the ability to access such information from CPD but would not be able to act upon it or collect its own data before the body has an approved set of bylaws.
“A lot of people are really scared to actually come with a complaint because they fear there will be a repercussion to anything that they say,” Parker said. “It’s not that we don't have respect for the police, it's just some of the police that we have problems with.”