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Charlottesville police chief suspends oversight board’s access to records

On July 24 of last year, someone filed a complaint regarding a traffic stop via the Charlottesville Police Civilian Oversight Board online portal. But the board was never able to investigate.

Despite a city ordinance saying the board of unpaid community volunteers “shall be provided full access” to all police department records pertinent to board investigations, Charlottesville Police Chief Michael Kochis paused record access in late October.

Kochis said he made the decision after he found an omission in the city’s paperwork governing how police share information with the board, which has the power to conduct investigations of police misconduct and review internal affairs investigations done by the police.

While Kochis has maintained he holds the board in high regard and wants its paperwork updated so it can get back to work, the board’s director, Inez Gonzalez, says she feels that Kochis has questioned the legitimacy of her organization.

Both agree the omission must be corrected.

“Our PCOB truly wants a well-run, accountable, professional police department. That’s what they want. And that’s what everybody should want,” Kochis said.

The delays Charlottesville’s board has faced investigating and resolving complaints underscore just how new and untested police oversight boards are in Virginia; Charlottesville’s is just one of five in the entire commonwealth.

Charlottesville City Council passed its ordinance laying out the board’s power in December 2021. Those powers went into effect after the council adopted 82 pages of operating procedures in December 2022.

Kochis, who was named police chief a year ago after serving in the same position in the town of Warrenton, said that while he was getting adjusted in his first year on the job it was brought to his attention that the city didn’t have the adequate information-sharing agreement required by the ordinance.

In October, he brought the issue to City Manager Sam Sanders and Gonzalez.

The chief, city manager and Gonzalez agreed that the city needed an updated information-sharing agreement.

“There’s some lack of clarity and some inconsistencies with the ordinance and procedures, and we have now gone back to the ordinance twice to try to fix that. And I would acknowledge that we need to go back again. There’s more that needs to be cleared up,” said Sanders.

Shortly after the three officials met in late October, Kochis cut oversight board access to certain records — including a video of the traffic stop, Gonzalez said, from the July 24 complaint.

“We’re trying to fix what wasn’t done so that they can do the very important work that they’re supposed to do,” Kochis said. “And so once that is finished, Ms. Gonzalez will have access to all those files and body-worn camera footage and everything else.”

Kochis has declined to say who brought the information-sharing agreement, or lack thereof, to his attention.

Three months after the chief raised the concern, Charlottesville’s city attorney reviewed a proposed information-sharing agreement that Kochis and Gonzalez developed. That document, with the city attorney’s comments for consideration, is now being reviewed by Sanders.

Gonzalez agrees that a proper information-sharing agreement needs to be in place, but she has expressed concern about her lack of access to records.

After she took the job in May after retiring as a police captain in Newark, New Jersey, she reviewed several police internal affairs investigations from 2022 and 2023 and shared her findings with the oversight board. She and the board also were working on policy recommendations for the police department. Kochis said his department already implemented one of those recommendations, calling it “excellent.”

But the board has been unable to make further recommendations after the agreement was found to be incomplete and records access was cut.

Gonzalez briefed her board on the delay at its November meeting.

“As for oversight activities, unfortunately since our last meeting there have been none,” Gonzalez said at the meeting. “Until such time as we come to an agreement with the police department on how we’re going to be sharing information, and what information we’re going to be getting — hopefully in compliance with the city ordinance — we have not been doing it.”

When she spoke to City Council in December, she said there were provisions of the ordinance “that were recently challenged” and she was working with the police chief and city attorney on the information-sharing agreement.

“The good news is it presents us with an opportunity now that we actually have a chief of police in place that’s willing to work with us, a city manager that’s also interested in working with us, the city attorney and myself,” she told Council.

Bill Mendez, the oversight board’s chairman, declined to comment.

Arrested development

Charlottesville City Council voted in December 2017 to create what was then called the Police Civilian Review Board, which had no oversight power and was tasked with writing bylaws for a future, permanent board.

The idea stemmed from concern over police stops of Black motorists and fallout from the so-called Summer of Hate in 2017, when White nationalist groups including the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis rallied in protest of the city’s decision to tear down its Confederate imagery. While plenty of public outrage was directed at the White nationalists, the police also came under scrutiny for their response to the violence: not preparing in advance for what was a clearly articulated plan to bring violence to Charlottesville on Aug. 12, standing by while University of Virginia students were surrounded by a torch-wielding mob on Aug. 11 and using tear gas on counterprotesters during a Klan rally in July of that year.

The volunteers who served on the initial board worked on creating bylaws in 2018 and 2019 but met resistance from City Council and then-Police Chief RaShall Brackney. Brackney was vocal about her opposition to many of the board’s initiatives, claiming the “biased” board was making burdensome requests of the police department, hurting department morale and contributing to a “mass exodus” of officers.

In the meantime, a study by MGT Consulting Group, commissioned by Charlottesville and surrounding Albemarle County in 2018 and released in 2020, confirmed what many in the community already knew and members of the board hoped to address: Black people face a disproportionate level of arrests and incarceration. Black men in Charlottesville accounted for 8.5% of the city population but 51.5% of police bookings.

After the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in the summer of 2020, the Virginia legislature passed a bill which went into effect the following year and allowed municipalities to create more powerful civilian boards to oversee policing.

In 2021, Charlottesville City Council passed an ordinance officially renaming the board the Police Civilian Oversight Board and granting it new powers authorized by Virginia law.

After five years of organizing, the board had its first case in 2022. But between that case and the recent dispute over transparency, the board has not been buzzing with the activity that many of its founders had hoped for it.

Rosia Parker, a member of the first version of the board, said she remains hopeful, though also frustrated, by the board’s decision to take the slow lane to achieve its goals.

“Everything sounds politically correct at the time,” she said. “But do they really mean what they’re saying at the time?”

With an opening on the board, Parker said that she is applying to rejoin the board this month.

Meeting requirements

The files the board lost access to in October included records police previously shared related to a woman who in 2022 asked the board to review how police had investigated three internal affairs complaints she made.

That case was waiting for Gonzalez when she arrived on the job 10 months later. She said she has a policy recommendation to police stemming from the woman’s complaints. The board discussed that with Gonzalez in a closed session in October, not long before its access to records was suspended.

The city’s ordinance also allows Gonzalez to monitor police internal affairs investigations as they’re happening — which she has never done. Kochis said he has not allowed her to do that, but will once the new information-sharing agreement is complete.

The board recently overcame another hurdle. It has the power to hold hearings, but those cannot be conducted without hearing officers approved by the city attorney. In spring 2023, the board submitted the names of four licensed attorneys interested in serving as hearing officers. According to Charlottesville city attorney Jacob Stroman, those names were not approved until “late last year.”

While the delay over process concerns relates to what records the board and its director will have access to, the public isn’t likely to know many specifics of police complaints.

Police disciplinary records are generally kept secret in Virginia, and few details of cases reviewed in Charlottesville have been made public.

Charlottesville’s police chief decides whether any police records the board accesses should be publicly disclosed under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.

Virginia law has broad discretionary exemptions for many records, so release of records is not required. In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, Charlottesville officials withheld numerous records and videos of cases reviewed by the oversight board last year, while charging nearly $450 for search time.

Charlottesville is one of five jurisdictions in Virginia with police oversight boards who participate in an informal group that meets every few months to discuss ideas; others are Alexandria, Arlington County, Fairfax County and Virginia Beach.

Daily Progress reporter Jason Armesto contributed to this story.

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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