The Charlottesville Police Civilian Review Board will soon have expanded powers and a new name to signify its new role following a Monday City Council vote approving an updated ordinance.
Over the last year the CRB has been working to update its ordinance and expand its powers, allowing the Board to investigate complaints against the Charlottesville Police Department in addition to reviewing them. This expanded role is the result of changes to the state code.
In light of this new role, the CRB will be renamed the “Charlottesville Police Civilian Oversight Board,” when the ordinance goes into effect on March 1. However, many of the more specific details of how the Board will function won’t be finalized until the operating procedures are drafted over the next two months.
During Monday’s City Council meeting, Councilor Lloyd Snook walked the other councilors through some of the changes to the ordinance, not all of which were reflected in the draft they received prior to the meeting. Snook said the ordinance is the result of months of efforts from CRB members, city officials and staff and the CRB’s own outside counsel and executive director.
“Various people have weighed-in in various ways to try to tighten the language to try to make it say what we want it to say,” he said. “I think the result is, if you look around at the other ordinances that have been passed by other places in Virginia, we have given to our PCRB — soon to be the PCOB — more authority to do more things than any other place in the state.”
Much of the councilors discussion Monday evening revolved around who is able to file a complaint with the PCOB. Previously, the ordinance was intended to prevent anyone who was not an aggrieved party or had not personally witnessed an incident from filing a complaint. Under the approved ordinance that is no longer the case and there is no restriction on who can file a complaint.
Instead, Snook said the ordinance allows for the PCOB to decide whether or not they want to pursue a complaint after an initial review.
“One of the reasons to have the restriction in there was to try to weed out the the number of cases that people were afraid might might suddenly start coming, some of which might seem to be not terribly well documented or that people aren’t all that interested in pursuing," Snook said. "Giving the PCOB the opportunity to say, ‘After a quick little investigation this isn’t really what we need to be doing’ I believe this solves that problem."
This change was influenced by comments made by several community members, including attorney Jeff Fogel, who is currently representing a local musician named LaQuinn Gilmore in a lawsuit against spurred by an incident involving a city police officer.
Gilmore filmed an incident with Joseph Wood in which the now-former officer is depicted throwing Gilmore to the ground. An internal affairs investigation found that Wood had unlawfully detained Gilmore but denied various other claims, including excessive force.
“Whomever witnesses misconduct or otherwise has material evidence including, but not limited to, cell phone video should be able to file and pursue complaints,” Fogel wrote in a memo sent to the City Council earlier this month. “The police department recognizes that and so should the ordinance and the Board. In fact, at least two of the CPD investigations of serious misconduct, which led to sustained findings and termination of the officers were not filed by the aggrieved party or a witness to the events.”
Though the ordinance will allow for a non-aggrieved party to file a complaint on behalf of someone else, Hansel Aguilar, executive director of the PCOB, said there are limitations to an investigation if a party is not involved in the process. This also becomes more complicated when the complaint is received by the police, whom Aguilar said would have to investigate as well.
“So can you actually meet that threshold of a preponderance of evidence, if you don’t have that direct testimony? In some cases, you can, in some cases you won’t be able to,” said Aguilar. “But if the complaint is received by the police, they still would have this duty to investigate and they may not be able to meet or have a complete investigation if they don’t have that injured party.”
Mayor Nikuyah Walker suggested expanding the definition to make it clear that complaints filed on behalf of others would need to be based on clear evidence. Walker said there were several incidents in recent years where aggrieved parties haven’t wanted things to go forward, despite the evidence.
“There have been times when they’ve been afraid and times where people didn’t believe that they had the right to bring something forward,” she said. “So if someone sees [an incident] and understands that they do have the right you would want them to be able to bring it forward. Once that person is aware of their rights and are maybe less fearful, you never know what is possible.”
Councilor Sena Magill asked if there was a way to allow for the person on whose behalf a complaint was made to opt out of a review or investigation and halt the process if they wanted. Snook said there was not explicit language allowing for that, but that he imagined that could be part of the process where the PCOB decides whether to pursue a complaint or not. The Councilors agreed to revisit the issue during the operating procedures development process.
Per the approved ordinance, the CRB will not be reconstituted when it becomes the PCOB and all members will continue in their positions. According to comments made by Walker, at least two councilors were in favor of reconstituting the Board. However, no changes to the Board’s membership were voted for and a motion from Walker to add an applicant to fill the empty seat was not seconded.
Just before the City Council voted to unanimously approve the ordinance, PCOB Vice Chairman Bill Mendez spoke, agreeing with earlier arguments from Snook that the Board should not be reconstituted following the ordinance changes.
“My personal feeling is that it’s neither necessary nor desirable to [reconstitute the board],” Mendez said. “We’ll lose momentum and there will always be the question of, well, who didn’t the City Council like and we would all do the best to avoid that.”
Although the ordinance has now been approved, much work remains until it goes into effect in March. Key among the remaining issues are the Board’s intention to convene within a closed meeting, which, according to City Council documents, will depend on which of the categories of functions the Board is performing and what Freedom of Information Act laws say at the time the oversight body begins conducting their business.
City officials are anticipating that the General Assembly may consider several bills relating to police disciplinary files and other FOIA matters relating to an oversight body’s functional areas during its 2022 session. These laws may end up influencing the development of the PCOB operating procedures.