Charlottesville’s police oversight panel likely will have to wait a few months before getting any word about changes to its structure.
Meanwhile, the Police Civilian Review Board is considering hiring outside counsel while already receiving some pushback as it tries to navigate its relationship with city officials and maintain independence.
The board, which held its second meeting on Tuesday, voted last week to request that the City Council revert its bylaws and ordinance to the structure presented by an initial panel.
However, the council has indicated that it will take no such action before the General Assembly holds a special session on policing in August.
“Council will not be considering any amendments to the PCRB Bylaws and Ordinance until the outcome of this session is known,” the council wrote in an email last week sent by Councilor Heather Hill and signed “Members of Council.”
The holdup would allow the legislature to consider proposals by the Legislative Black Caucus focused on police accountability.
The proposals would require all police departments to have a corresponding civilian review board, which would have subpoena power. Subpoena power was not included in the original or current iteration of the Charlottesville CRB’s bylaws.
The legislation also would limit the use of sovereign immunity, a state law that shields individual police officers and their governing bodies from civil liability for violations of constitutional rights.
Although the council could change the ordinance and bylaws to the original proposal and then make further changes after the session, that option does not appear to be under consideration. If any of the legislation is approved, it’s unclear when it would take effect. Speakers in Tuesday’s public comment period also noted that there’s no guarantee the legislature will approve the measures or that the council would subsequently sign off on them.
Meanwhile, leading up to the meeting, tensions were building behind the scenes between board members and city officials.
Board member Stuart Evans had questioned city staff about the process for allowing some city officials to appear at the virtual meetings in an effort to ensure the board maintained independence. He mentioned Mayor Nikuyah Walker and Police Chief RaShall Brackney, who participated in the inaugural meeting. The City Council chose to not require a liaison to the board when approving the ordinance and the bylaws.
Right before the meeting was set to start, Walker responded to Evans and said that “it is never OK for you to question the participation of two Black women in a meeting.”
Walker said that she and Brackney appeared to answer questions and show that they were willing to work together to create a “powerful PCRB.” She said her family and friends have been “negatively impacted by the criminal justice system in this city forever” and “Your white gaze doesn’t give [you] any authority to question my intention.”
Evans responded that his questions were only intended to determine how city officials participated in a meeting and whether their participation was appropriate for an independent board to “ensure that a board is not unduly influence[d] by the very apparatus it is supposed to oversee.”
“I will continue to work on the CRB to attempt to address the very issues you — I believe inaccurately — accuse me of participating in by asking questions of City officials/employees,” he wrote. “The fact that you view a member of an independent board asking questions about how the board can stay independent (and ensure that it [is] viewed as independent by the public) as ‘problematic’ is troubling to me. One might say that it even demonstrates the very problem I am worried about.”
After the meeting, Walker again responded, saying that it was “troubling” for Evans to question her participation, while pointing out that the initial bylaws called for a council liaison. She also said that a comment about her governing style was again “white gaze.”
In communicating its intent about the ordinance and bylaws, the council told the board to instead focus on crafting the job description for an executive director, but board members said that process would be tainted by the current structure. Board members said the job description would be substantially different under the initial structure.
One of the differences between the two is that the current structure shifts more power to the director than the board, compared with the original proposal.
“You’re either going to have an executive director with a lot of power that doesn’t share it with the board or an executive director that works in conjunction with the board and shares the power,” said board member Nancy Carpenter.
City Manager Tarron Richardson said officials will continue to work on the job description and return with a proposal that can be easily tweaked if the bylaws and ordinance are revised.
A current draft of the job posting includes a salary range of $89,247 to $137,000 and a minimum of five years of “progressively responsible” experience in conducting civil, criminal or factual investigations and gathering evidence.
At Tuesday’s meeting, the board voted to request that the City Council provide a written report about what it didn’t keep from the initial proposal and the reason for those decisions.
“People feel like there was something taken away and they were never given a reason why,” said board member James Watson.
The initial panel worked from August 2018 to July 2019 in the fallout of the Unite the Right rally to create a draft of the bylaws.
The City Council approved the ordinance and bylaws for the panel in November, although some community members remained frustrated with the final proposal. The bylaws establish the board’s meeting procedures, and the ordinance covers its composition, staffing and powers.
In other business, the board voted to establish its regular meeting time to be 6:30 p.m. the second Wednesday of each month. The board also voted to spend $400 for membership in the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement.
During public comment, members of the initial board offered suggestions and lamented issues they faced while crafting their recommended bylaws and ordinance.
Afterward, Johnson and board member Dierdre Gilmore spoke at length about a lack of trust between the community and police department.
Gilmore recounted instances when officers pulled guns on her son and another time an officer used mace. She said Brackney needs to be willing to accept criticism and understand that issues with the department have been building since long before she arrived.
“You’ve got to put your big-girl panties on chief; you haven’t been here that long,” she said.
Johnson added, “There is no way in God’s name that you can think there is nothing wrong with the Charlottesville Police Department that needs to be changed.”
As Johnson and Gilmore were speaking, Richardson interrupted to note that the meeting had exceeded its planned end time by about 15 minutes and to request an end to business. The meeting then quickly came to a close.