A new draft of the Charlottesville Police Civilian Review Board’s ordinance will soon be voted on by the City Council.
In recent months, the CRB has been tasked with updating its ordinance, which was approved by the City Council in 2019 and gave the board relatively few powers. The efforts to create a CRB were largely a response to the city police’s widely criticized response to the 2017 Unite the Right rally.
Thanks to new statewide legislation that went into effect July 1, 2021, city councils and county boards of supervisors statewide can now create civilian review panels to examine use-of-force complaints and cases of deaths and serious injuries while in custody, among other concerns.
The law allows panels a variety of investigative powers, including the authority to ask circuit court judges to subpoena records. Ultimately, the City Council would have to agree to the board’s proposed new ordinance.
A key feature of the new ordinance draft would allow for the CRB to independently investigate complaints levied against the city police. Despite some members having previously expressed concerns that the City Council may be wary of such powers, all the members appeared to support the change during a Monday meeting.
“We are sure to receive all complaints, we have the ability to independently investigate complaints and incidents and make disciplinary recommendations,” CRB Vice Chairman Bill Mendez said during Thursday’s meeting. “The executive director has fairly substantial powers to monitor and review internal affairs investigations. We can hold hearings, request subpoenas and make policy recommendations.”
The Charlottesville City Council is expected to vote on the ordinance on Dec. 20, according to Mendez, and is likely to approve it. However, a few issues remained following Monday’s meeting and needed decisions from the CRB Thursday.
One of the most contentious portions of the draft involved a requirement for CRB members to go on police ride-alongs. During Monday’s City Council meeting, Mayor Nikuyah Walker expressed frustration with this provision, citing a history of negative experiences Black residents and other people of color associate with police cars.
“I don’t think that the fact that you may have been tossed in the back of a van that people have (urinated) in in the past and you may not want to get back into the vehicle means that you shouldn’t be able to be on the board,” Walker said Monday. “We don’t know what their past histories with officers are, and I know sitting in the front seat is different than sitting in the backseat.”
In response to this suggested change, Mendez said he suggested that the CRB be allowed to define a range of training requirements that will allow the board members to become familiar with police procedures, even if it does not involve a ride-along.
Board Member Nancy Carpenter said she agreed with flexibility in training that allowed for current and future members to avoid a ride along requirement.
“I do agree with what Mayor Walker said the other night about how it could discourage someone who would be a very good addition to this board from applying because they feel forced to do something that would make them uncomfortable,” she said.
Chairman Bellamy Brown agreed that there should be compromise in that area and that a ride along should not be required, reflecting on his own past bad experiences with police.
“Previously in thinking about it, I had no thought about any triggering aspect of it until it was actually, you know, brought up tonight,” he said. “For me personally, it did make me reflect on my experiences in Fairfax County, and even now it’s still uncomfortable to think about.”
Another issue discussed Thursday was whether the CRB would be able to go into closed hearings and be exempt from the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.
According to Mendez, part of the Board’s back-and-forth the Board the past month has been addressing whether Virginia Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, laws allow an oversight organization to obtain confidential information, discuss it in a closed session and then be exempt from FOIA.
Under current law that would be very difficult, Mendez said. Under the current proposed system, a complainant will be able to choose whether the complaint is investigated by the police or the CRB. If the police investigate, then the CRB would receive a redacted complaint and, if the individual requests a review of the police department’s findings or if the board believes, for its own reasons, that a review is warranted they could conduct a review, he said.
On the other hand, if the complainant chooses to have the CRB investigate the complaint, then the Board’s executive director Hansel Aguilar would hire an investigator to produce a preliminary report and then there would be a fact-finding hearing. In general, this fact-finding hearing would be public, Mendez said.
“The idea is to circumvent the FOIA issue. If there is a decision made that there was serious misconduct as defined under our ordinance, then we have the potential of going in and doing this disciplinary hearing and making a recommendation,” he said. “If it turns out that there’s an insurmountable obstacle to holding a closed hearing, then the only thing we can do is report to the police chief in the city manager that would believe serious misconduct has occurred.”
Mendez said there have been meetings between CRB members and the police to discuss how information will be shared between the groups. At the direction of Aguilar, the Board plans to hold mock hearings to work out the kinks in the process.
The CRB scheduled a tentative mock hearing for Jan. 27, with the understanding that it may need to be postponed.
The Charlottesville City Council is expected to vote on the CBR’s draft ordinance on Dec. 20.