Civilian board’s oversight of police limited, city says

Jan. 07, 2014 @ 10:31 PM

Far from having binding authority, the city’s Civilian Police Review Board is an advisory group that exists primarily to monitor whether the Durham Police Department’s internal-affairs unit is conducting investigations properly.

That was the upshot of the briefing city staffers gave Tuesday to a different panel that the City Council has asked to look into complaints about the department.

Since opening for business in 1999, the review board has fielded appeals from people dissatisfied with the Police Department’s handling of grievances about specific officers.

But rather than conducting fresh investigations, it checks whether the department’s internal affairs unit followed proper procedure in probing misconduct allegations, said Senior Assistant to the City Manager Karmisha Wallace.

Wallace was briefing the city’s Human Relations Commission, whose members probed the point repeatedly.

“Hypothetically, if the board looked at material and thought, ‘Gee, I don’t think this was handled well, this isn’t how we want things handled here,’ but the investigation was properly done, that’s not a basis for them to have a hearing?” member Dick Ford asked.

“That’s correct,” Wallace responded, conceding that the appeal process is rarely used.

She also noted that state law assigns the city manager the authority to hire, discipline and fire most city employees and restricts what officials can disclose to the public about disciplinary decisions.

Someone who files a grievance about a cop typically would receive a letter saying whether the allegation was found true or not true, whether the evidence was insufficient to decide either way, whether the allegation was true but didn’t amount to officer misconduct, or whether the case had revealed a between-the-cracks “policy failure.”

The letter wouldn’t go into any detail about disciplinary action against an officer.

Wallace said Durham is one of four large North Carolina cities that between 1997 and 2001 received permission from the N.C. General Assembly to share otherwise confidential personnel information about cops with civilian review boards.

The others were Winston-Salem, Greensboro and Charlotte.

The city can tinker with the board’s workings, but making a major change to its authority would mean asking the General Assembly to change the law, Wallace said.

And she noted that another large North Carolina city, Fayetteville, hasn’t had any luck in convincing legislators to give it even as much authority to share information with a civilian review board as its larger brethren already possess.

Bills authorizing such sharing stalled in the majority-Republican N.C. House in both 2012 and 2013.

Fayetteville officials “worked countless hours to get a board in place, but there were police and sheriff’s associations that said, ‘We don’t want this because we want our employees’ records to be kept private,’” Wallace said, adding the groups objected to giving confidential personnel information to volunteers.

Media reports indicate that the N.C. Police Benevolent Association in fact lobbied hard against the two bills, which surfaced amid disputes over racial-profiling allegations similar to those voiced in Durham.

The group apparently contended a Fayetteville review board would leak confidential information to the media. Its leader, John Midgette, in a 2012 newspaper interview called that city “a cesspool of corruption and anti-police hatred.”

Critics of the Durham police have argued that the Civilian Police Review Board should have binding authority to discipline officers.

The Human Relations Commission is in the midst of a series of hearings about police issues. The City Council asked for the probe last year after fielding complaints about profiling and a spate of officer-involved shootings.

Commission members heard from police commanders in November and December. Between now and early February, it will meet with groups like the Southern Coalition for Social Justice that have voiced most of the complaints.