Police review board needs teeth, Durham activists say

Feb. 26, 2014 @ 10:32 PM

Local NAACP leaders and other activists say the city’s Civilian Police Review Board ought to demand more authority to handle complaints, including the right to conduct its own investigations of police officers.

The board now has the authority only to look over the shoulder of the Durham Police Department’s internal affairs detectives, weighing in on whether they’re doing their jobs properly when someone alleges police misconduct.

As a result, “people are not convinced the board as presently constituted will provide relief,” Ian Mance, a lawyer with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, told members of the advisory panel.

Mance’s comments came during a hearing that members said will set the stage for them to confer next month on whether to ask the City Council to change the board’s operating procedures.

The lawyer and other speakers said the board should seek independence from the city manager, who by law has final say over employee discipline, including of the police.

The council in setting up the Civilian Police Review Board in 1999 made it an arm of the manager’s office. The manager appoints its members, and the board reports findings to the manager.

But James Chavis, a former Partners Against Crime District 1 co-facilitator, said the board should report directly to the City Council so the public can hold elected officials accountable for the Police Department’s actions.

Given the current system, there’s reason to think the manager “will not accept your recommendation [on a case] if it’s not for the benefit of his bosses,” Chavis said, adding the review board needs make sure elected officials hear about misconduct complaints “face to face” and in public.

NAACP activists, Mance and local defense lawyer David Hall all said the board should ask for the independent investigative authority it presently lacks.

Now, “you are relying on the Police Department to provide you the information you consider,” Mance said. “If there’s a compelling statement from a citizen that’s not in interests of the Police Department, all they have to do is withhold it. Make it easier for people to get face time with you.”

The Durham NAACP, represented by chapter First Vice President Roland Staton, said the board should have the power to compel police cooperation, if necessary through subpoenas.

But the group – whose leader is County Commissioner Fred Foster – stopped short of asking that the board receive binding authority over disciplinary matters.

Mance did not, in written comments arguing the panel should be able “to overrule police and city manager decisions regarding police discipline.”

He acknowledged that would require a change in state law, which now withholds even from the City Council the authority to overrule the manager’s disciplinary decisions.

But he argued that the council can expand the review board’s powers in lesser ways without asking the N.C. General Assembly to change the law.

Wednesday’s hearing was the latest in a series of advisory-board meetings that have followed complaints about alleged racial profiling and the Police Department’s handling of a spate of officer-involved shootings.

All the previous hearings were by the city’s Human Relations Commission, a separate panel that’s working on the issue at the City Council’s request. It held weekly meetings in January to gather information to use in drafting advice to the council.