Panel recommends folding police complaint review into new commission

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Commissioner David Sevier (left) makes a point to fellow commissioners Zac Engle, Tom Phillips, Dave Wils, Lindy Garnette and Irving Allen.

Roughly a year after the formation of the Police Community Review Board, the Greensboro Human Relations Commission is recommending the panel be scrapped and folded into a new body known as the Criminal Justice Advisory Commission.

“People who are looking at the PCRB from the community have seen things skewed towards the police — that the PCRB is seen as favoring the police,” said David Sevier, a human relations commissioner who chaired the ad hoc committee to revamp the process. “When we interviewed officers on the street we’ve gotten a sense that the police see the PCRB as a body that is really out to get them, if you will. There’s that perspective.”

Sevier added that members of the review board themselves are divided. One of the board’s members, Lindy Garnette, was removed earlier this year by the chair of the human relations commission on the advice of City Attorney Tom Carruthers, after speaking publicly about a case in which the board disagreed with the police professional standards division. Soon afterwards two other members resigned. During a contentious May 15 meeting, the human relations commission voted 7-6 to reinstate Garnette to the board, but the city attorney ruled that the action was non-binding because Chairman Zac Engle had sole discretion to appoint members to the board. At that meeting, a commissioner also made a motion to remove Engle as chair of the commission, but the motion did not go forward because Carruthers provided the opinion that there was not a cause for action. Commissioners also voted to issue an apology to Tamara Figueroa for their handling of her complaint about how police officers treated her son during an altercation at the Fun Fourth Festival in downtown Greensboro in 2016.

Sevier said members of the review board were “divided about training, divided about the mission of the PCRB, divided about how the go about making decisions, divided about what they can speak about, even though they didn’t all agree that they needed to be under the veil of confidentiality. So the PCRB itself is divided and have a number of negative perceptions about their work.

“And then the complainants, when we’ve talked to them we’ve gotten a clear sense that nobody is satisfied with the complaint process,” Sevier added, “primarily because they couldn’t speak, they couldn’t appear — or at least the perception was they couldn’t appear before the PCRB — that changed a little bit here recently. But also that essentially their complaint went into a black hole and that some weeks or months later they received a written letter, and that letter just said we agree with the internal affairs adjudication or we don’t. There was no sense of real relief in that.”

During a special meeting on Thursday the human relations commission unanimously voted to create a Greensboro Criminal Justice Advisory Commission, which would hold a wide range of responsibilities, from advising the police department to monitoring complaints and critical incidents, and issuing regular reports with trend data. As a stand-alone commission appointed by city council, the new criminal justice advisory commission would absorb the current police community review board.

“In my view, this will be a dramatic opportunity to enhance public trust, transparency and accountability,” Sevier said. “It’s going to look at data rather than only review a small number of cases. It’s going to look at, are there individual police officers that are up time and time again for complaints? This information is going to be put out in a public report.”

The human relations commission is requesting a meeting with city council at its next work session to discuss the requested changes. Sevier said he has spoken with all members of city council, except Councilman Jamal Fox, who is resigning his seat on July 18. He said he also spoke with City Manager Jim Westmoreland. Sevier said the city council members and city manager responded positively to the idea of establishing a criminal justice advisory commission, which is based on monitoring/advisory model. City council will have final say over whether the proposed changes take effect.

Ed Cobbler, who chairs the current police community review board, did not attend the meeting on Thursday. On May 15, he expressed disagreement with Sevier’s contention that the board was in need of an overhaul, although he served on the ad hoc committee to review the board.

Sevier’s committee found that the small number of cases reviewed by the current police community review board is not sufficient to draw conclusions about patterns of behavior by individual officers or by the department as a whole.

“A remarkably small number of cases referred to the PCRB result in different findings than that of the Greensboro Police Department [professional standards division],” a study produced by Sevier’s committee found, “yet these few cases frequently contributed to a significant lack of community trust — which cannot be then addressed publicly by the PCRB.”

Out of 217,735 calls for service in 2016, only 186 — or 0.06 percent — generated citizen complaints for inquiries, the study found. Of that number, only six were forwarded from the police department’s professional standards division to the police community review board for review. In only one case did the police community review board disagree with the findings of the police’s internal investigation. In other words, only 0.0003 percent of all calls for service resulted in a finding where the community review board found fault with a police officer.

Some commissioners expressed confusion about how far the proposal overhaul went towards addressing one of the key frustrations of complainants — whether they had the right to address the review board and call witnesses.

“We still don’t have any clarity on what is the ability of the complainant to speak to the PCRB or not, and we don’t have any clarity on whether they can bring a witness,” Garnette said.

Sevier said after the vote that the city manager would be consulted on whether complainants could address the review panel or call witnesses to testify.

Sevier said the new board will not hold subpoena power — a tool long sought by police reform advocates — since at least 2000, when city council rejected it in a vote along racial lines. Commissioners on Thursday discussed the meaning of “ample authority,” described in the study as “necessary component” for “advisory oversight.” By way of explanation, Sevier said he expected command-level staff to provide forthright answers to commissioners’ questions. In the absence of subpoena power, he expressed confidence that the police would cooperate with the commission to avoid bad publicity.

Sevier also said the city might need to appeal to the state General Assembly to clarify the law individual citizen complaints, which was written specifically for Greensboro through session laws in 2001 and 2005.

The findings in the study by Sevier’s committee point to “restrictions and challenges associated with the current police complaint process within the city of Greensboro, severely limiting its usefulness.”

Yet the challenges would likely apply to the complaint review component within the proposed criminal justice advisory commission as well.

“General Assembly of NC Sessions Laws (2001, 2005) restrain meaningful review of individual citizen complaints, and, specifically prohibit public reports of findings that suggest concerns with an individual police officer’s behavior in an incident,” the study found.

  • Al McMullin Walle

    This can has been kicked around by the city so long it’s got a pull tab.