NC citizen review boards called 'facades for accountability' as advocates push for more police oversight

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- As more communities across the nation push to create citizen review boards to oversee police departments, some North Carolina advocates and leaders call the state's existing boards "toothless."

George Floyd's murder in Minneapolis renewed the push for police transparency and oversight nationwide. Citizen review boards are built upon the idea that increased transparency will increase trust between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve.

However, in North Carolina, some advocates said these boards aren't given the power to actually hold police accountable.

"These boards do not do what they are supposed to do, because if they did we would not have the people in the street that we have, we would not see continuously the same bad behavior from law enforcement officers," said Dawn Blagrove, the executive director of Emancipate NC.

Raleigh city leaders approved a police advisory board earlier this year.

However, the city's website explicitly states the board won't conduct investigations, discipline officers, respond to citizen complaints or even collect data. Instead, the advisory board will help the police department build trust and relationships.

"This board currently has no teeth and so in my eyes it looks like a publicity stunt. It looks like a way to say, 'We have accountability,' when really the city of Raleigh is showing that they don't," said Greear Webb, a newly appointed member of the Raleigh Police Advisory Board.

Blagrove compared the city's board to a cheerleader for the police rather than an oversight mechanism.

"These boards are doing exactly what they are designed to do by system actors, which is create the facade of accountability without creating actual accountability," Blagrove said.

On Tuesday, Raleigh councilman Jonathan Melton acknowledged the shortcomings of the board during a city council meeting.

"Our current police advisory board is tasked with reviewing policy and contributing to fair policy development, which is important. But it lacks the ability to provide transparency and oversight, and notably it lacks subpoena power," Melton wrote in a statement.

However, Raleigh's board isn't the only to lack this power--and the ability to grant increased power is in the hands of state legislators.

"The way citizen review boards are set up right now is like we've given citizens a kiddie table. They're not able to actually sit at the main table with the adults and have the adult conversations about the difficult things like how police officers should be disciplined when they use force inappropriately. They just are told you can sit over there and have nice conversations about how you think we should act, but without any really details or information, or any ability to look into the depths of a case to figure out if what happened was appropriate or not," said North Carolina representative Graig Meyer (D).

Over the years, state lawmakers have proposed bills to give these boards more oversight, including subpoena power. Meyer sponsored a bill in 2015 to give citizen review boards the power to investigate police misconduct, another was proposed in 2017--neither passed.

Currently, municipalities can form citizen review boards, but those boards are unable to call witnesses and review disciplinary records. This lack of authority leaves many of these groups in more of an advisory than oversight role.

Durham's Civilian Police Review Board has existed for years. The board reviews citizen complaints only if citizens are not satisfied with the initial police investigation. Members are then tasked with reviewing how the investigation was conducted rather than investigating the complaint itself. If the board decides there's evidence the police investigation into the complaint was inappropriate, it can grant a hearing.

Since 2011, the Durham board has only granted two hearings and reviewed 25 appeals. From 2018-2019, the board heard no appeals--and only one the year before.

"I don't think the numbers are low because these adverse interactions are not happening. Some people may not feel or may not trust the process. Some people may not know the process exists. I'm not sure why our numbers are low," said DeWarren Langley, who has served on Durham's board for 10 years.

Winston-Salem's board has heard five appeals since 2015, and Charlotte's board reported hearing 10 appeals in the last five years.

"Why would you bring a complaint to a citizen review board if you knew the citizen review board doesn't actually have the authority to do anything about it? You'd be wasting your own time," said Meyer.

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Langley said he doesn't think Durham's members are confined to the roles established by the city, and they would speak out if an investigation or complaint was concerning. While he thinks the board is effective in what it is designed to do, he said he thinks it's appropriate for state leaders to give subpoena power to the boards and let municipalities decided how and if to use it.

"When we are looking at what needs to improve, I think the focus has to be on what's going on within one's particular community," Langley said.

A city spokesperson said Durham is not seeking subpoena power.

While some look to reform already existing boards, many communities are still pushing to even establish a board.

Susan Hutson, the president of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE), estimated less than 200 of the 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the country have an oversight committee.

Her organization helps communities form effective oversight committees. She said in the last few weeks, her phone has been ringing nonstop.

"It's not just cops involved. What's the other half of the equation? It's the community, the community are involved in these encounters. It just can't be from their (police) perspective," Hutson said.

Hutson said the nonprofit plans on leading the way to establish oversight and is producing principles and best practices for communities to adopt. Some of the key principles the organization recommends is independence, access to records, and community outreach.

Hutson said while investigative power is needed, she thinks any form of a citizen review board is a benefit to the community.

"Even having the presence of community or civilians looking at some aspect of policing is effective because it does shed light on things and those in the community can go talk about it. So it does help," she said. "We cannot keep doing things the way they are. Look at what it's done to our country. We do have to do a better job of that."

Community leaders in Fayetteville have pushed for a board for years. The city council just voted to move forward a few weeks ago.

As the city works to determine what role the board will play, leaders with the Fayetteville Police Accountability Community Taskforce (PACT) are pushing for access to records and independent oversight.

"We're not taking away the authority of the police, but we're saying we want also be able to tell you if you're doing the right things for us as the people," said PACT co-founder Kathy Greggs. "It's not saying we don't trust you, but it's saying we also want to have that authority to see ourselves."

The Fayetteville Police Department did not respond to a request for comment.

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Langley, who is a member of the Durham advisory board, said discussion for change will have to involve the community. From Fayetteville to Raleigh, advocates said they are hopeful of where these continual conversations will lead.

"We have got to redesign--not reimagine, but redesign--and act on changing the way we hold our communities accountable and the ways we protect our communities," Webb, who is on the Raleigh board, said.

On Tuesday, the Raleigh City Council voted to send a letter to state leaders, including Governor Roy Cooper, to advocate for increased oversight.

The letter read in part, "The City of Raleigh recognizes that transparency and accountability are needed to engender positive relationships between our community and the police. The City of Raleigh supports and would welcome authority to provide more transparency, oversight, and power to our community."

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Melton said the city has also added the issue to their legislative priorities for 2021.

At the state level, Meyer said he is advocating for the National Carolina Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice to discuss citizen review boards.
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