WILMINGTON –– A year from the death of George Floyd, the development of a citizens review board to oversee police actions and check for potential misconduct is making slow progress.
Community members have demanded the city form a police oversight committee for years, since 2013 when Brandon Smith was killed in a controversial police-involved shooting in Castle Hayne. The murder of Floyd last Memorial Day reinvigorated the public outcry for the issue.
Citizen review boards are set up to hear appeals of complaints against law enforcement officers which otherwise would only be investigated by the department itself. At least five other North Carolina metropolitan cities have such committees.
“The lack of police accountability is a reality,” said Sonya Patrick, of the local Black Lives Matter and National Black Leadership Caucus chapters. “It did not start with George Floyd. This thing was going on before I was born, before Trump was in office . . . The only difference now is we have cameras.”
A year ago, the New Hanover County NAACP with assistance from the national chapter proposed policy changes to the Wilmington Police Department, many of which Chief Donny Williams addressed, according to Deborah Dicks Maxwell, president of the organization.
However, the institution of a citizen review board is outside the chief’s purview.
During a council meeting last Tuesday — one week ahead of the anniversary of Floyd’s death — Maxwell asked the city to “openly and publicly” state where it stands on the creation of the board.
“Myself and the citizens of Wilmington want to know,” Maxwell said.
To that, city attorney John Joye and Mayor Bill Saffo stated the matter is presently “in the hands of the legislature.”’
In March the city submitted an outline of what it was proposing for a citizens review board to the council’s governance committee. Joye said the committee was favorable to what was drafted, and he engaged in several discussions with the Bill Drafting Division of the N.C. General Assembly.
According to the outline, the citizens review board would determine whether the discharge of a firearm by an officer that injures or kills another was “justified” or “accidental” when an appeal is submitted, among other assignments.
To do so, though, Joye explained “some legislative adjustments” must occur for members of a board to access personnel files and video and audio recordings that are ordinarily protected under North Carolina law from those outside of the supervisory chain of command.
“The key linchpin to that is having the authority from the state,” Joye said. “Right now it is at that level.”
Cities in North Carolina that already retain oversight boards received approval from the N.C. General Assembly to grant board members access to the otherwise confidential information of police officers, Joye explained.
A piece of legislation filed by three representatives of Wake, Cumberland, Orange and Chatham counties would address that roadblock. Senate Bill 682 would empower any local municipality to, by ordinance, establish a board that could review employee records and recordings while investigating allegations of officer misconduct.
The legislation would require members to sign a confidentiality agreement. If broken, it could result in a $1,000 fine, termination from the board and/or a Class 1 misdemeanor.
The board could recommend disciplinary action of officers alleged to have committed excessive use of force, abuse of power or discriminatory profiling.
Law enforcement officers in question would have the right to challenge any accusations. Plus, the city manager or council would have final say to appeal the board’s decision, and board members would not be able to review the reasoning.
Senate Bill 682 resembles parts of the rough ordinance city staff drafted.
“I saw some language that I thought I recognized, and it may have been some of our handiwork,” Joye said.
Like the city’s proposal, the bill calls for council to appoint applicants who are not employed by the city and have no immediate family in the police department. Members would have to participate in a ridealong in their first year on the board and go through training.
While the city was considering up to two three-year terms, the Senate bill proposes up to two-year terms, and terms could not be served consecutively.
Per the bill, the board would also receive subpoena power, though Joye said in his six-plus years in Charlotte, representing the police department in 43 cases before their citizen review board, the board never had to order a subpoena. He said the power “doesn’t come up very often in the actual functioning of these boards.”
“Any civilian who brings a complaint or an appeal to that board, they normally have no problem getting their witnesses there, and the police department –– CMPD –– was this way and I’m sure WPD would be this way,” Joye said.
However, in 2019 the Charlotte board made a historic decision when it disagreed with the police chief for only the second time in its 23 years. It concluded the department “clearly erred” when justifying the police shooting of Danquirs Franklin in a Burger King parking lot. Since then the board has sought subpoena power, but CMPD has declined to support that endeavor.
In July 2020, the Raleigh City Council also requested the power to call witnesses for the board in letters sent to the state government branches, the News & Observer reported.
Patrick stressed subpoena power is imperative when forming Wilmington’s oversight committee.
“You won’t know everything that happened or transpired without subpoena power,” Patrick said. “You won’t get all the details needed.”
Senate Bill 682 is one of several attempts in recent years to empower localities to establish citizen review boards statewide. Filed April 7, it’s currently sitting in the rules committee.
Former Rep. Rodney Moore of Charlotte, a Wilmington native, failed to pass a “Prohibit Discriminatory Profiling” bill, which included language to authorize citizen review boards, in 2015. Two more bills in 2017 and 2018, drafted specifically for oversight boards, died quickly.
The issue gained traction locally after Smith’s death. New Hanover Sheriff’s deputies and an ATF agent struck Smith, unarmed at the time, with nine bullets after he ran into the woods following a car chase. Smith was wanted for allegedly shooting and injuring a deputy several days prior in the Creekwood community.
A string of controversial police actions followed in the coming years, both in southeast North Carolina and across the nation.
In June 2020 WPD fired three officers after they were inadvertently captured on recordings spewing hateful and racist language. One officer, Kevin Piner, spoke of a Civil War during which he hoped to wipe out the Black population. Maxwell called the men “potential Derek Chauvins,” the officer recently convicted for Floyd’s murder.
“At this time, African Americans do not trust law enforcement because of the history,” Patrick said. “Without a citizen’s review board, it’s just people investigating themselves.”
In 2016 Patrick began the process of garnering signatures to petition for a citizens review board to go up for a vote in the next election, since the city council refused to act on the matter at the time, she said. Placing the item on the ballot required support from 25% of people who voted in the previous election, or less than 3,000 people.
Patrick said House Bill 1083 passed soon after, raising the petition requirement to an unattainable amount: 25% of registered voters.
She suspects the bill was passed only after elected officials discovered how close activists were to achieving the necessary number of signatures.
Patrick said law enforcement officers seem indifferent to the concept of a review board, but the elected officials have always attempted to stop it. She’s glad state lawmakers are now presenting a bill, even if none of them are from New Hanover County. At this point, no local representatives have sponsored the citizens review board legislation.
“I know that our delegation is working on it and reviewing it,” Joye said last Tuesday. “I know the legislature’s got a lot on their plate right now. I can’t speak beyond that.”
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