Council seeks to create new Police Review Board

by Jeff Sykes

Greensboro’s city council is set this evening to review recommended changes to the way complaints against police officers are handled, with a vocal minority of departmental critics only half mollified with the proposals.

Under the plan, a Police Citizen Review Board would replace the current Complaint Review Committee. The new board would be comprised of nine members directly appointed by city council members. It would no longer operate under the guidance of the Human Relations Commission.

City council members got a look at the complete package of proposed changed at a work session on Oct. 16. The full plan was to be considered at the city council meeting on Tuesday.

The city council established a review panel to study ways to improve the Complaint Review Committee, which has handled complaints against police for a number of years. Mayor Nancy Vaughan chaired the enhancement committee, which included Yvonne Johnson, Tony Wilkins and Jamal Fox. Early on, committee members hinted that structural changes needed to be made, while stopping short of promising sweeping new powers demanded by community activists.

The name change alone could go a long way to improving the community’s perceptions. Council members and city staff often heard demands for a “police review board”, despite the existence of the CRC. Many felt that the CRC’s generic name, in addition to the process and jargon heavy way it operated, left many residents feeling as if they lacked a voice.

Direct appointment by council also should make the new Police Citizen Review Board more accountable to the citizens, according to Vaughan.

“These are substantial changes,” Vaughan said. “The council members will appoint the committee members directly and they will run with the council terms. I think we should actually do that will all our boards and commissions.”

Lewis Pitts, a retired civil rights attorney and among the most vocal of those calling for a new police oversight process, said the proposed changed were “a very positive step.”

“Changing the name, we hope, is an indication of the sincere desire to have the police accountable to the citizens, as it should be in a self-governing democracy,” Pitts said.

He also pointed to the increased size of the board, and modifications that will give community perspectives a presence during the training process, as valuable.

“Those all on paper seem like very positive steps forward,” Pitts said. “The biggest caveat is that, like anything in a democracy, this needs to be vetted and discussed with the people.”

What isn’t solved by these changes it the call for an independent citizens police review board with subpoena power, Pitts said. The activist community established such a panel this summer and began hearing complaints from citizens, in addition to having public meetings and planning sessions.

“All along our goal has been to have that independent body going and ultimately merge … we want those to come together,” Pitts said.

The likelihood of that happening is remote, Vaughan has maintained, given that the city is in no legal position to give an outside body access to police personnel records or have disciplinary power over city employees.

“I think we’ve responded as much as we can,” Vaughan said.

Interim Chief of Police Anita Holder said the proposed changes were of little consequence to the department’s day-to-day operations, although she did expect that some representatives of the professional police associations would speak against the proposal.

“By and large our officers are always thinking about the job first, and political decisions as an afterthought,” Holder said. “If you look at the productivity numbers, they are focused on their work.”

Holder said some officers had concerns that direct political appointments could become problematic.

“I do expect they will discuss ways and means to make sure there is no strictly political appointment with a specific agenda,” Holder said.