Public needs information, Police Review Board concludes

jwise@newsobserver.comMarch 28, 2014 

— During the public-comment period of Wednesday night’s Civilian Police Review Board meeting, Durham resident Jesse Gibson had a suggestion:

“In selecting members, you shouldn’t confine it to property owners,” he said.

In fact, there is no such restriction. To be eligible for board membership, citizens have to have their property taxes paid up. Nothing requires them to own property, but Gibson’s impression that renters are excluded was symbolic of a problem the board has found in considering how, and whether, its own role needs changing.

“We need to talk about how we’re going to inform and educate the public,” said board member Cynthia Wells.

As the city’s Human Relations Commission has investigated complaints of racial profiling and alleged police misconduct, the Civilian Police Review Board is re-examining itself. Having taken public comment, the board met last week to decide what changes to recommend to City Manager Tom Bonfield and found itself in a quandary.

On one hand there were citizen wishes and expectations. On another, there were the board’s given responsibilities, and the practical and legal limits on what it can do. In between, there was a gap of information.

“There are a lot of things that don’t come through this (board),” said Chairman DeWarren K. Langley. Responding to some things citizens had said the board should do, he said, “is kind of like trying to catch a fly that’s nowhere near us.”

One general misapprehension that came up is that many people think the Police Review Board hears complaints about officers’ conduct. It doesn’t. Rather, it hears appeals of the Police Department’s internal affairs division handles citizen complaints.

“To the extent the citizenry thinks this board can come behind internal affairs and ding an officer, no,” said Kimberly Grantham, a senior assistant city attorney who is that office’s liaison to the board. The board’s “teeth,” she said, is the power to say internal affairs is not doing its job.

“I can assure you, internal affairs doesn’t want you telling the city manager, ‘Internal Affairs is not investigating,’ ” she said.

Board members quickly dismissed some suggestions submitted by the public in writing and at a February open house. One, that the board do its own investigations of police behavior, was tossed as beyond the ability of an unpaid volunteer body without legal or law-enforcement credentials.

Another, that the board report to the City Council instead of the city manager, was dismissed because city employees, including the chief of police, report to the manager and the manager is the one with authority to discipline.

Most of the recommendations eventually approved to go into a formal report had to do with making the complaint process more citizen-friendly:

•  improving the complaint form so it is easier to use;

•  extending the period to appeal an internal affairs decision to the Review Board from 14 to 30 days

•  more information in internal affairs’ responses to complaints, to explain how an investigation was conducted;

•  simplifying language in the board manual ( bit.ly/1fog7wx);

•  publicizing the state law on confidentiality of personnel information;

•  holding an annual public forum;

•  producing a brochure to explain the complaint process and the board’s role.

“Our hands are tied when people don’t go through the process,” Langley said.

Next step is for Langley to draft a report, with the board’s recommendations for itself. The board decided to meet April 7 to review the draft before approving a final version for City Manager Tom Bonfield.

“The citizens have voiced their concerns and they want a resolution,” said board Vice Chairman Carlos Siu. “What are we going to do to meet that request?

“It’s very difficult,” Siu said, “because we have not educated the public as to how (the Civilian Police Review Board is) supposed to behave.”

Informing the public will only go so far, though, said board member David Harris.

“Regardless of what we do,” Harris said, “some of those complainants are not going to be satisfied.”

Wise: 919-641-5895

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