Council hears presentation on citizen review boards

Police Chief disputes statistical relevance of increased complaints

At the outset of the meeting, with members Garry Daeke and Brenda Peace-Jenkins not in attendance, City Manager Ray Griffin explained that the special session of the Henderson City Council was called because of a request by local NAACP chapter President Horace Bullock for the council to create a police citizen review board.

Griffin then called upon attorney Kari Johnson of the law firm Cranfill, Sumner, & Hartzog, a specialist in municipal and police law to brief the council on citizen review boards.

Johnson told the council and the approximately twenty residents in attendance that she was not present to advocate on any issue, but rather had been invited by the city to discuss legal issues surrounding review boards.

Johnson stated that she had made the same presentation to the council in closed session, and the council thought it would be helpful to present it again to the public. Such a presentation in closed session would be allowed under attorney-client privilege.

The theme of Johnson’s presentation was the impracticality and ineffectiveness of citizen review boards under current North Carolina law. In North Carolina, the employment records of city, county, and state employees are confidential and may only be disclosed under very specific circumstances. Even if a board is formed, the information that citizens are looking for, mainly the action taken against employees as a result of any investigation, will still not be available under North Carolina law.

Johnson noted that Henderson has had very few claims against its police department compared to other departments in the state, and also stated that most complaints are made after an arrest and before the criminal court process.

“It’s a lot more complicated than getting five or six people together,” Johnson said. According to Johnson, special training is needed for members to review trained professionals. Durham, for example, pays its board members and has a paid executive director.

Members must sign confidentiality agreements.

Johnson told her audience that when doctors are reviewed, it is done by doctors, and that when lawyers are reviewed, that review is conducted by lawyers. She indicated that caution must be exercised when professionals are being reviewed by those outside of the profession.

As it turns out, citizen review boards can only be formed with the permission of the North Carolina General Assembly. Only four municipalities have been able to form boards by virtue of action by the General Assembly: Durham, Charlotte, Greensboro, and Winston-Salem.

Each of those police departments has at least 500 officers. Henderson has 61.

Chapel Hill attempted to have legislation passed to allow it to form a citizen review board in 2008. That legislation failed. Johnson suggested it was because the Assembly felt that it would undermine confidence in the police.

Johnson told members that Charlotte’s citizen review board has never concluded abuse, that Durham’s has only made two recommendations since 1999, and that no reversals or recommendations have come from Greensboro’s or Winston-Salem’s boards.

As to the issue of the police policing themselves, Johnson said that the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) investigates allegations of abuse of force or wrongdoing by municipal police.

Member Mike Inscoe indicated later in the discussed that citizens may also go the the District Attorney.

A civil action may also be filed. Johnson said that many bypass making a complaint with the police and sue first.

Johnson said the reason citizens never hear anything back on their complaints is because North Carolina law does not allow departments to divulge the results of action taken on an employee. She stated that there are criminal penalties for divulging such information.

“This is the law; not a conspiracy or cover-up,” Johnson said in conclusion.

Next to take the podium, Henderson Police Chief Keith Sidwell argued that the increase in the number of complaints was a function of an increase in the number of officers on the street, more aggressive policing, and a greater number of calls for police service in the last four years.

He referred members to various documents that contained statistics compiled by his department.

Calls for service have increased from 31,240 in 2006 to 36,311 in 2009. Vehicle stops have gone from 6,652 in 2006 to 11,099 in 2009. Citizen contacts increased from 1,754 in 2006 to 2,890 in 2009.

Sidwell argued that while citizen contacts have increased by almost 100%, complaints have shown a “flat-line” trend.

A per capita increase would show a “curved-line” trend, or a geometric rather than additive increase.

In 2006, there were 20 complaints. Four years later in 2009, there were 45 complaints.

Sidwell told members that the department holds the distinction of “flagship agency” with the Commission on Accreditation in Law Enforcment Association (CALEA). Part of this distinction was earned by an outside evaluation of the department’s internal affairs investigation process.

The chief also stated that the department has membership for officers assigned to internal investigations with the North Carolina Internal Affairs Investigators Association which has provided training, support, and information for those officers.

After the presentations, a short council discussion ensued. Member Mary Emma Evans asked why the police department is “the only department above reproach”. She noted there have been terminations in other city departments based on customer complaints.

Johnson responded that anyone who works for the city is protected under North Carolina personnel law, not just the police department.

Attorney Michael Satterwhite, who was present at the meeting in the capacity of City Attorney, noted that citizens with a problem with the police department have “a vast number of avenues to move forward,” including filing a lawsuit or appealing to the District Attorney.

“The buck does not stop with the chief,” Satterwhite said.

The meeting was adjourned without any action by the council.