Chapel Hill moves a step closer to a police civilian review board

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CHAPEL HILL — Citing lessons learned from the Charles Brown incident, Chapel Hill police administrators detailed steps they’ve made in recent months to make the department more transparent and responsive Tuesday at a Chapel Hill Town Council committee meeting.

Chapel Hill barber Charles Browns story re-ignited the debate on creating a civilian review board.
  • By D.L. Anderson
  • Chapel Hill barber Charles Brown's story re-ignited the debate on creating a civilian review board.
“We recognized that there were some things we could learn from that experience, and probably one of the primary things we learned is that we need to improve mechanisms by which we communicate to the community,” Assistant Chief Chris Blue said.

Through public listening sessions and the department’s effort to create its first strategic plan, Blue said the department created a Community Policing Advisory Committee, which can provide general feedback but lacks authority to review specific complaints. The police selected the committee, which has convened twice already, but was announced publicly for the first time at this meeting.

Other key updates that stem directly from the June 2009 Brown matter in which a local black barber shop owner was detained when mistaken for a suspect on his walk home, include renewed emphasis on reporting protocol for handcuffing and detaining subjects and the purchase of 15 new in-car cameras (they plan to buy 15 more this year) to document stops.

Though they praised the efforts, Chapel Hill elected leaders and justice advocates said the town still needs civilian review board to examine claims of overzealous policing and to foster trust.

“All of these sound like good improvements,” Mayor Pro Tem Jim Ward said. “To me, I see them as not replacing my interest in having a civilian review board. … This civilian review board is how you get at transparency.”

The town needs N.C. General Assembly approval to create a review board that would be able to access police personnel records.

The Civilian Review Board Council Committee, which includes the mayor and three council members, was formed two years ago to study the issue after residents submitted a petition calling for a board. Along with the NAACP, Barry and Janie Freeman, war protestors who were arrested in 2006 at the U.S. Army Recruitment Office on E. Franklin Street, have led the charge.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Freeman called legislative approval a “false issue.”

“A review board can be set up that receives complaints doesn’t necessarily have to go call some policeman and look up his record,” Freeman said. “That might be nice, but without that you can still have 90 percent of the value of a review board. Waiting for the General Assembly to act is just putting off for longer than the two years we’ve been waiting to get this going.”

Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt added that a board could examine police policy and carry forward recommendations.

Councilwoman Sally Greene agreed.

“I think if we put a board in place that runs right up to the limit what our authority is … than it would give it life,” she said. “It might be all we ever get, but at least it would be a placeholder, and it would be something that we could in our own minds to say, ‘This is what we are transforming into a citizen review board.’”

Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP President Michelle Laws praised the police deparments efforts and maintained that the community must have an independent venue to address grievances against the police.

The committee will examine boards in other communities — Reno, Nevada, and Delray Beach, Florida, for example — that advise the police but do not review personnel files. They will discuss establishing one in Chapel Hill at a meeting next month and plan to bring the issue to the full town council at the Oct. 11 meeting.

Police also pointed to a Citizen Police Academy that kicked off the in the spring, renewed NAACP partnership that will see the police aid in bicycle safety training for a youth club and meetings held with the Downtown Partnership and Chamber of Commerce to help support black-owned business as ways they are trying to better involve the public.

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