Worth the wait: We need the Police Civilian Review Board

Last June, police arrested several community activists who were protesting the conviction of Corey Long.  Photo: Eze Amos Last June, police arrested several community activists who were protesting the conviction of Corey Long. Photo: Eze Amos

After nearly nine months of work, the Police Civilian Review Board is finalizing its initial bylaws. The proposed model would require the city to hire up to two full-time professional staff members to assist the board in processing and independently investigating complaints against Charlottesville police officers.

There has been an understandably high degree of public interest and public scrutiny on the board throughout its brief existence so far. This is a good thing. Hard questions asked at this stage will shape this body into a genuine reflection of what the community needs it to be. Because, make no mistake, this community needs civilian oversight of our police department.

As a municipal meeting enthusiast, I’ve enjoyed watching the body take shape. I worry, though, that those unfamiliar with the nature of the city’s boards and commissions will see stumbling blocks where I see building blocks.

The Civilian Review Board is just one of over three dozen boards and commissions operating in the city, some more functional than others (with a few appearing to be entirely defunct). The Planning Commission is a well-oiled machine, packed with policy knowledge. The Human Rights Commission is pulling itself back together after a few years lost in the wilderness. The Emergency Communications Board is struggling with staffing and training issues, not least of which has been its own inability to retain a director.

I’ve still never attended a meeting of the Towing Advisory Board—it is quite elusive, with meetings not properly noticed or canceled due to lack of quorum. What I mean is, unless it’s a call for a top to bottom audit of all city boards and commissions, I’m skeptical that the criticism of the CRB, much of which takes the form of attacking the personal credibility and professionalism of the volunteer members of the board, is in good faith.

Critics have questioned the cost and the need for a civilian review board. But there is one concept that is universal across every single government body: public engagement. It is, if you take them at their word, the heart and soul of any government endeavor. Why should policing be any different?

You can redress a grievance about an unattractive awning on Avon Street with the Entrance Corridor Review Board. You can tell the Tree Commission how you feel about the saplings put in by the John Warner Parkway. You can address the Library Board on anything from 3D printers to story hour programming. You can not only make your comment and be heard, but you can meaningfully engage with the process of resolving the issue you brought to the table.

But if you have a complaint about policing, that complaint goes into a black box. There is no community involvement. There is no dialogue. You will never find out what, if any, consequences an officer faced. You have no recourse. There is no relationship, no trust. That is a failure of government.

So many conversations about the current political climate in Charlottesville divide the course of our existence into Before and After the summer of 2017. For a not-insignificant number of people, that was their first significant encounter with policing in any capacity other than a traffic stop. But the problem with policing didn’t start the day in July when now-retired Major Gary Pleasants overrode an order from then-Chief Al Thomas, saying of his decision to brutalize antiracist activists protesting the Ku Klux Klan, “you’re damn right I gassed them!” The problem with policing in Charlottesville did not start when Thomas allegedly said, of the rioting in the streets on August 12, “let them fight.”

The events of the summer of 2017 did not cause a breakdown in an otherwise operational system—they just applied enough pressure that the cracks in the façade were finally visible to those of us not already living with the realities of racially biased policing. The battle for accurate, consistent, transparent stop-and-frisk data has been raging for years, and the numbers we have are deeply troubling. The problems aren’t new. We need a new approach if this police department hopes to begin to repair its relationship with the community.

What the CRB proposes isn’t radical. While the model it’s drawn up is its own, it’s similar to boards already in operation in cities around the country. The board would be able to process and investigate complaints, with a budget pegged at 1 percent of the annual police department budget. It is an investment in the department’s own stated goal of improving the relationship between the community and its police force, creating transparency in the process, and giving residents a voice.

Like many boards, the CRB is taking some time to get off the ground. But that’s in part because its charge is so important. The people of Charlottesville should have an avenue for redressing grievances about policing that is at least as robust as the appeals process for requests to paint historic brick buildings.

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