North Carolina cities' police-oversight boards are mostly toothless. Some state lawmakers want to change that | North Carolina | Indy Week
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North Carolina cities' police-oversight boards are mostly toothless. Some state lawmakers want to change that 

It didn't work locally, so maybe it could work at the state level.

That's the attitude of many Durham residents who believe the city's Civilian Police Review Board is in desperate need of overhaul. After local efforts to do so failed last year, they hope a new House bill, introduced this month, will bolster civilian oversight power across the state. If the bill is passed in its current form, civilian review boards could directly investigate complaints against police officers, subpoena witnesses and discipline—or even fire—officers.

None of those things is legal in Durham. Rather than investigate the complaints themselves, the nine-member Durham review board's job is to ensure that the police department's internal-affairs investigations are adequate.

Supporters of the system believe the process properly leaves investigations to trained detectives; critics have long argued that the review board is little more than a rubber stamp. Indeed, says board chairman DeWarren Langley, since he began serving in 2009, there's never been an instance when the board sided with the complainants over the cops.

Last year, after a series of officer-involved shootings, allegations of racial profiling and disproportionate traffic stops against minorities in Durham, the city's Human Relations Committee made a recommendation to City Council for the citizen review board to begin directly investigating complaints against officers. In August, City Manager Tom Bonfield rejected that recommendation, arguing that review board members—whom he appoints—lack necessary investigative backgrounds.

Enter House Bill 193, titled "Prohibit Discriminatory Profiling," introduced this month by Rep. Rodney Moore, D-Mecklenburg. With a national backdrop of officer-involved killings and ensuing tumult in places like Ferguson, Staten Island and Cleveland, the bill is an attempt to restore trust between the police and minority communities.

The main thrust addresses racial profiling, but wedged in the bill's body is a section that bolsters civilian review board authority. And for some Durham officials, that section represents the potential for a course correction.

"The bill would actually give some teeth to the review board," says City Councilman Eddie Davis. "Particularly in light of things going on across the country—knock on wood, we haven't had them here—the board certainly ought to be able to investigate things on their own, other than just looking over the shoulder of the police's internal affairs."

Co-sponsor Graig Meyer, D-Orange, says the bill would not automatically allow review boards to directly investigate complaints or discipline officers. Rather, it would permit cities to implement stiffer oversight laws if they choose. The bill's purpose, he says, is to establish "a balance of justice to ensure the police are there to serve and protect."

According to the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, a nonprofit advocate for increased transparency, there are more than 200 models of civilian oversight in major—and, increasingly, small and midsized—cities across the country. A handful, including San Francisco, Chicago and Washington, D.C., allow citizen oversight bodies to directly investigate complaints against police officers. A far more limited number allow civilian boards to discipline officers.

Brian Buchner, president of the association, says different levels of civilian authority are appropriate for different municipalities, depending on individual communities' needs. For a review board like Durham's, "I hesitate to say it's toothless," Buchner says. "They do play an important role. Oversight is a process, and I think to categorically exclude a model of oversight isn't fair."

Most North Carolina civilian-oversight authorities generally defer to police departments during initial investigations. That's the case in Asheville, Fayetteville, Greensboro, Raleigh, Wilmington and Winston-Salem, according to Durham officials.

The debate surrounding the Durham board's relevance goes back at least to last April, when the city's Human Relations Commission concluded, after a seven-month review of citizen complaints, that "the existence of racial bias and profiling is present" within the Durham police—a contention police officials had long denied.

The committee presented more than 30 recommendations to City Council on how race relations could be improved among the department's rank-and-file. One was to give the Civilian Review Board investigative powers. Around the same time, the Civilian Review Board issued its own proposals, but ultimately opted to maintain the status quo. Of course, absent legislative action, there wasn't much the city review board could have done, anyway.

Presented with both recommendations, Bonfield declared his satisfaction with the existing system. "[Board members] don't have the professional expertise or training to these kinds of things," he says. "You say, 'How could it even work?' "

Bonfield declined to comment on the current House bill's language, as it is likely to change during the legislative process.

And for Langley, Durham's civilian review board chair, that's just fine.

"I don't think the bill is going to pass," he says. "What we have in Durham is responsive to what we need."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Who watches the watchers?"

  • Racial profiling bill would expand police review board power

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