State approval needed to strengthen Durham’s police review board

jwise@newsobserver.comJanuary 12, 2014 

  • Human Relations Awards

    The City of Durham Human Relations Commission is now seeking nominations of city and county residents who have distinguished themselves by contributing their time and talents to promoting good human relations in Durham.

    In honor of February as Human Relations Month, the City’s Human Relations Commission and the Human Relations Division of the City’s Neighborhood Improvement Department are hosting the 2014 Human Relations Award Ceremony at 6 p.m. Friday, Feb. 21, in the Hayti Heritage Center, 804 Old Fayetteville St.

    At this ceremony, at least four Durham residents will be honored for improving human relations. The four award categories are as follows and nominations are due by Jan. 22:

    •  Carlie B. Sessoms Award – the highest and most coveted award to an individual or organization that has made a major impact on improving human relations. This award commemorates contributions of the late Carlie B. Sessoms, a Durham native who served as chair of the Human Relations Commission and played a major role in improving human relations locally and nationally.

    •  Housing Award – recognizes an individual or organization for outstanding efforts in promoting fair housing with emphasis on the economic, social and/or political impact in the community that has encouraged diversity and housing opportunities for all.

    •  Human Rights Award – presented to a local, state, or federal lawmaker who has successfully supported or promoted human rights causes and issues.

    •  Human Rights Youth Award – presented to an individual or group of individuals under the age of 18 for demonstrating an understanding of, and commitment to, human relations in Durham.

    The event is free and open to the public with refreshments immediately following the conclusion of the program. To download the nomination guidelines and nomination form, go to bit.ly/1cGXCEe

— Expanding the authority of Durham’s Civilian Police Review Board, such as giving it subpoena power, will take an act of the General Assembly, a city official told Human Relations Commissioners last week.

“We would have to advocate with our state representatives … ultimately with the members of the legislature,” Karmisha Wallace, special assistant to City Manager Tom Bonfield, said during a 90-minute presentation on the review board during its regular meeting Tuesday.

Allegations of racist behavior by Durham police, as well as events such as the fatal shootings by police officers last year, have led some citizens to call for redefining the review board’s role and power to act independently, apart from the police department’s own investigative procedures.

“A police review board headed up by citizens of Durham would not only prove to the citizens of Durham that no group is being singled out for harassment but it would also create a better environment for the officers who are supposed to protect the citizens,” said Sylvester Williams, a Durham minister who was highly critical of police during an unsuccessful 2013 campaign for mayor

“Why would anyone be opposed to a review board with authority to reprimand any misbehaving officers and at the same time reassure the public of the integrity of every officer?” Williams said last week.

Williams was not present at the Human Relations Commission meeting, but in her presentation Wallace said some law-enforcement organizations have vigorously opposed civilian review boards such as those in Durham, Charlotte, Winston-Salem and Greensboro, which in North Carolina require the legislature’s approval.

“Cities are not allowed to just put a board in place,” Wallace said. The special legislation allowing the four cities to create boards gave them authority to review otherwise-confidential personnel information.

All four boards have similar structures and powers allowed under North Carolina law, Wallace said.

Durham’s board

Durham has a nine-member board appointed by the city manager. It receives appeals from citizens who disagree with the police department’s own handling of their complaints about officer behavior.

If the board decides, based on written evidence, that a police investigation was not handled in an appropriate manner, it may hold its own hearing on the investigation – not, though, on the particular events that led to the original complaint. If the board concludes, after a hearing, that the police investigation was improper, it informs the city manager who makes the decision on any further action.

Boards in other states have other powers. Soon after its board was created in 1993, Winston-Salem applied to the legislature to give it subpoena authority, but the enabling bill died in committee.

A search of General Assembly records found no other applications for extending review board authority beyond access to personnel information.

Durham’s Civilian Police Review Board discussed changing its powers and procedures during its December meeting, and plans a public forum in late February to take citizen suggestions before making suggestions of its own to City Manager Tom Bonfield.

“In terms of what the board does, I think we have to be responsible to what the community is looking for,” review board Chairman DeWarren K. Langley said.

“I anticipate some recommendations for change.”

‘Startling statistic’

Human Relations Commission Chairman Ricky Hart was dismayed at the number of cases appealed to and hearings granted by the review board.

The Police Department, Hart said, had told him it received 75 complaints in 2012. Of those, only four were appealed and the review board granted no hearings.

“That is a startling statistic to me,” Hart said.

Since 2003, according to Wallace’s records, the board has received 31 appeals but granted only two hearings.

“(With) all the things going on in Durham I can understand why the citizens don't want to go to the Civilian Police Review Board,” Hart said.

That rate of appeals and hearings is typical of other cities, Wallace said.

“The numbers are small,” she said.

Wise: 919-641-5895

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