DURHAM — 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 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.”
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.