Durham News

Open up complaint process, Police Review Board says

Easing the process for citizens to file complaints about police, and better information on how police officials respond, are changes the Civilian Police Review Board has concluded Durham needs.

After several months of reviewing its own role and procedures and hearing from Durham residents, the board sent its report to City Manager Tom Bonfield last Tuesday.

The report makes 10 specific recommendations to open the complaint process up for those who complain and the public in general.

But it stops short of advocating for some new powers citizens had suggested: among them, authority to investigate complaints on its own, subpoena witnesses and discipline officers who transgress professional standards of behavior.

“We understand there are some concerns in the community about the way the Police Review Board operates,” said board Chairman DeWarren K. Langley.

“We looked at what the confines of the law require,” he said. “The city manager does have the ultimate decision when it comes to discipline, hiring and termination of city employees and we think we have an appropriate role in providing advice and consultation to the city manager. And that’s something we will continue to do.”

City Manager Tom Bonfield said he had received the board’s report, but not evaluated what it has to say.

“We’ll be reviewing it with our staff over the next several weeks,” Bonfield said, “and will be looking at any of those recommendations in conjunction with any of the other recommendations that come forward from the Human Relations Commission.”

Durham’s Civilian Police Review Board has nine members 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 properly, it may hold its own hearing on the investigation – not, though, on the original complaint itself. 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.

Bonfield asked the Review Board to examine itself while the Human Relations Commission was investigating alleged racism in the Durham Police Department. Both processes began in response to public complaints last fall. The commission plans to make its report to the City Council at Thursday’s work session.

Human Relations Commission members are among those calling for a stronger civilian review board, but in its self-review the board found that state personnel law constrains what a citizens’ board can do, and decided that the time, knowledge and skills necessary to conduct proper investigations of police conduct are beyond the abilities of a group of citizen volunteers.

Since 2003, according to city records, the board has received 31 appeals but granted only two hearings. In listening to the public, though, board members found that few citizens know what it does, what the law allows, how citizen complaints about police are handled and how to go about making one.

Few of those who came to board meetings or its February open house with complaints about police had actually filed formal complaints that the board could consider for review.

“The only way that we can ensure that we have a complaint process and a board that is responsive to our community is for people to utilize the process,” Langley said, and in its self-review and recommendations, he said, “We did a good job.”

The board recommended that it produce and distribute a brochure on the complaint process and hold an open house for the public once a year.

“For individuals that have used that Langley said, “the board has ensured that the internal affairs unit, or the Professional Standards Division, has conducted a thorough investigation and when we have seen anything that required attention we have shared recommendation with the city manager.