Police vs. Civilians: What will it take to establish an effective Police Civilian Review Board?

"Without true civilian oversight, all that remains is self-policing. And with self-policing, because of police culture, there is still too much room for police misconduct."

Police reform is complicated and fraught with tension, as Charlottesville's most recent attempt to form a Police Civilian Review Board as shown. For three years now that attempt has been characterized by disagreements and disputes between activists, the police chief, local police unions, the press, and City Council. As the Virginia General Assembly gets closer to passing bills that will give localities new guidance when its comes to police reform, and CRBs in particular, The DTM steps back and takes a look at where we've been, where we're going, and how we might get there. - David McNair

In 2008, when then Charlottesville Police Chief Tim Longo provided his recommendations for a proposed Police Civilian Review Panel to City Council, he used an argument that those pushing for a strong CRB in Charlottesville, given the current climate, would have likely found laughable.

"Charlottesville is fortunate to have a professional, well trained police department that does not have the inherent problems found in other departments where oversight committees have been formed," wrote Longo, saying that was the reason the Panel only need to have an advisory role. He also defended the department's internal review and disciplinary process by saying they had a "strongly worded policy governing bias-based policing."

Longo's recommendation also revealed that a "Police Complaint Review Panel" that reviewed police incidents existed in Charlottesville from 1991 through 1997, but Longo said it was disbanded due to "lack of complaints, interest, and change in personnel."

Quinton Harrell says he was on the Review Panel from 2009 to 2010. Harrell founded Heritage United Builders, which helps African-American and minority sub-contractors find jobs, and was a facilitator for the Dialogue on Race at the time. It was a difficult time, he remembers, as he was reeling from the Great Recession, running a business, and pursuing a business degree, but the challenge he recalls the Review Panel having was the same as it is today.

"The panel's challenge would be its definition to the community, its relation to Chief Longo's office, and what purpose it could truly serve to effectuate change," says Harrell. "I couldn't see it, and in the end I just didn't have time to play a role in strengthening the purpose." Like the "Police Complaint Review Panel" before it, the “Police Civilian Review Panel” would quietly disappear.

How times have changed

The move to create the 2008 Review Panel was prompted by several police incidents that made headlines the year before, which is often typical of these efforts. Speeding across the Downtown Mall in response to a call for service, a Charlottesville police officer came a little too close to a young, white couple crossing Water Street after a night out on the town. The guy shouted at the officer as he passed, telling him to slow down, which caused the officer to slam on the breaks and get out of his cruiser. The officer ended up arresting the guy for being drunk in public. While the officer was handcuffing the guy his girlfriend approached, upset and asking him why he was arresting her boyfriend, and the officer shoved her to the ground in front of several witnesses.

In a separate incident, an Albemarle County police officer hit a Black man in a wheelchair as he was trying to cross West Main Street, then later issued him a ticket at the hospital where he was being treated for his injuries. Neither officer faced any serious consequences. In fact, the judge who ended up dismissing the drunk in public charge against the young man, and the obstruction charge against his girlfriend, nonetheless ruled that the Charlottesville officer was "entirely justified" in shoving the young woman to the ground. And the Charlottesville Commonwealth's Attorney at the time, after a dash cam video of the officer hitting the man in the wheel chair was released [you can watch it here], determined that "very clearly, in this instance, the officer had the right of way," though the charges against the man were dropped. No one even offered an apology to the man, artist Gerry Mitchell, who would sue the police officer. Four years later, and just a few months after he won his lawsuit, Mitchell died of complications from AIDS, though his doctors said that being struck in the crosswalk exacerbated his health problems.

After reading detailed news stories about both cases, I was struck by how willing prosecutors and judges were to give the officers the benefit of the doubt, even when their actions were objectively problematic. I mean, who hits a guy in a wheelchair in a crosswalk and then argues, hey, I had the right of way? Fast forward 12 years and police and prosecutors are behaving very differently. Earlier this month, and following a formal citizen complaint and a police department recommendation, Commonwealth’s Attorney Joe Platania charged Charlottesville police officer Jeffrey Jaeger with assault and battery just months after a March 2020 arrest that involved several officers. Jaeger's lawyer, Mike Hallahan, a former Albemarle County police officer himself [ in 2019, Hallahan had a busy year - he ran [and lost] as a Republican from the Scottsville District for the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors and defended Daniel Borden, who was convicted of beating DeAndre Harris on A12 ], recently claimed that Jaeger was initially cleared by an internal police review, and argued that he was just doing his job. "I can’t imagine a general district court judge convicting my client," Hallahan told The Beat. Jaeger appeared in Charlottesville General District Court on September 14 and a hearing was rescheduled for December 11.

If history were an indicator, it’s unlikely Jaeger will be convicted of anything, but we'll have to see. What is different in this case is how swiftly the police and the Commonwealth’s Attorney moved to charge a police officer with a crime.

Back in 2008, however, police officers getting the benefit of the doubt from prosecutors, judges, City Council, and much of the general public was still the norm, so much so that Chief Longo believed a "strongly worded policy" concerning biased policing was enough to convince Council that the proposed CRB needed only have an advisory role.     

At the time, Karl Mansoor, an outspoken former Albemarle County police officer, believed differently and offered some prescient observations, which didn't get much attention back then.

"Without true civilian oversight, all that remains is self-policing," he wrote in online comments. " And with self-policing, because of police culture, there is still too much room for police misconduct to remain unchecked even in the best of police departments."

Mansoor, who still lives in Albemarle County, once filed a lawsuit against Albemarle County, claiming that then Albemarle County Police Chief John Miller, then-Captain Doug Rhoads and deputy County Attorney Mark Trank violated his right to free speech by demanding that Mansoor refrain from criticizing the department in order to retain his job as a police officer. Some of his complaints included “overt racial and sexual favoritism,” falsifying reports, sexual harassment, and "unwarranted citizen privacy invasions by use of police access to information." Mansoor won the lawsuit and settled for an undisclosed sum. Previously, Mansoor once filed an affidavit with city officials when former Albemarle County Commonwealth's attorney Jim Camblos was seeking to become a judge, questioning his actions in a police-involved shooting incident.

"Many of my fellow officers were competent and honorable and some were not," wrote Mansoor. "The surprise was the amount of misconduct and the extent to which it was accepted at ACPD. Alarmingly, not only was the misconduct frequently overlooked, sometimes those involved were rewarded.”

As Mansoor pointed out, self-policing doesn't work in raising children, doesn't work in society itself [which is why we have laws and police], doesn't work on Wall Street, doesn't work in government [the Founders putting those checks and balances in place], and so why should anyone assume it can work in policing?              

"True civilian oversight doesn't work without transparency," he wrote. "When allegations of misconduct are brought forward, the public has to know not just the allegations and final results of the investigation, but all the information, the specific details….if law enforcement can hide those details it leaves room for tolerating misconduct."

Today, Mansoor stands by what he said back then, but he emphasizes that his comments were not a criticism of Chief Longo, who he believes to have been an honest and competent police chief. Chief Longo, who is now UVA’s associate vice president for safety and security and chief of police, declined to comment on his past recommendations for the Review Panel or the current efforts to form a CRB today, saying “it would be inappropriate” for him to comment because he hasn’t been actively engaged with the issue as it relates to the city.   

"Many police chiefs don't like the idea of the authority to manage their own departments taken away from them," says Mansoor, asked why police chiefs and police organizations often seem resistant to the formation of civilian review boards. "Also, rank and file officers don't believe civilians fully understand police tactics, and they fear that CRB members will be bias against the police."

Indeed, while Longo's argument back in 2008 probably wouldn't fly today, given the demand now for serious police reforms, those pushing for reforms would do well to understand that this is still a sticking point with police chiefs and police organizations -- that any proposed reforms, like the ability for localities to form Police Civilian Review Boards with enhanced powers, need to acknowledge and understand the special demands of police work.

While current Charlottesville Police Chief RaShall Brackney says she is open to the idea of a CRB in Charlottesville with more authority, what Longo meant is reflected in her demands about how the current CRB should be structured.

Brackney insists that Board members need extensive training in police work, including ride-alongs with officers, and that, as she told The DTM, "embedded professionally trained staff with expertise in fact-finding and/or investigative techniques" need to be part of the CRB. She also believes that the CPD and the CRB should be organizationally linked, and that "formalized opportunities need to be identified for the CRB and CPD to collaborate including standing policy review meetings, training curriculum, recruitment/retention and development."

She also said that the CRB needs to be "reflective of the community and devoid of political interests or personal biases," which Mansoor says is her way of sticking up for her officers.

 "Most average citizens don't understand the complexity of police work," says Mansoor. "You're dealing with people at their worst almost every day, and it can be very difficult. Of course, that's no excuse for abusing their power, and officers who do should be held accountable, but I think it's important to understand what police officers deal with."

Mansoor also points out that there is often an "us vs them" attitude among police officers [by "them" he means civilians] and that the training police receive, which puts a strong emphasis on officer safety, tends to reinforce that attitude, one we have seen on display during the recent nationwide protests.

To combat that attitude, Mansoor believes that police leadership needs to be transparent about releasing information after incidents so that the full picture is presented, not just snippets that can cause the media and the public to jump to conclusions.

Indeed, back in July when an Instagram video surfaced of a Charlottesville Police Officer kicking and tackling a man to the ground on the Downtown Mall, Chief Brackey released the body camera video of the incident the very next day, which unlike the Instagram video, showed the lead up and follow-up to the arrest [the bodycam fell off during the scuffle]. Together, the two videos provided a more complete picture of the incident, which is still being investigated.

"I've seen cops who are caring and empathetic, and I've seen the opposite," he says. "In the end, there needs to be an emphasis on transparency, just like at any other government agency."

As Mansoor points out, the vast majority of police interactions with people are peaceful, which is true, but the problem has been that too many are not, and that history and statistics are forcing police organizations in America to face a reckoning.

By the numbers

The videos of police brutality we've seen with alarming regularity, the nationwide and global protests following the death of George Floyd in police custody [and the actions of police during those protests], the history of white supremacy in this county and its connection to policing, and the statistics concerning police violence in the US when compared to other countries have all eroded the trust that many people have in the police. Yes, policing is a dangerous job, and 44 police officers in the U.S. were shot and killed in 2019. But police shot and killed nearly twenty-three times more civilians in 2019. Between 2013 and 2019, police in America killed 7,666 people. By comparison, 224 people were killed by Canadian police during that time. Internationally, the rate at which U.S. police shoot civilians far surpasses other countries. It doesn't help, of course, that there are more than 120 guns for every 100 residents in U.S., something police often point to in explain the high number of shootings. What’s more, police officers who are involved in shooting incidents are rarely punished, and for families of victims seeking justice when the evidence of misconduct is substantial, the process can take years.

As the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has pointed out recently, if you see a rat in the dining room at a restaurant, and the owner tells you that most of the time there are no rats in the dining room, you are still not going to feel good about going back to that restaurant.

"Nor will it do to point out that most black citizens are killed by other black citizens, not police officers, any more than it will do to point out that most American citizens are killed by other American citizens, not terrorists," writes Coates. "If officers cannot be expected to act any better than ordinary citizens, why call them in the first place? Why invest them with any more power? Legitimacy is what is ultimately at stake here."

While Brackney wants a CRB "devoid of political interests or personal biases," local social justice activists, and current and former CRB members, want people from communities that have suffered the most from police misconduct to be on CRBs. And that's a sticking point police chiefs would do well to understand. Trust in the police, particularly among communities of color, has been eroding for decades, if it was ever there at all, and the constant resistance to establishing effective police accountability systems, from police chiefs, police unions, and the rank and file, has not been helping. Generations of Black and brown Americans have grown up learning to be afraid of the police, and as we’ve seen this year, all citizens could now have reason to be if reforms aren’t put in place. Almost 10 years ago, a UN report on police accountability made it clear that there is no real accountability without civilian control over the police, without civilian authority and power to investigate misconduct, and yet police chiefs and police organizations today keep insisting that they can police themselves.

And, of course, it goes deeper than that, as police have a long and ugly history of opposing civilian review boards:

"......When Mayor David Dinkins sought to install a civilian review board, in 1992, the P.B.A. staged a ferocious protest at City Hall, with ten thousand off-duty officers, virtually all white and many carrying guns and drinking alcohol. Demonstrators waved racist placards—“Dump the Washroom Attendant”—attacked reporters and bystanders, vandalized City Council members’ cars, stormed City Hall, and overflowed onto the Brooklyn Bridge, where they stopped traffic and jumped on occupied cars. It was a wild performance of police impunity, and the on-duty officers did nothing to stop the mayhem."

“The cops held up several of the most crude drawings of Dinkins, black, performing perverted sex acts,” reported Jimmy Breslin. As the rally surged, Rudolph Giuliani, a former prosecutor, stood on a car, leading obscene chants through a bullhorn. He defeated Dinkins the next year and went on to two terms as mayor...." -- “How Police Unions Fight Reforms,” the New Yorker, July 2020.

Almost 30 years later, not much has changed, at least in NYC. Just last month the NYC police union endorsed Donald Trump for President at his New Jersey golf club, the first time the union has endorsed a presidential candidate in 36 years. Trump, of course, has been highly critical of the nationwide protests and calls for police reform following the murder of George Floyd, and dispatched unidentified Homeland Security personal to physically beat back and detain protesters, a move that even police and military officials have condemned. 

Change and resistance in Virginia and Charlottesville   

After it was reported that the Lynchburg Police Department received over 200 citizen complaints between 2015 and 2019, Sgt. Brian Smith, a Lynchburg police officer and the president of the Blue Ridge Chapter of the Virginia Police Benevolent Association, said that "civilian oversight in the form of a review board would set a “dangerous precedent" and said that police departments should police themselves. 

“These civilians are not trained in legal issues and they’re not trained in the use of force,” Smith told the News Advance. “They’re not police officers and they may not understand why a certain application of force was used. It may not look good from an untrained eye, but there are things that are justified.”

In Charlottesville, the local chapter of the police union, represented by a former Albemarle Commonwealth's Attorney Denise Lundsford, has been antagonistic toward the idea of a CRB as well. While Charlottesville was working on its third attempt in several decades to establish a police civilian review board, Attorney Denise Lunsford attended a majority of CRB meetings, often with off-duty police officers who openly criticized Board members.

"A Police Lieutenant came for me in a meeting, screaming and hollering saying my bias against the police is a problem," recounts local activist Rosia Parker, then a member of the CRB, who has indeed been publicly critical of the police. "He told me 'officers are leaving the force because of you.'" The argument got so heated that another CRB member, who confirms Park's story, had to intervene, and admonish the officer for speaking that way to Parker. Parker, who is Black, says she told the officer, "if you aren't racist, it shouldn't offend you." 

Lundsford has also filed numerous FOIA requests for CRB member emails and documents, and even demanded that City Council remove a Black member from the Board because of her conduct during a traffic stop of her son, asking the Commonwealth Attorney's office to determine if the member had violated the Virginia's Conflict of Interest Act. Keep in mind, this is a Board of volunteers from the community, with no real power yet to investigate or discipline police officers, and has not even reviewed a single complaint -- yet Lundsford has been heavy-handed from the start, delivering a long letter putting CRB members on notice -- and City Council as well -- that actions they might choose to take, or ways they might conduct CBR business, could put them all in serious legal trouble.

For good measure, Lundsford also went after C-ville Weekly and columnist Molly Conger, threatening to sue them both for a column that was critical of a Charlottesville police officer, an effort that cost Conger her writing gig.

While police reform bills were recently being debated in the Virginia Generally Assembly, the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police (VACP), the Virginia Sheriffs Association, the Virginia State Police Association and the Virginia Fraternal Order of Police all came out saying that many of the proposed reforms will "erode our ability to effectively provide public safety services...and do nothing to protect victims or reduce crime.” They also complained that legislators have "had little interest in hearing our concerns” and warned that the measures could cause "many officers to leave policing," a refrain you hear often from police chiefs and police organizations in response to certain reform efforts, including our own chief Brackney.

On Tuesday, the Virginia Senate approved police civilian review board legislation that would allow localities to create CRBs with "subpoena power to investigate police agencies and issue binding disciplinary action against officers or department employees,” reported Richmond Times-Dispatch. The Virginia House version of the legislation that was passed requires localities to create CRBs, while the Senate version provides the framework. The two chambers will now have to hammer out the separate legislation into law. Not surprisingly, the debate about the legislation was heated.

Sen. Richard Stuart, R-King George called the bill “really, really, really dangerous" and said the "boards would be made up of people eager to unfairly target police." He added that it would "embolden criminals" and allow "mob rule to take over."

“What this bill is simply doing is giving those CRBs the opportunity to have some degree of authority and to have the power to enact the will of the public,” said Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Chesterfield, who introduced the bill. “It seems to be the thought that we’re going to have some local yokels sitting on CRBs, untrained, unprofessional, unguided by any of their own experiences or their professional expertise. As we full well know, that’s simply not the case.”

Sen. Lionell Spruill Sr., D-Chesapeake said "...we are sick and tired of law enforcement officers — not all of them — killing Black folks, especially young Black folks...when will it be our time? When will someone stand up for us? When will this stuff stop?”

So it’s no surprise that Charlottesville's efforts to create a CRB following the events of August 12, 2017 have been marked by constant tension between the police department, the local PBA, and past and present members of the CRB. With the local press reporting on each spat and disagreement in episodic fashion, the process has seemed a lot like a local reality TV show. At various points, the mayor and the police chief have accused a Daily Progress reporter of creating "derision and controversy when none existed," CRB members have accused Brackney of refusing to meet with them, a local activist publicly accused one City Councilor of "punking out" on serious police reform, and Brackney actually had to publicly defend the way she uses her daily calendar.

In addition, after three years, many past and present CRB members feel like they ended up with a "watered down" version of the original CRB they imagined, one with real authority to investigate police misconduct, and they blame that on City Council. 

“This talk of patience makes me want to pull my hair out,” board member Stuart Evans told the Daily Progress, reflecting on City Council's decision to wait on legislation regarding police reform moving its way through the General Assembly before considering enhanced powers for our local CRB. “It’s been three years since people pushed for the CRB.”

Let's not forget, there already is civilian authority over the police, as City Council holds the purse strings, and the police Chief must answer to both Council and the City Manager, so any serious empowering of a CRB would involve an equally serious transfer of real authority from City Council, something political bodies are, by their very nature, reluctant to do. 

“They want to have this veneer of progressiveness by having us exist, but they’ll only do what they want to do,” Evans lamented. “I don’t want to be a volunteer member of the city bureaucracy.”

Indeed, former members of the CRB drafted a detailed letter to City Council about the shortcomings of the CRB in its current form, which they say "seriously undermines the original intentions of community oversight, effective complaint procedures, and community engagement."

"I am starting to think the city is incapable of delivering equity and fairness with its commissions,” says Walt Heinecke, a member of the People’s Coalition on Criminal Justice Reform, who helped draft the letter. “They seem symbolic and micromanaged by staff. We expected more from a progressive council."

Moving forward, Charlottesville must solve a difficult problem: how to give those communities most effected by police misconduct more authority over the police while maintaining the impartiality the police are demanding? Given the history of tensions between the police and communities of color, specifically, is that kind of alchemy even possible?

In a Washington Post story for the anniversary of A12, it was clear that Black residents in Charlottesville are discouraged:

“I said after ‘Unite the Right,’ ‘Well, now, hopefully your eyes will be finally open.’ Not! I am very disappointed and plain old sick and tired of being sick and tired,” said [Dorenda] Johnson [a member of the PCRB], who lives with her two grown sons in the city’s predominantly Black neighborhood of Orangedale-Prospect. “I would really like my sons to leave the city. I don’t want them to get stuck in a rut here. There is very little that they can do to better themselves here.”

Still, there are some who think progress can still be made.

"I absolutely think it’s possible to build an effective, long-lasting Civilian Police Review Board," says City Councilor Michael Payne. "I think what’s necessary is proper investment and creating a board structure capable of changing outcomes that also has a level of community buy-in.

"I think something else is vital, trust," says Payne. "We have to build enough trust between the City and the community so that people trust that any Civilian Police Review Board is supported by the City and that the City’s intention is to establish a board capable of making actual change. That’s not an easy process – especially because there are many deep, legitimate historical reasons for people to not trust the City that are rooted in decades, if not centuries, of history. But I believe there is a sincere desire among Councilors to create an empowered, meaningful Board and I think it can be accomplished, however difficult it may be."