Nearly two years after Charlottesville kicked off the process to create a police oversight panel, a permanent board has been scheduled to hold its inaugural meeting.
But both publicly and behind the scenes, it appears the board may already be running into some of the same problems that plagued its predecessor.
The Police Civilian Review Board will hold its first meeting at 1 p.m. June 29. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the meeting will be held online.
The board was briefly scheduled to meet in March before the pandemic put much of the city government’s business on hold.
The board, which was an ongoing point of contention during its creation, has been thrust to the spotlight in recent weeks as national protests and calls for police reform have amplified since the killing of George Floyd, a black man who died after a police officer knelt on his neck for 8 minutes May 25.
The official board so far has been silent on the protests. Other groups, such as the People's Coalition, have called for intense reviews of the Charlottesville Police Department's budget, because documents released to community members after recent records requests don't provide much detail.
"The CPD’s budgets were made public in the vein of 'transparency,' after numerous residents requested the complete line-itemized budgets," the coalition wrote to the council in a letter on Friday. "CPD produced these one-page “budgets” indicating either (1) that these are the most complete and comprehensive budget documents they have created for the City, or (2) that the City has a more comprehensive budget and simply chose not to provide it."
Gloria Beard, a member of the initial CRB, said in an interview earlier this month that the current climate was ripe for the CRB to weigh in.
“When we created the bylaws it was really for the community so they could feel free to talk to somebody,” she said.
The Charlottesville City Council approved the ordinance and bylaws for the police oversight panel in November, although some community members remained frustrated with the final proposal. Those frustrations have reemerged recently, with board member Nancy Carpenter advocating for a return to the initial proposal during the City Council’s most recent meeting.
An initial panel worked from August 2018 to July 2019 to create a draft of the bylaws eventually approved by the council. The panel is meant to improve public trust in the police department after the violence of 2017 and the Unite the Right rally.
The permanent board received its final appointment earlier this month.
Scope of review
Activists have said the final proposal is a watered-down version of the initial panel’s recommendation. They have been lobbying the council to return to the initial proposal, which would have increased its power and ability to review and request information from CPD.
Three of the current councilors – Sena Magill, Lloyd Snook and Michael Payne – took their seats after the bylaws were approved. During the campaign, each said that they supported the proposal for the initial panel.
However, Councilor Lloyd Snook said at the most recent council meeting that he does not support changing the bylaws right now. He said the council could “tweak it” once the board is up and running.
“I am not interested in trying to revisit and rehash things that other councils have done,” he said. “I think it’s much more important that we get the CRB up and running. Charlottesville has a terrible habit of making the perfect be the enemy of the good and we never get around to doing anything because we’re always trying to redo everything.”
Beard said that the council’s changes were frustrating because “We did our homework. We worked hard.”
“We wanted something with a lot of teeth in it,” she said. “We didn’t just rush through it and put something on paper.”
Tough starting point
The new board is already in a tough spot, even on top of national protests around police brutality.
Last week, Police Chief RaShall Brackney and the council received heat from the community after Virginia State Police troopers were seen driving city vehicles in response to a rally calling for police defunding.
When confronted with the information during a City Council meeting, Brackney appeared to lie by saying troopers didn’t use city vehicles. Later in the week, the city issued a press release acknowledging VSP’s role and said that Brackney didn’t know about it when asked at the meeting.
The press release acknowledged that Brackney’s answer and the city’s slow response hurt public trust.
Brackney also has been accused of resisting the board before it even starts. Activists and some board members have called out her quote in a C-Ville Weekly article where she said “I don’t know what the next steps are. I’m not as familiar with the individual members [of the new board] to understand collectively what their work might look like as a team. I would be remiss if I tried to get ahead of that without engaging with that board first.”
Behind the scenes, board members have run into problems communicating with each other and the city.
Board member Stuart Evans emailed and called Brackney about her comments but, as of Saturday morning, had received no response. He has been trying to get information from the city since mid-June.
Evans reached out to the council with concerns that board members had received no communications since mid-March and noted that he didn’t even have contact information for other CRB members.
Evans began trying to figure out how to schedule a meeting of the CRB and, “after some effort,” he said, received some information from City Attorney John Blair and spokesman Brian Wheeler.
Evans then received an email with possible meeting dates, but noted in an email to council that it came only after “I made several phone calls to City officials/employees during the week prior trying to find out when the PCRB might meet and what the cause of the delay for the meeting was.”
“I am still concerned that I have received no clear explanation for why it has taken so long for the PCRB to have an initial meeting,” he wrote earlier this month.
The board has been officially silent as protests against police brutality have enveloped the nation.
The Daily Progress has had difficulty requesting comment on the issue from board members, whose emails are not publicly available. The Progress sent an email to four board members and the general CRB email earlier this month for comment on the protests and next steps for the board and received a response directly from Clerk of Council Kyna Thomas.
“The City Manager and City Attorney will communicate a plan for the initial meeting of the PCRB,” she wrote. “Until the PCRB is authorized to meet, any opinions expressed would be that of individuals.”
Evans told the council that his push for a meeting was amplified by the ongoing protests.
“Even under normal circumstances, I believe it is vital for the PCRB to meet and begin to take action – this need is only amplified by the pandemic and current events,” he wrote in an email to the council.
Mendez, a semi-retired data scientist, wrote in an email that he has felt “deep sorrow and anger at the cruel and racially motivated deaths of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery.
“Like many, I've felt I have been heartened at the overwhelmingly nonviolent protests, and equally disgusted by the senseless violence of a few and the bellicose, divisive response of our President,” he wrote. “I hope that the recent events continue to serve as a catalyst for constructive change in our society, from changes in policing procedures to removal of divisive symbols of the nation's racist past.”
Because the permanent board has not met and did not put out any statement about the ongoing protests, the initial panel put out its own statement earlier this month.
The initial board members called on CPD to commit to working with the CRB to draft a memorandum of understanding; endorse the board at an operating budget of 1% of the department’s budget; increase transparency in its current spending; hold listening sessions; and communicate its attempts at police reform.