Ahead of Thursday's hearing, a look at the history of Charlotte's Citizens Review Board
Last month, the Citizens Review Board ruled there was evidence the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police officers may have violated policy last summer when they handcuffed a woman whom they misidentified as a suspect of a violent crime. Thursday, Jasmine Horne, the woman officers wrongly detained, will move to the second part of her case — the evidentiary hearing.
First, we learn about the history of the board, and the people who lead it. Also, we hear frustrations about how the board operates from officers, advocates, and sometimes the board itself
In 1997 Charlotte’s Citizens Review Board was created. It was championed by then city council member Patrick Cannon. It formed during a time of tension between the public and the police.
"There were several fatal police shootings and you had African American victims and white cops," said Cary Davis, one of the attorneys who represents the 11-member volunteer board.
"There was just a push to have some accountability, some transparency and accountability over the police department," Davis said. "And this Citizens Review Board was an outgrowth of that."
If a CMPD internal investigation finds there was no wrongdoing to someone like Horne, the public can appeal the decision with the CRB. During the appeals process, the CRB has access to the internal affairs investigation file which can include things like interviews with the officer, photos, and body worn camera footage.
Since 1997, there have been 102 appeals filed with the CRB. Only twice has the board ruled in favor of the complainant.
That doesn’t include the shooting death of Keith Lamont Scott which occurred in 2016. That was the first time the board did not rule in favor of the police — it was a draw in a 4 to 4 vote.
As for the two cases the CRB ruled against the police, the first was in the case of James Yarborough. In 2016, Yarborough fled from a traffic stop on foot. Body worn camera footage showed CMPD Officer Jon Dunham catching up with Yarborough and pointing a gun to his head, saying “I will kill you.”
The second was in the case of Danquirs Franklin, a man shot and killed by CMPD Officer Wende Kerl outside of a west Charlotte Burger King in 2019.
"In both in both of those two cases, the chief did not accept the CRB's recommendation," Davis said.
The CRB can find an officer should have been disciplined or offer a policy change recommendation — but the police chief is under no obligation to take those recommendations. And the city manager has the final say. It’s up to the police to share the CRB’s recommendations with the public. At the end of the day, the CRB is an advisory board, not a disciplinary one.
"I don't think I'm wrinkling any feathers by saying that that is something that doesn’t sit well with the Citizens Review Board after they put all that time in and couple of days of reviewing the files and then having these hearings and they make thoughtful recommendations and then they hear that they're not going to be accepted. You know, it doesn't sit well," Davis said.
Tonya Jameson, the chair of the CRB, agrees. She says the biggest concern is if people think the appeals process matters at all.
"And so the point we try to make is that, no, these hearings don't necessarily always turn out the way that you would like for them to turn out," Jameson said. "But through time and persistence on our part as a board, we do see changes in police policy."
Such as when an officer must activate a body worn camera, the addition of a duty to intervene policy, and improvements to de-escalation practices. Putting pressure with these recommendations, even if they aren’t taken as soon as the board would like, is one way the board has been effective.
Jameson notes, it’s not a perfect system but pushes back with the assertion the CRB always rules in favor of the police.
"I say it's not true that the CRB always rules in favor of the police," Jameson said. But I also say that one of our challenges is that we have to work within the parameters of the police department's policy and the police department sets its own policy. So, we can't necessarily make up the policy. And that's one of the things I told the chief. It's like we're not necessarily always ruling in favor of your decision. I said we're stuck with basically ruling based on the policy that you all have set forth for your own department."
WFAE requested an interview with members of CMPD for this story including Chief Johnny Jennings, but those requests were all denied.
Another part of the CRB’s frustration is its lack of subpoena power. The board can’t make anyone come to a hearing — whether that’s a civilian or an officer, so oftentimes, they don’t.
Subpoena power has historically been a hot button issue between the board and some police.
Mark Michalec, a CMPD officer and president of the local Fraternal Order of Police , says by the time a matter goes before the CRB, the officer has already been thoroughly questioned through the internal affairs investigation, forcing an officer to attend a hearing seems like an overreach.
"By the time it gets to the Citizens Review Board portion of it, the department's done a sufficient job to review the case and to impose any kind of punishment if needed," he said.
Michalec added, some officers struggle to trust the process of the CRB.
"Really don't have too much faith in it, a lot of the officers don't, just to be quite honest with you," Michalec said. "You know, we already go through a number of steps. It's a requirement for us. I guess it's just one more appeal process for the citizens."
Some boards in other cities have subpoena power, such as New York City’s board.
That’s a power that both members of Charlotte’s Citizens Review Board and Robert Dawkins, the political director for Action NC would like the board to have. Dawkins says the board having subpoena power would make it a fairer process for everyone, including the police.
"If an officer was accused of something and there was five people that saw it and they wanted to get those people to come you, they can't make them come either," Dawkins pointed out. "So there's no benefit for the citizen or benefit for the officer more than the other."
Dawkins also wishes the board could have disciplinary power.
Another idea he says is to change the way the current board operates — have an independent body with paid employees whose sole focus was the work of the board.
"We're losing faith that a CRB model is going to be the accountability that people want," Dawkins said. "The verdict is still out but starting something that has someone over it that meets with the citizenry, they can bring an officer to task and has the ability to subpoena people, is a step I don't think we'll ever get in a way the Citizens Review Board is made up now."
So like Officer Michalec, Dawkins too has issues with how the board operates, but for very different reasons.
No one, it turns out, is completely satisfied with how the board currently functions — supporters of it, opponents, and those who work within its parameters.
But it is the system in place. CRB chair Tonya Jameson joined the board after her own traumatic interaction with a police officer. Jameson was in Tennessee putting plates on a car she had purchased when an off-duty cop approached her. Jameson is Black, and the officer is white.
"He thought I was stealing the car. And so he held me at gunpoint. He was off duty and actually out of his jurisdiction but apparently, that didn't matter. But he held me at gunpoint because he didn't believe that I had actually legally purchased the car."
From that experience, she knew she wanted to be a part of Charlotte’s CRB to help implement positive change.
Although it’s not a court of law, the CRB’s evidentiary hearing will have elements of a trial — testimony will be heard, exhibits shared.But if recent history is any guide, it may not include any officers' testimony since they do not legally have to show up and it will be done in closed session. The board members will serve as the jury and the public will wait to hear what their deliberations bring.