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What Can Richmond Learn From Charlottesville’s Civilian Review Board?

Richmond protesters sitting on the base of the robert e lee statue
Among the demands of Richmond's Black Lives Matter protesters has been establishing a civilian review board for police misconduct. It now has the support of city officials. (Crixell Matthews/VPM)

Last month, Richmond City Council created an advisory Task Force on the Establishment of a Civilian Review Board. The group is tasked with outlining how a civilian oversight of policing should operate in the city.

Richmond is in the early days of a process Charlottesville began back in 2018, when it created a civilian review board. VPM recently spoke with current and former members of Charlottesville’s board as well as community activists. They outlined the lessons they learned about establishing civilian oversight of policing, and how that could be useful for activists and policymakers in Richmond. 

A CRB With Teeth

The civilian review board Charlottesville established in 2018 wasn’t actually a review board at all. The group of six community members was asked to create the bylaws and an establishing ordinance for how the board should conduct oversight moving forward. 

Sarah Burke, a capital defense investigator and mitigation specialist based in Charlottesville, was one of the founding members. She said the board recommended an oversight body that could be both an auditor of policies and practices and reviewer of citizen complaints. 

“We were looking for a really broad scope of oversight, so that we weren’t being reactive just to complaints against specific police officers, but looking a lot more proactively at what policing actually looks like in our community and what can we do to improve it,” Burke said. 

In order to ensure that the civilian review board could get the documents, data and police testimony it needs, the group hoped to rely on the Charlottesville City Manager’s subpoena powers. They also began drafting a memorandum of understanding agreement with the police department. 

But this kind of oversight board with broad scope and powers was rejected by Charlottesville City Council. They rewrote the recommended bylaws to limit the board to reviewing complaints against officers after the police conduct their own internal investigation. Burke said the board was also discouraged from finishing the draft agreement with the police. What’s left is for the board to rely on the Freedom of Information Act to request records the police don’t make publicly available.

James Watson, the current chairman of the Civilian Review Board appointed in June, said he’s only “somewhat confident” of their ability to conduct oversight using FOIA, given the many exemptions for police documents and disciplinary records. 

“Having subpoena power is really the key to transparency,” he said.

Because Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, the General Assembly will have to pass enabling legislation allowing civilian review boards themselves to have subpoena power. That’s being proposed by Senator’s Ghazala Hashmi (D-Chesterfield) and Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) during the General Assembly’s special session this month. The bill would also do away with protections in the Law Enforcement Procedural Guarantees Act for cities with a civilian review board. The Act creates a very specific process for police discipline and appeals that wouldn’t allow for a civilian board to make a binding disciplinary decision.

So far, the General Assembly does not appear to want to change the FOIA exemption that allows police departments to keep disciplinary records from the public. 

Getting And Maintaining Community Buy-in

Both current and former board members, as well as community organizers, say participation and engagement from the community are necessary for a civilian review board to be successful.

More specifically, you need buy-in from and representation of communities of color that have traditionally been over-policed. One way to do that is to ensure that the civilian review board is representative of those communities.

“If we’re talking about something that’s really looking at systemic problems of policing, the people who experience those problems have to be in the room and have to have a real voice of power and decision-making authority,” Burke said.  

In Charlottesville, three of the eight civilian review board members must come from communities that have experienced over-policing or have to be public housing residents. An additional member from a non-profit that promotes racial justice. There’s also one non-voting position for someone who has policing experience.

“I think that was one of the most important things we did with our civilian review board,” said long-time community organizer and Charlottesville resident Harold Folley. “You don’t have to worry about folks who have never experienced policing that has caused them trauma.”

But representation, Harold said, is not enough. While it does build community buy-in, other parts of a civilian review board’s function can also erode it. Because Charlottesville’s board was limited by City Council to only investigate official complaints, many issues between residents and police can go unaddressed. 

Harold said people in communities where trust in police is low are likely to feel intimidated by having to go into a police station, be interviewed and file a formal complaint. 

“A lot of times in Black and Brown communities, there are witnesses but they won’t come forward, because they don’t want to deal with the cops themselves,” he said. “If the community doesn’t feel safe in putting a complaint, things will go awry for years until something really bad happens.”

Rosia Parker, a community organizer and resident of the Westhaven public housing community, also emphasized the need for town halls around policing concerns in public housing and other predominantly Black and brown neighborhoods. 

Parker, who was also a founding member of the civilian review board, said you can’t build trust when you are demanding people come to you. 

“You have to ask the community what it is they feel has gone wrong, what is their harm,” Parker said. 

‘If you don’t have funding, you don’t have nothing’

Many of the recommendations from Charlottesville’s board members and community organizers come with a price tag.

Parker said just getting basic training for board members from the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement cost thousands of dollars. 

“If you don’t have funding, you don’t have nothing,” Parker said. 

In Charlottesville, the city allocated $150,000 to the police civilian review board this year. That money will fund training and the hiring of an executive director, who will be the main liaison between the city and the board. 

Given that many of the board members are community volunteers, chairman James Watson said they’re also pushing to hire an auditor that can collect and review data on things like no-knock warrants, use of force and stops. 

“We can’t do that as civilians, because we don’t have easy access or the time,” he said. “You have to make sure there is an allocation of resources to provide full-time positions.”

Watson estimated that Richmond could need three or four full-time positions for its civilian review board, since it is much larger than Charlottesville. 

In addition to outlining the powers of the board, Richmond’s Task Force on the Establishment of a Civilian Review Board will look at what funding will be necessary to get it up and running. Richmond City Council members Michael Jones and Stephanie Lynch have proposed establishing the board with funding from the police budget, which this year stood at $96 million.