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Task Force Creating Civilian Oversight Board Prepares Recommendations

building with cars parked out front
The headquarters of the Richmond Police Department. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

The task force creating a civilian oversight board to investigate citizen complaints against the Richmond Police Department will present its recommendations to City Council next month.

The group has been working since March to, essentially, design a civilian oversight body that’s unique to Richmond. Members of the task force say they’ve done ride-alongs and taken community walks with officers, as well as meeting with the police chief and internal affairs. 

Last year, Virginia lawmakers passed a bill allowing citizen oversight panels to have investigative powers in police misconduct complaints, including the ability to subpoena records and witnesses. 

But it’s up to the task force and City Council to nail down the specific role the board will have in holding police officers accountable. The group provided one last opportunity for public input during a virtual town hall meeting Thursday evening. 

Here are some of the questions that will be answered over the next few weeks. 

Which complaints deserve a deeper look?

Members of the task force say almost all of the roughly 200 active civilian review boards across the country investigate serious complaints, including use of force and injury or death. Complaints that lead to criminal charges are routed to local prosecutors. But there’s a case for review boards to consider less serious complaints too.

“There is evidence that indicates that these more ‘minor complaints’ against officers can often be used to identify patterns of misconduct,” said Eli Costan, co-chair of the Task Force. “Officers who routinely engage in things like discourtesy, discrimination, etc.. might be more prone to serious incidents of misconduct.”     

Should the board look at old complaints?

Costan said complaints that are more than a year old are trickier to investigate,  meaning it might be difficult to discipline those officers. But there’s interest, they said, in having a record of previous complaints to identify patterns. The task force must also decide how far back it should go into old complaints.

How will the board conduct investigations?

Members of the task force say that in jurisdictions where boards only review findings and make recommendations to the chief of police, the chief sides with the internal affairs findings more often than not, ranging from 70-90% of the time.

A decision about whether the board will conduct its own independent investigations or respond to internal investigations is yet to be made. And the question of who has final disciplinary action, the chief of police or the CRB, remains an open one.

One alternative is to provide third-party mediation for citizen complaints. Task force members say this has been helpful in some jurisdictions. The Richmond Police Department does not currently have a mediation option.

“We find that typically, citizens who make complaints and go through the mediation process are happier than with going through the formal complaint process,” Costan said. “Likewise, officers tend to be happier with it.”

Another potential responsibility of the CRB is to review and make recommendations for department policies and procedures as well as auditing policing data. 

What’s the Board’s Composition?

There are a number of considerations for who sits on the board, for how long and who appoints them. Former law enforcement officers from Richmond are not eligible to sit on the board, and current officers from other jurisdictions cannot be appointed. Law enforcement may be able to serve as non-voting members, however. 

The task force must decide whether council, the mayor or some other authority appoints board members. Another possibility is making board membership an elected position, but Costan said this is unlikely.

Members of the community questioned whether the CRB will be “transformative” in moving the needle on community-police relations and building trust. One concern is that police chiefs can refuse to acknowledge or work with oversight boards.

“I think it’s really more about transparency and openness,” Coston said. “A lot of the feedback that we’ve gotten is that people who have filed complaints don’t feel like the Richmond Police Department has been responsive. They, maybe, filed a complaint, never received a follow up letter. Never received any information about the disposition of their complaint. Things like that do a lot to break community trust.”

Richmond Police Department responded by email to questions about this concern.

“If a formal complaint is made and investigated through our Internal Affairs Division, then the complainant receives correspondence advising that it has been received, is being investigated and the contact information for the assigned investigator is provided. The investigator maintains contact with the complainant and the complainant will receive a disposition letter at the conclusion of the investigation,” the email said.

The public affairs unit added that if there are citizens that feel they haven’t gotten the appropriate response, they can contact the Internal Affairs Division at (804) 646-6816.

Richmond City Council has initially set aside about $204,000 for an executive director, two full-time investigators and a staff member focused on community-outreach.  But a proposed $1.2 million annual budget would cover 10 full-time positions, including five investigators, a policy analyst and executive director. It also includes money for mediation and outside legal counsel. The nine members of the civilian review board would receive a $100 stipend per meeting to encourage people from diverse backgrounds to apply.

The CRB Task Force will hold an event at Diversity Richmond on August 17 at 6 p.m. to present a draft of their recommendations before submitting them to the city. Council will accept or reject those recommendations and pass an ordinance establishing the 9-member board.

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.
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