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Charlottesville’s police oversight board still a work in progress after five years

The exterior of Charlottesville City Hall.
Charlottesville's Police Civilian Review Board was born out of calls for reforms after the 2017 Unite the Right rally, when community members criticized police for not doing enough to protect citizens. (File photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Five years ago, Charlottesville created an oversight board to investigate citizen complaints against the police department, but the city has yet to produce a meaningful, independent system to hold law enforcement accountable. 

The board has never heard a case, despite three requests from the public to review individual incidents. 

Currently, the Police Civilian Oversight Board can only review investigations that have been completed by the police department’s Internal Affairs Division.  

In 2020, the General Assembly approved a law giving local citizen police oversight panels, like the one in Charlottesville, fuller investigative powers.  

After the law passed, city council expanded the board’s authority to receive and process complaints independently, review police practices and internal investigations, issue findings, write public reports, and make recommendations. But before the board can exercise that new power, council needs to approve the operating procedures that govern exactly how the board will function. 

"These delays in between ordinances and operating procedures, they don’t help,” said Hansel Aguilar, executive director of the board, while discussing the public’s trust in the city and its police department.  

Part of the holdup has been that the board has never heard a case.  

“It was agreed that conducting its first hearing would provide both the PCOB and council with more information about how hearings are conducted in practice,” said city councilmember Michael Payne in an email to VPM News. “[T]hat would give us more insight into how to craft specific operating procedures.”  

Councilmembers asked the board to complete a pending internal affairs review request that was initiated by a member of the public more than a year ago. 

Payne said people involved in that case agreed to mediation earlier this month, so it’s been closed, and the board conducted a mock hearing instead. Meanwhile, the board received two other review requests from the public that the panel is still deciding whether to hear. 

Payne said the procedures must be revised and reviewed by legal experts, but he expected they could be adopted before the end of this fall. 

The Police Civilian Review Board, which is now called the Police Civilian Oversight Board, was born out of calls for reforms after the 2017 Unite the Right rally, when community members criticized police for not doing enough to protect citizens. A larger problem, centered on police not treating citizens equitably, was highlighted in a 2020 study that found Black males represented a larger portion of people jailed in Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail than their white counterparts.  

Harold Folley is a lifelong resident of Charlottesville and local advocate with the Legal Aid Justice Center and The People’s Coalition. He helped write the board’s operating procedures, which were first presented to council on April 18.  

“And so, that's what the frustration is, like, we were so involved with this, and now, you still dragging your feet on it,” he said earlier in August, around the time of the Unite the Right anniversary. “That's been a very disheartening thing for The People's Coalition.” 

Folley said the 2020 study underscores the urgency of increasing police accountability. He suggested council is too focused on perfecting the process. 

“You know, my whole thing is, it's gonna be messy the first time, right? Like pancakes, right?” Folley said. “Your first pancake is the worst pancake you can make. I am saying that sometimes, you have to make it messy to find out how to straighten it.” 

Aguilar said he’s confident the expanded powers under the new ordinance will allow the board to make real progress toward increasing transparency and gaining public trust. 

“At least how it’s written, the ordinance is one of the strongest ordinances we have in the commonwealth right now,” he said. 

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.