POWER AND TRANSPARENCY: ILM citizens call for a review board focused on law enforcement

Originally published in encore magazine, July 26, 2016

At last week’s city council meeting on July 19, Black Lives Matter activists filled more than half of City Council Chambers to call for a citizen’s law-enforcement review board, as well as to repeal House Bill 1083 (passed in June 2016), which requires 25 percent of registered New Hanover County voters to sign a petition in order to bring a proposal (like the review board) to a public ballot.

Community organizer and Black Lives Matter activist Cameron Parker spoke at the meeting. He told encore the initiative is something Wilmington advocates have been working on for over a year.

“The board must be a cultural reflection of the city,” Parker explained. “The idea is for there to be an independent agency created to investigate citizens’ complaints against police officers rather than the police investigating themselves.”

An ideal review board would be made up of registered voters living within Wilmington and New Hanover County. Board members must not have pending litigations with the city or serve in any city position. As well they should not hold or be running for public office or currently serve on the police force (though they may be retired). While more and more review boards exist throughout the nation—and some in other NC cities like Durham—Parker said more effective boards have subpoena power. 

“Ideally, the board would have subpoena power to investigate and have access to any evidence regarding issues of the use of force (excessive, unnecessary or deadly),” he detailed, “and abuses of authority (illegal searches, vehicle stops, harassment, etc.). This board would also review diversity training policies and compliance, and offer recommendations when necessary.”

Subpoena power would offer the board an opportunity to build a bridge between the community and police. By allowing transparency—which according to Parker is currently missing—it helps create mutual trust and respect that will make communities safer.

Parker was joined by speakers Sonya Patrick and Denny Best to call for the board and to repeal HB 1083’s new petition requirements. Under the previous ordinance they would have needed 2,300 signatures to get the issue on a ballot. Now, they need an estimated 22,651. “That total actually doubles the amount of people who voted in the last municipal election,” Parker added in his comments to City Council.

Mayor Bill Saffo addressed the call to repeal HB 1083 and mentioned how the ordinance has changed four times since the early 1960s. “We wanted clarity because there was confusion as to: Is it 25 percent as voted in the last election or is it 25 percent of the votes cast,” he said.

After having the UNC School of Government review the ordinance—who Saffo said agreed to its perplexity—the state legislature took it upon themselves to clarify the number of required signatures to be 25 percent of registered voters in the city of Wilmington. “So you have a number you can go for,” he continued. “You may think it’s too high, but if it’s that important to the community, I believe you can get 22,000 signatures for that petition and put it to a ballot.”

Mayor Saffo took a moment to address public comments for a citizen review board. He read House Bill 193, introduced by Rep. Rodney Moore of Mecklenburg County in March 2015, alongside co-sponsor Rep. Susi Hamilton. Its short title is “Prohibit Discriminatory Profiling.”

In addition to calling for more transparency and oversight of NC police departments, the bill required standardized training for all law enforcement on discriminatory profiling based on race, sexual orientation and mental-health status. It also called for mandated citizen review boards in NC municipalities to hold local police departments accountable, with authority to discipline officers for misconduct. The bill failed after being referred to a judiciary committee.

“The state of North Carolina was not going to allow for this [bill] to happen,” Mayor Saffo said. “It was very clear in their intention, and from our perspective, we do feel there should be cooperation, discussion, conversation between the police department, who are our public servants, and the community—who obviously have some mistrust, a lot of mistrust. . . . We feel we should do something to try and bridge that gap.”

Mayor Saffo cited a new Community Relations Advisory Committee consisting of 12 members proposed by the city and county commissioners earlier this month. According to the City of Wilmington website, where citizens may apply for a seat, the committee will be:

• “jointly appointed by the City Council and the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners, who will each appoint six members.

• “comprised of [sic] two members each from the civil rights, faith, business and education communities. The remaining four members will be at-large. In addition, the Wilmington Police Chief and New Hanover County Sheriff or their designees would serve as Ex Officio non-voting members.”

Mayor Saffo said the committee’s purpose was to cover a “litany of issues,” including LGBTQIA, racial and other civil rights concerns. “It’s a beginning, it’s a start based on what we’re able to do,” he continued. “Some of this board may have the power to review some of things you folks have shared with us today—that is something the city council or county commissioners will have to work out. But I can pledge to you as your mayor, and I can speak for everyone on this council: We want to make sure we have some trust between the police department and citizens of this community.”

Councilman Earl Sheridan agreed with the sentiments and aims of the citizens who came forward throughout the meeting. “Black lives have been devalued often in our society and have been devalued here,” he conceded. “And we need to do what we can to change that situation.”

Unlike a focused review board on law enforcement, Sheridan envisions the community relations board to look at multiple aspects of community division, such as jobs, housing, education, and poverty.

“This is what I see as the advantage of community relations because it expands, and its reach is beyond [police],” he said. “This community-relations board can look at all of these types of issues. Also, its reach would be beyond merely city limits.”

After the council’s closing remarks on the matter, citizens who filled half of the City Council Chambers raised Black Lives Matters signs and slowly walked out as “no justice, no peace!” echoed throughout the room.

While Parker doesn’t view the advisory committee as a terrible idea, he doesn’t see it as a strong answer to effecting change, either—at least not like a review board specific to policing and going beyond racial discrimination.

“All of these issues deserve their own individual attention,” he remarked, “as all of the issues that it is focused on are important issues to citizens.  . . . However, we need more than a discussion at this point. We need change.”

The Citizen Review Board Petition for law enforcement may be found on Facebook.

Anyone interested in watching the council meeting on July 19 in its entirety, or applying for a seat on the Community Relations Advisory Committee, can visit wilmingtonnc.gov.

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