Who’s watching the cops? Almost four years after Barry Freeman posed the question, the Town of Chapel Hill has answered by creating a Community Police Advisory Committee. The committee, composed of citizens, will serve as a liaison between the public and police on department policy and will establish an ombudsman to hear complaints.

“Police have power, citizens don’t,” Freeman says “There needs to be something to balance out the power that police have.”

As the Indy reported in November 2009, many citizens had long petitioned for a civilian police review board; that discussion was reignited after Charles Brown, a black barber, was mistakenly detained by Chapel Hill police because he resembled a suspect.

Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue said he expects the Town Council to approve the composition and charge of the advisory committee during the March 28 business meeting.

However, the procedure of reviewing individual claims of police misconduct will stay the same, Blue said.

“[Neither] the ombudsman nor the advisory board are designed to supplant what we think is a very robust, professional-standard function already in place,” he said.

The town still lacks the required approval from the N.C. General Assembly to allow citizens to review police employment records, but the formation of the committee and the ombudsman marks a major step forward, Freeman and Blue agree.

Nine to 12 people will serve on the advisory committee; they will be appointed by Town Council.

Police also have appointed a review group, which includes Freeman and 11 other people with knowledge of the business, faith and social activism communities, to implement a final proposal for the advisory committee. The review group will also analyze the department’s new strategic plan.

Freeman petitioned the council after he and his wife, Janie, were arrested and charged with trespassing while protesting the opening of the U.S. Army Recruitment Center on West Franklin Street. They stood in front of the center holding a sign that read, “Keep your hands off my grandchildren,” and refused to remove it, asserting their right to free speech. Police handcuffed them and placed them in separate squad cars. The charges were later dropped.

Freeman said the arrests never would have happened if an advisory group had existed, because citizens and police would have agreed on procedures dealing with protests.

In addition, the Freemans would have been able to raise the issue with a group besides the police themselves. They would not examine the personnel records of individual officers, but they could look comprehensively at how police enforce the rules.

“Having those things in place sets a tone for police,” Freeman said.

Blue, sworn in as top cop in December after 13 years on the Chapel Hill force, said the group will help police as well as citizens.

“It will be a formalized standing group of folks who will develop some knowledge of our organization and some expertise about how we police and why we police the way we do,” he said.

“That coupled with their expertise as community members will create a combination that will improve on what I believe is already a high level of service activity.”