Chapel Hill’s black community and many social activists say they are being unfairly targeted by the town’s police and want to rein in the power of a force that monitors itself behind closed doors.

Without external, independent oversight, only the town manager and Chapel Hill Town Council can review citizen allegations of misuse of authority by officers.

Only town leaders and the police know the substance of the 33 citizen complaints filed against officers this year. Due to personnel laws, only they know the name of the officer and how or if he or she was disciplined.

Individual cases like those of Charles Brown (see “Wrong place, wrong time, wrong guy” and “‘I was humiliated’ by police“), the black barber who was detained in June while walking home because he resembled a police suspect, and Barry and Janie Freeman, the retired couple charged two years ago with trespassing while protesting the opening of the U.S. Army Recruitment Center, serve as case studies of a larger issue: The secrecy officers operate under is undermining public trust of police. It foments a climate of fear and suspicion that erects a wall between officers and those they seek to protect.

There is a difference in opinion on how to break down that wall. Some citizens suggest establishing an independent panel, such as a civilian police review board, to receive and investigate allegations of police misconduct. They note that these boards are becoming standard in large cities and have been established in other college communities.

Other citizens contend that Chapel Hill isn’t big enough to warrant its own civilian review board. They recommend that the police internal affairs division oversee investigations, as it does now, but that the public and elected leaders help craft police policy.

“Rather than being focused on a civilian review board, we’re better focused on what objective are we trying to achieve, what is it that we need to have as an outcome,” Mayor Kevin Foy said before an October Town Council meeting, where Brown told his story.

“Depending on the answer to that, maybe there’s a way to do it without a civilian review board. A civilian review board is one way, but maybe there are others to do that. That’s probably a more fruitful line of discussion. It’s not just that we need legislative authority, it’s that legislative authority has been denied. I don’t think it’s worth it to just keep bumping your head against the wall.”

The debate is largely academic. Chapel Hill does not have the authority to allow a citizen-driven board to review police records and must receive permission from the N.C. General Assembly to approve such access. The Town Council made that a top legislative priority this summer, but a bill written by Rep. Verla Insko (D-Orange), flopped.

Inkso said members of the House local government committee told her “it was not something they wanted to vote on.”

“Mainly it was that the people there support their local sheriffs and their local police chiefs,” she said. “It sounded like maybe it would be something that would spread to other departments. They didn’t want to deal with it this session.”

“The question of getting a waiver to have a civilian review board from the legislature to me is a red herring,” said Al McSurely, a civil rights lawyer representing Brown and the chairman of the N.C. NAACP’s Legal Redress Committee. “It’s not really that. We ought to be able to have a commission or whatever they have they ought to be able to have a constitutional advisory committee that can do everything including look at the training.”

Insko said she might raise the issue again given the attention given to Brown’s case, which ignited outrage at the NAACP.

Even if the town receives permission from the legislature, civilian review board proponents will have to overcome vigorous opposition from Police Chief Brian Curran.

“I have stated publicly in the past and I’m still opposed to the creation of a civilian review board,” he said when Brown filed his complaint. “I think we have procedures in place now with our internal affairs system that is adequate to take care of any concerns that citizens or administrators have.”

Curran also contends that establishing a board whose members could examine police personnel files would send a message to the rank and file that “we don’t trust them.”

Curran says the internal process works well, but only he and a few others actually know.

Town Manager Roger Stancil, who also opposes such a board, says he would prefer to focus on community policing, which emphasizes crime-fighting collaborations between officers and the public on a neighborhood level. He says he hired Curran because they share a view on that practice, which could address many residents’ concerns.

Resident Fred Black, who, in 2007, served on a police chief assessment panel that hired Curran, calls a review board, “a solution looking for a problem.”

“The he-said she-said he-said cases I don’t think will come out a different way when a review board looks at them,” he said.

Since 1982, there have been 13 civil lawsuits filed against the Chapel Hill Police Department; three of them have been filed in the last nine years. (Two were withdrawn and one has referred to federal court.)

McSurely is unwilling to assume that the internal process works.

“There needs to be someway of reassuring public, particularly the black community, that there’s an ombudsperson that’s not in the chain of command,” he said. “In any case when the fox examines who is was it is that ate the chicken, the fox finds out that everything he did was fine.”

The Freemans, who’ve been protesting about social justice issues for 50 years, are less worried about individual cases than they are about the overall treatment of demonstrators.

The retired couple first protested together in the 1950s when they opposed the army’s development of germ warfare at Fort Detrick, Md. They demonstrated against the Vietnam War and the war in Iraq.

Over the years, the Freemans say they’ve seen a significant change in how police treat war protesters.

“Our big concern is that the police have a pattern or arresting people,” Barry Freeman said, using as examples student protesters arrested for protesting against sweatshops and Burger King. “It intimidates legal freedom of assembly and the right to protest peacefully. People don’t want to protest if they think they might get arrested. It inhibits what we should be allowed to do.”

The Freemans are adamant that they should have been allowed to hold a sign that read, “Keep your hands off of my grandchildren,” in 2007 when the U.S. Army Recruitment Center opened on East Franklin Street. Instead they were asked by the office manager to take down their sign. When they refused several times, police handcuffed them, took them to separate squad cars, booked, fingerprinted and released them.

They knew they could be arrested if they didn’t heed police orders, but they stood their ground on principle.

“At that time there were a lot of actions going on around the country of people demonstrating and being forced away from where they were demonstrating, made to go where they couldn’t be seen,” he said. “We were in one sense reacting against that because we felt it was very dangerous when dissent is being silenced, and we thought it could get worse.”

The charges were dropped, but the Freemans care more about how and why the charges were issued. Though they didn’t file a formal complaint, they joined with the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the Women’s International League and the NAACP in petitioning the town to create a review board to “balance out the power of the police.”

The Freemans say the NAACP was quick to jump on board. The civil rights group alleged that officers were unjustly hassling black teenagers and residents of the historically African-American Northside neighborhood. Brown’s ordeal reinforced the NAACP’s claim and revived a push for a board.

Mayor-elect Mark Kleinschmidt said the town needs a way to air these kinds of concerns. But people differ on exactly where such scrutiny should happen and who should be there.

In some cities, merely having a civilian review board assuages citizen concerns. It might not, as Black says, result in different outcomes, but an independent board can lend more credibility to the findings. Their actual effectiveness though, varies greatly.

Philip Eure, the president of National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement and the executive director of the office of police complaints in Washington, D.C., says boards can either serve as investigators or auditors, or hybrids of the two. Investigators review fresh cases. Auditors examine an internal police recommendation. Each model seeks to create public confidence in the department, he says.

A board that can’t review records is clearly “not perfect” Eure says, but adds that “some authority is better than no authority.”

“If done correctly, if professionally staffed, it can make the public more confident in the police,” Eure said. “If people fear the police or have a lack faith in the police, the system kind of breaks down. It’s that confidence issue that the citizen oversight agency tries to overcome.”

But review boards aren’t the panacea that many assume. Durham’s Civilian Police Review Board is largely inert. In Boston, a review board was established after an Emerson College student was killed by an officer using a pellet gun to try to control a American League pennant celebration; yet a Harvard study found only three people have filed appeals with the board this year. Few people there even know the board exists. In other cities and towns, the boards have become political, under-funded and ineffective.

There are successful models, but they require a dedicated, and often paid, staff to be effective.

The Chapel Hill Police Department has undergone organizational changes, including the expansion of its community police division and the creation of two assistant chief posts. This move was intended to give command officers more opportunity to address underlying problems that contribute to crime instead of simply responding to the offenses.

“We have an excellent community services division whose job is to reach out and educate and talk to community,” Town Manager Stancil said, “but we want our services division to move into a role where they support patrol officers.”

The council recently referred that recommendation to Stancil, who was charged with addressing the petition brought by the Freemans. At a January Town Council meeting, he plans to discuss establishing a group of law enforcement leaders and concerned advocates to review police policy. He also wants the police to present a quarterly report of citizen complaints to the council.

Perhaps Chapel Hill doesn’t need a traditional civilian review board, but its citizens need greater confidence in their officersand officers need to conduct themselves in a manner that fosters trust. An independent board that could unseal personnel records could achieve greater accountability and transparency. So too, could a group that addresses overarching police policy and that residents feel is more open to their concerns and tenacious in pursuing them.

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