by Jon Baliles

Richmond City Council approved plans earlier this week for a Civilian Review Board (CRB) for the Police Department that left  people on all sides a bit upset, which fulfills one of the telltale signs of good legislation — if everyone is a little bit upset, then it is probably done right. If one side gets everything they want, it usually means there were strong-armed lobbyists, scared politicians, and a relatively large chunk of upset residents who think their voices were ignored and won’t support whatever was approved.

The path to a CRB has been around for a while but took on more steam after the summer of 2020. It has been a hotl- debated issue that saw a CRB Task Force issue a report and the Mayor introduce an ordinance that some criticized as too soft; so he withdrew it and reintroduced it a few months ago and that is what was approved this week, much to the dismay of some of the CRB Task Force members, the Richmond City Democratic Committee, and other groups. It also did not sit well with those who think the police budget should be greatly reduced or eliminated entirely.

Just to cursorily touch on the original proposal: Mayor Levar Stoney had suggested a CRB comprised of seven members, with three chosen by the mayor, three by City Council, and one by the Police Chief. On the other side, the CRB Task Force required a certain make up of board members that could not include anyone who was an active or retired police officer.

Both of these “recommendations” are pretty ridiculous on their face. The Mayor wanted majority control of the appointments so he could pick people that would go along with the program. Most executive branchers always do. The old proposal was for seven members — three appointed by the Mayor, three by Council, and one by the Chief. A blatantly obvious slant. The new proposal calls for an eight member board with four appointed by the Mayor and four by Council. A still obvious slant, but different.

The CRB Task Force wanted to exclude any active or retired law enforcement on the panel. I never understood that demand. We require people that sit on the Planning Commission to have certain experience with architecture, urban planning, and so on. The Affordable Housing Trust Fund Supervisory Board must have at least one person “licensed by the Virginia Real Estate Board as a real estate salesperson or real estate broker;” the Board of Building Code Appeals must have at least one person “experienced in residential or commercial property management;” the Board of Building Code Appeals, Electrical Appeals must — you guessed it — have “Two representatives of electrical contractors; One licensed professional engineer in private practice actively engaged in the design of electrical systems for buildings….” And so forth.

The point is, you want at least one person with experience of the topic being discussed and reviewed. If I served on the Electric Appeals Board, the Fire Department would be supe-busy.

So, there were shortcomings on both sides with the original proposal, which makes this week’s reaction to a second version somewhat expected. The result was a more advisory CRB instead of an independent one that the Mayor had worked on with Council to get to a consensus from the dais. The CRB can be altered later if needed, but for now, the goal was to establish it.

“We believe that we should be able to appreciate our police officers, but also we believe in accountability as well. And that’s exactly what this proposal does,” the mayor said. “I recognize that we’re never going to be able to achieve 100% consensus on everything we do. However, if we can get at the table and agree on major values, and that’s appreciation of our police officers, but also accountability, then I think that creates progress in itself.”

This may come as a shock to some of you, but I agree with Stoney 100% on this. Being a police officer is anything but easy, not to mention dangerous in ways most people can not possibly understand. I support the rank-and-file officers who are not perfect (who amongst us is?), and agree we need to weed the bad ones out.

But more importantly, we need a Chief who is a real leader and can boost morale and training of the officers and the confidence and trust of the public. Especially, since under the new legislation, the Chief has to agree to the policies and procedures for the CRB to operate. I’d certainly rather have a leader with this responsibility who has earned the trust of the community to do that.


As VPM News reported just before the vote:

“The CRB would be an independent body, but decisions on certain incidents — like police shootings or deaths and injuries in custody — would be referred to it by the department. And complaints from the public would first be handled by RPD. Disciplinary decisions would be issued by the department and only then reviewed by the CRB, which could then make recommendations to the chief of police.”

Proponents of a strong CRB wanted their own independent staff and the power to oversee the budget and have independent subpoena power as well as binding disciplinary power over officers.

As VPM pointed out:

“Since 2013, RPD has received an average of 118 complaints a year, according to a report by William Pelfrey, a professor at VCU that the mayor’s office hired to make recommendations on the planned oversight body.

According to Pelfrey’s report, many of the complaints are “departmental,” meaning they are similar to workplace issues people face in other fields of employment. Citizen complaints generally center on encounters with officers. The number of both departmental and citizen complaints declined between 2013 and 2020, and departmental complaints now make up a larger share of complaints.”

The Free-Press reported the most recent data yesterday

“Last year, 62 complaints were filed against city police officers, with 25 coming from civilians and 37 generated internally by command staff or other officers reporting violations.” The story did not report what the outcomes of those complaints were.

Jon Baliles is a former Richmond city councilman. This column has been republished with permission from his blog Richmond 5X5.

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2 responses to “Safety and Accountability”

  1. walter smith Avatar
    walter smith

    At some point…. the residents of the City of Richmond need to wonder if there is anything more than correlation to becoming a Hellhole and how they have voted…
    You can only destroy a city for so long before you finally succeed…

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    The idea of a police civilian review board and who should be on it and what their authority should be is an interesting subject and in some respects not unlike recent discussions of teachers and how they do their job is also a subject of how citizens / parents are involved with how teachers serve the needs of the community.

    And yes, you can expand this to other things like fire, building codes, sewage/plumbing, etc.

    But for me there is no question than communities should play a strong role in how they are policed even if rank and file police may not be on the same wavelength with the equally strong proviso that fire and police do risk their lives and are not going to do that work if there is not some degree of safety and protection for them also in carrying out their duties.

    In the case of a civilian review board – should the expertise/working knowledge of law enforcement be an advisory role or a ruling role or a vote on a committee with other votes?

    Beyond elections of leaders, how far down the government hierarchy should citizens be involved, have a vote, or even be the deciding vote?

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