Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Police oversight: Is a civilian review board needed in the Historic Triangle?

Hundreds rallied at the Williamsburg campus of Thomas Nelson Community College to protest racism and police brutality Friday, June 5, 2020. (WYDaily/Courtesy of Joseph Miller)
Hundreds rallied at the Williamsburg campus of Thomas Nelson Community College to protest racism and police brutality Friday, June 5, 2020. (WYDaily/Courtesy of Joseph Miller)

As the death of George Floyd causes uproar over police brutality across the country, various localities are starting civilian review boards to make a change.

It boils down to the question: Who’s policing the police?

Complaints against officers are processed internally, and most fall under the shield of “personnel matters.”

A civilian review board is a group in the community that monitors the local police department’s policies and procedures especially in regards to complaints filed against that department. Similar groups have been popping up across the country in response to Floyd’s death and could provide some value in the Historic Triangle, argues Adam M. Gershowitz, a law professor at William & Mary.

“These [review boards] often pop up after very high profile events, so I think you’re going to keep seeing more of them,” he said. “There is some value to having one, but there’s a lot more value to having one that works correctly.”

Gershowitz said the difficulty with creating a review board is where the members originate. Many cities will have a mayor or elected official select members of the review board, which then creates a conflict of interest.

To create a civilian review board that actually benefits the community, members should be selected by various organizations throughout the community and the members should have knowledge of law enforcement procedures but not be directly involved in law enforcement.

He said it’s also important that the board has a level of power. In some communities these boards have subpoena power which allows them to demand certain documentation. Without that, police departments will not share information that could shed a bad light on their officers and their department.

The boards also need to look at a variety of aspects regarding policing, not just high profile cases. For example, they should look at stop and search and aggressive behavior even when something high profile isn’t occurring.

“If a community is going to create [a review board], it has to be done correctly,” he said. “Otherwise it might be counterproductive because then something looks like it’s being done but it’s not.”

Gershowitz said while many of these review boards are popping up in bigger cities, they’re just as important in a small town such as Williamsburg.

“Whether you’re in a big city or a small town, police departments have the same kind of power largely,” he said. So if I fail to signal on a New York City street or on Monticello Avenue, the police can pull me over and from there they can pull me out of the car and frisk me…so that authority exists and is often hidden from view…we don’t really know what’s being done until a civilian review board gives input.”

Gershowitz said he’s not aware of a review board in the area. But Williamsburg Action, a grassroots movement in the area, has recently started a Governmental Policy and Communications Legal Committee that is looking at various aspects of the local police department and government policies, said Adam Solderitch, co-chair of the committee.

“The team was created as a means to get in touch with government officials to share who we are and what change we’re looking for within our own system,” he said.

Solderitch said that’s different from a civilian review board because it’s a component of a larger organization and is looking to address larger issues. The committee, which was formed on June 5, has already started looking into issues of racial profiling and disparity in local arrests.

“We can’t get justice back for Breonna Taylor and Geroge Floyd, we can’t bring them back,” Solderitch said. “But we can hold the police accountable for their death and we do that by our team reaching out to government officials and getting a feel for where they stand on the issue.”

The committee is composed of volunteers who have some background and experience in government policy, law and other aspects important to the work.

David Isolano, chairman for Williamsburg Action, said prior to the committee forming, the organization reached out to local police departments for a variety of different information but had found themselves hitting a wall.

Police departments either would respond to inquiries or would give them very little information, he said.  

The organization hopes to continue to gather information and spark discussions with local police departments and governments.

“We want to educate people,” Isolano said. “There’s complacency here as a small, conservative town. It’s hard to get the message of racial injustice out because a lot of people don’t believe there is any.”

The NAACP released a joint statement calling for police reform nationwide.

“Enough is enough,” Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP, said in a prepared statement. “The entire country has reached its limit in terms of deadly police practices. We cannot allow one more Black person to die at the hands of government.”

The NAACP wants federal, state and local changes to limit the use of force, eliminate racial profiling, demilitarize law enforcement, track data and make sure all law enforcement officers are properly trained, according to the statement.

“Nowhere is there more systemic injustice than in law enforcement’s treatment of the Black community it is charged with guarding and protecting,” Johnson said. “We must seize this moment to eliminate racism from policing and to hold every officer accountable for his or her actions.”

WYDaily multimedia reporter Julia Marsigliano contributed to this story.

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Alexa Doironhttp://wydaily.com
Alexa Doiron is a multimedia reporter for WYDaily. She graduated from Roanoke College and is currently working on a master’s degree in English at Virginia Commonwealth University. Alexa was born and raised in Williamsburg and enjoys writing stories about local flair. She began her career in journalism at the Warhill High School newspaper and, eight years later, still loves it. After working as a news editor in Blacksburg, Va., Alexa missed Williamsburg and decided to come back home. In her free time, she enjoys reading Jane Austen and playing with her puppy, Poe. Alexa can be reached at alexa@localvoicemedia.com.

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