Charlottesville’s Police Civilian Oversight Board was formed after the 2017 “summer of hate,” and now, five years later, it has its first case.
To be able to schedule a hearing at all, the board had to first establish bylaws, operating procedures and an ordinance. City Council approved the latest ordinance last December, which took effect in March 2022. The hearing, an allegation of excessive force and bias-based policing by the Charlottesville Police Department, was scheduled in July.
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“Quite a bit of the tools we needed to do the job all started coming into place in the last maybe eight to 10 months,” said James Watson, vice-chair of the board. “There’ve been a lot of factors to overcome to get to the point where we’re running on all cylinders. And I think we’re getting to that place now.”
Katrina Turner, an activist who served on the inaugural board, said that the deadly Unite the Right rally of 2017 galvanized activists and the City Council to give residents a way to oversee policing. A group of residents called the People’s Coalition advocated for civilian review of police and changes in state law, and continues to seek police reforms today.
Turner recalls the Ku Klux Klan rally in July 2017 as a turning point. She felt like the police weren’t there to protect residents from the white supremacist group.
“They were looking at us on July 8, like we were the ones that needed to be watched,” Turner said.
An independent report following the deadly Unite the Right rally of August 2017 found that city officials and law enforcement made mistakes in preparing for and responding to the event. The report found that many residents had a lot of distrust for police after that tumultuous summer in Charlottesville.
The city also released a study in early 2020 that found that Black residents are overrepresented and punished more severely in the local criminal justice system.
The first case where the civilian board is reviewing Charlottesville Police Department officers’ conduct is about the 2020 arrest of Christopher Gonzales. A hearing was scheduled for July 14 but was delayed because Charlottesville Police Department and Jeff Fogel, an attorney who brought the complaint after seeing video of the incident, are now working toward a resolution. Fogel says that meeting has also been delayed.
Gonzales was charged with public intoxication, obstruction of justice and assaulting an officer. At the time, the police department released 17-minute body camera footage. An internal investigative cleared officers of alleged excessive force and bias-based policing.
His case might still be heard by the civilian board, if it cannot be resolved between Gonzales and the police department.
Still, the preparation for the hearing helped show how civilian police review in Charlottesville works. Board Chair William Mendez said that the group held mock hearings to prepare and was granted access to the police department’s internal files and audiovisual materials related to the case.
“I think that the idea that those were made available to outside observers, that is the PCOB, it’s a very important event in police oversight,” said Mendez.
This helps with the transparency with the community that the board wants to build.
“Usually the internal affairs department within the police department looks at the case and then there’s this question for us in the public — ‘Okay wait a minute, you have police kind of policing the police,’” Watson said.
The Charlottesville Police Department did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the progress of the review board, or what its leadership wants from the process.
Since a state law about civilian review boards took effect last summer, police review boards in Virginia can conduct investigations and make disciplinary determinations if needed. Charlottesville’s current board has opted to make recommendations.
“From the beginning it was clear that the City Council had little enthusiasm for placing the careers of police officers in the hands of a volunteer, amateur board,” Mendez said.
If the police chief chooses to not take the civilian board’s recommended actions, he or she will have to provide written explanation to the board, the City Manager and the public.
Scheduling a first hearing solidifies some of the board’s powers, but the recommendation process has not been fully tested in Charlottesville, yet.
Rosia Parker was on the inaugural PCOB with Turner and says that the powers of the board were hard won by the People’s Coalition and other activists.
“The community did this,” Parker said. “Those things went through because those are the things we pushed for in the state legislature.”
Parker said, though, that there are still issues to resolve, such as ensuring that the board includes people from disadvantaged communities and doing outreach.
Current board member Watson said that the hiring of legal counsel and an executive director to oversee investigations will help with oversight work going forward.
“One of the big things we got to really try to improve on is making connections with the community,” Watson said. One idea they have is to work with nonprofits that serve young people and unhoused people, “individuals that tend to be more most impacted historically by police misconduct.”
There are a few ways to bring a case before the board. There’s a Charlottesville Police Department complaint form; when these forms are submitted, they are reviewed internally and forwarded to the civilian board’s executive director, Hansel Aguilar. Complaints can also be emailed to the board directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or can be submitted in person at the police station, or by phone call to Lieutenant Michael Gore at (434) 970-3600.
“The board does not yet have a dedicated complaint line,” Mendez said. “But we hope to have one soon.”