We’re here. We’re not cops. Make use of us.
That was the message the Citizen’s Police Review Commission (CPRC) brought to the Richmond City Council on Tuesday night.
The commission is made up of nine civilians appointed by the mayor. Their role is to investigate residents’ complaints about police behavior, and if they decide the complaint is valid, the commission can recommend disciplinary actions to the chief of police.
But their authority is limited to certain issues. The commission can only investigate complaints of racially abusive treatment or excessive or unnecessary force and cannot, for example, adjudicate a complaint of a citizen who believes an officer was rude during a traffic stop.
“The lack of familiarity with the CPRC is our biggest challenge,” commissioner Bea Roberson told the council. “Many residents are not aware that the CPRC exists.”
Another major challenge, according to Roberson and the other two commissioners who spoke at the council meeting, is dispelling the widespread misunderstanding that it is part of the Richmond Police Department (RPD), specifically the police department’s Office of Professional Accountability (OPA). Roberson said the OPA is the internal-affairs unit of the RPD and is run by the department. In contrast, the commission is a completely independent body.
“The Citizen’s Police Review Commission is separate and independent from the Office of Professional Accountability,” Roberson told the council. “Most residents do not know the difference between the OPA and the CPRC.”
In an interview after the meeting, commissioner Oscar Garcia said the CPRC regularly engages in public outreach about what the commission does, such as tabling and passing out fliers at city-sponsored events. Even so, they’re not achieving the community engagement Garcia would hope for.
“We don’t get the turnout at our meetings that I would hope, and just talking to people out in the community at various events that I attend, not enough people are familiar with the existence of the commission,” he said. “Since it’s a really good resource, and not a lot of cities have it, it’s important that we do our part so that enough residents are aware of this commission.”
One indicator that much of the community is not aware of is the CPRC is the low number of complaints the commission receives, Garcia said. “I would say, since I’ve been on the commission, I think we average maybe two complaints a month,” Garcia said. “Over the course of a year, well over half [of complaints] are outside of our scope. Most are related to traffic incidents. So not a huge number.”
The commission recently hired an investigator, Garcia said, a position that was unfilled for the previous two years. During that time, the CPRC was unable to investigate citizen complaints and could only pass them on to the OPA.
Commission Vice Chair David Brown outlined the steps of an investigation to the city council. After a complaint is received, it is given to the investigator, who interviews the officer and witnesses to the event. He produces a confidential report, which cannot be released to the public under the terms of a state law known as the Police Officer’s Bill of Rights, and presents it to the commission. Based on the investigator’s report, the commission finds the complaint sustained, unsubstantiated (meaning there is not enough evidence to determine the validity of the complaint) or unfounded.
Garcia said that substantiated complaints are referred to the chief of police for possible discipline. If the CPRC doesn’t agree with the chief’s decision, the commission can pass the complaint on to the city administrator and finally to the full city council.
Garcia could not provide an estimate of how many complaints result in discipline, because he has served on the CPRC for a year and a half, and the commission did not have an investigator during that entire period.
“We were without an investigator for over two years. So that’s the entire time I’ve been a commissioner. And so I do not have those numbers,” he said. “And so we have not investigated anything since any of the complaints have been filed. The OPA has received those, so technically it’s possible they’ve investigated those. But the commission has not had an investigator, so we have not been able to for the past two years or so.”
Rick Perez, whose son Pedie Perez was killed by an RPD officer in 2014, spoke to the city council during the public comments section after the CPRC’s presentation. He expressed support for the CPRC, but criticized the Police Officer’s Bill of Rights, which he sees as an infringement on citizens’ right to information.
“This is a fantastic presentation and I’m glad they [the CPRC] exist,” Perez said to the council. “I think they should have more leverage, more power.”
In an interview afterward, Perez reiterated that he wishes the commission had more power.
“Their teeth ain’t very sharp. They can’t really do much,” he said. “Every time we talk to them about something ‘Oh, we’re not allowed to do anything to the police officers because of the Police Officers’ Bill of Rights.’ It’s like, where do the citizens factor in to this situation?”
Although he doesn’t feel justice was done in his son’s case, Perez does believe the police department is making progress in some areas. “We were instrumental in getting the automatic investigations for a person being either killed or great bodily injury to them. That’s automatic nowadays,” he said.
Garcia said he and the other commissioners came to the meeting in hopes of making more people aware of the commission.
“We find that citizens in Richmond are not aware that we have this resource,” he said to the council. “To ensure an effective commission, we are constantly trying to improve our outreach to the community.”
If Richmond residents wish to file a complaint with the CPRC, they can download a complaint form online, or pick one up in the RPD lobby or at the city clerk’s office. The completed form must be delivered to the city clerk’s office at 450 Civic Center Plaza, though Garcia said the commission is working on creating an online submission system.