NAACP hosted a Police Press Conference Disguised as a Town Hall Meeting
By Patrice K. Muhammad
The Lexington NAACP called a town hall meeting on July 28. Hot button topics were used to promote the event, such as information on citizen rights when interacting with police and demonstration of the body cameras that are expected to be in use soon.
However, no such explanation of citizen rights occurred nor was there a demonstration of body cameras by Lexington Police.
NAACP Vice President Adrian Wallace read a statement issued by the National NAACP at their annual convention, held this year in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Along with body worn camera’s, citizen review boards are among the top requirements issued by the NAACP for Police Departments committed to public safety and transparency.
The featured guest speaker at the local town hall meeting was Lexington Police Chief Mark Barnard, who took the opportunity to speak on the city’s long promised, but yet delivered, body camera program implementation. An earlier press conference related to body cameras was cancelled.
Barnard was bombarded with questions from the small crowd of about 40. A large number of questions were regarding the 12-page body camera policy which was made without citizen input.
The chief defended his decision to not hold public hearings related to the body camera policy by stating that the Lexington Human Rights Commission, local NAACP and ACLU were consulted in the end for approval. He noted they represent the citizens because they are organizations which are trusted to protect civil rights.
Chief Barnard uses these group when convenient but defies the decades old recommendations of these same groups by refusing to acknowledge the need for civilian oversight of the police discipline procedure.
Police Discipline Handled Internally Until Final Stage
In 2015, 11 Lexington Police officers were suspended resulting in a total of 1060 work hours off duty. This data was provided to The Key Newsjournal “as a professional courtesy’’ according to the open records response. It is not a report that is in existence and this data is not posted for the public anywhere online.
Police discipline hearings do not show up on the Council Docket. Neither the public, nor council, is given advance notice that there is a matter to be considered until it is announced by The Mayor at the end of the council meeting. Only the Mayor’s office and council clerk know in advance of the meeting that there will be a matter to be voted on. The names and charges against officers are read in the open meeting.
On February 4, 2016 three police discipline matters were presented to council. In one case, stemming from a 2015 complaint, an officer violated the “prisoner security in transport’’ order. He was given two months, plus one-week suspension without pay and was required to be retrained on prisoner transport safety. No council members asked a question, then voted and approved the discipline.
Community Activist Sarah Williams saw the archived footage online and was appalled by the lack of council interest in the officer’s conduct.
“Where were your questions? Why did you just accept this action? How is this going to result in change of future action and behavior. I question deeply if council has our best interest in police matters. It seems like council members go along to get along versus actually representing community members,” Williams said.
As an activist, Williams has attended many council meetings but never knew that police discipline was handled in open session this way. “That’s not information that community members are aware of. Also, public comment doesn’t occur until the matter is voted on, at the end of the meeting. The way they position it is to take away any effective voice being heard.”
Via email Chief Barnard said, “When a complaint is brought against a Lexington Police Officer, whether by a citizen or internally, it is thoroughly investigated by our Public Integrity Unit. The result of the investigation and any disciplinary action is ultimately presented to the Urban County Council. While Lexington does not have a ‘Citizen Review Board’ specifically for police matters, the Council is an elected body representing all parts of Lexington. Councilmembers are informed of the investigation, they can ask questions and vote to accept or reject the recommended discipline. This is done in a public meeting, broadcast on government television and archived online. I believe we have a transparent process in place.”
Councilmember Angela Evans, may be the resident expert on the topic of investigating misconduct. In her job as an Assistant Attorney General, Ms. Evans provided legal counsel to licensing boards who were considering complaints by consumers against professionals, such as physicians, marriage counselors, etc. Evans has sat in on many hearings and was present at the Town Hall meeting and heard the Chiefs claim that council had final say on police discipline.
“This is a sticky matter,’’ she said. “Ultimately yes, (we have oversight) but in reality we don’t have a lot of facts when presented, but there is a reason that we don’t.’’
Council members may ask questions after the matter is presented but Evans explains possible reluctance. She said, since the police chief and the Integrity Unit (formerly Internal Affairs) have access to the officer’s personnel file and other documents, there may be a hesitation to question their recommendation.
However, Evans did say that in her experience there was always 1-2 laypersons on any licensing board she’d witnessed. She said no one from council is involved in any public safety discipline process until it is time for approval of the discipline.
Evans would be in favor of civilians on the review board. “Not entirely citizens. Police are trained professionals and non-professionals may not appreciate everything involved,’’ Evans said. She does, however, feel citizens are necessary though because they represent the “consumer’’ perspective matters and may help the complainant feel like they have been heard.
Councilman James Brown at the NAACP meeting and heard the Police chief’s assertion that council had oversight, but disagreed.
“I don’t feel like we have oversight,” Brown said. “If citizens are asking for more public involvement, then it’s something we need to explore. I don’t think it’s an argument of we’ve been doing this for years,’’ Brown said.
In response, Fourth District Councilwoman Susan Lamb said, “We do have oversight.’’ However, she did note that council does not receive anything in advance nor anything more than what is read in the open council meeting. Lamb has never heard of civilian review boards but said she is “always willing to consider’’ what the citizens ask for.
The ACLU position on Citizen Review Boards: “Civilian review establishes the principle of police accountability. Strong evidence exists to show that a complaint review system encourages citizens to act on their grievances. Even a weak civilian review process is far better than none at all.
“A civilian review agency can be an important source of information about police misconduct. A civilian agency is more likely to compile and publish data on patterns of misconduct, especially on officers with chronic problems, than is a police internal affairs agency.
“Many well-intentioned police officials have failed to act decisively against police brutality because internal investigations didn’t provide them with the facts.”
According to the Police Department, a letter is sent acknowledging any complaint by a citizen and letter is also sent at the conclusion but no notice of internal hearing or appearance before council is sent.
Citizens may bring complaints against a police officer to a council member or to the police department directly.
It will be up to the Mayor or city council members to make any changes to the police discipline policy, if they see a need.