Tuesday, November 29, 2022

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Burlington city council approves charter for police advisory board

After two months of hemming and hawing, Burlington’s city council has approved a set of parameters for a citizen advisory board to weigh in on the policies of the city’s police department.

The council unanimously signed off on the charter for this so-called “Community Police Advisory Team” after Burlington’s city manager Hardin Watkins presented the latest draft of this document during a regularly-scheduled council meeting on Tuesday.

Watkins, who had crafted the charter in tandem with the city’s police chief Jeff Smythe, noted that its provisions have gone through repeated rewrites in light of the feedback that he and the police chief have gotten since they unveiled their original proposal in September.

“We’ve had a great deal of community input along the way,” the city manager informed the council before Tuesday’s vote. “In total, there are 19 different folks from the community who have contributed.”

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Watkins added that specific suggestions for the charter’s improvement have come from community groups such as the local MLK Coalition, Actively Changing Together, and Alamance Agents for Change. He also recognized the council’s own contributions to the charter, which resulted in several tweaks to the document’s earlier drafts.

Watkins went to describe several of the charter’s more recent revisions. The city manager mentioned some new language that he and the police chief have added to make it clear that the team’s role will be purely advisory with “no decision-making authority.” The revised charter also notes that the team’s members will enjoy no special access to records that are exempt from the state’s Public Records Law.

“[The advisory team] will not have investigatory and subpoena powers or authority,” the final draft of the document elaborates, “and [it] will not have access to employee personnel records…including internal affairs inquiries and records of complaints filed against individual officers.”

Another collection of changes addresses unexcused absences and the “engagement” of the team’s members. Meanwhile, a provision that had encouraged “racial equity training” had been dropped from the amended text. Watkins also alluded to some additional verbiage that gives the council the flexibility to deviate from a list of demographic and professional “categories” from which the group’s members are supposed to be drawn.

Before the council gave its blessing to the charter on Tuesday its members solicited some last-minute input from members of the general public. The only person who took advantage of this opportunity was Suzie Stogner, a Burlington resident affiliated with Alamance Agents for Change. In a series of written remarks, Stogner lamented the erstwhile reference to racial equity training and further warned that the charter, as written, would fail “to hold the police fully accountable for their actions when mistakes happen.”

“I think you have a good start,” she added, “but it will be up to you all the team that is chosen…to make this a more meaningful means of engagement and trust-building for the generations of people in our community who have been stopped, abused, criminalized, and silenced.”

 

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