RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The City of Richmond is one step closer to instituting a civilian review board, which would be charged with providing oversight of complaints made against the Richmond Police Department (RPD) and its officers.

Richmond City Council members heard a presentation Monday from Dr. William Pelfrey, Jr., a Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) professor, focusing on criminal justice and homeland security, as well as emergency preparedness.

“I was invited to serve on Mayor [Levar] Stoney’s Reimagining Policing task force, and we concluded that work about a year ago, and part of our recommendation was to form a civilian review board in Richmond, and that’s something Richmond has needed for a long time,” he said. “It’s something that most police departments in cities about this size have.

For example, on July 21, 2021, the Arlington County Board established a Community Oversight Board and Independent Policing Auditor, in an effort to improve transparency and accountability in the Arlington County Police Department. Fairfax County also has a Civilian Review Panel, which reviews completed Fairfax County Police Department investigations into complaints containing allegations of abuse of authority or serious misconduct to work toward greater accuracy, completeness, thoroughness, objectivity and impartiality.

“A civilian review board is all about trust and accountability, and there are people in Richmond who don’t trust the police,” Pelfrey said. “If people don’t trust the police, then it diminishes police effectiveness. A citizenry that trusts the police will give them intelligence, give them information, tell them they think somebody down the street is doing something suspicious. When people don’t trust the police, the police don’t get that information until it’s too late. Then, they’re reactive, instead of being proactive.”

Pelfrey reviewed Richmond Police complaint data from 2013 to 2021. His findings showed that the majority of complaints were made internally, with an average of 57.7 citizen complaints made against the department each year.

Pelfrey noted during Monday’s meeting that formal citizen complaints are a flawed system, and that Richmond Police reports stated that 5 to 10% of all complaints suggest possible criminal activity. With this in mind, Pelfrey said that workload expectations for Richmond’s civilian review board would be between five and eight cases per month.

This RPD complaint data was presented to the Richmond City Council during a virtual meeting Monday afternoon. (Courtesy: City of Richmond/Dr. William Pelfrey, Jr.)

“Usually, a civilian review board will review a defined set of cases,” Pelfrey said. “Any death in custody, any firearm usage, any serious injury to a suspect resulting in hospitalization, or an appeal of an internal affairs investigation where a citizen appeals the outcome.”

According to Pelfrey, the City of Richmond does not have an extensive history of such citizen-police interactions. However, the board could provide an opportunity to enhance trust.

“It makes the people who’ve been arrested feel like they’re going to be treated more fairly, and ultimately, it’ll benefit the police department because they will secure access to information and intelligence that they wouldn’t otherwise get,” he said.

Pelfrey recommended that Richmond’s civilian review board be made up of seven to 11 individuals who are diverse and representative of the community. They would be appointed by multiple sources — the mayor, City Council and Chief of Police — with set terms.

He also recommended a liaison with the Richmond Police Department: an active-duty investigator who could answer questions, secure information and represent a point-of-contact with the agency.

“Ideally, that person will also have some internal affairs background, and they can explain the internal affairs process because the people who are going to be on the civilian review board are not police experts,” Pelfrey said. “Their purpose is to be objective. The police experts come in in a different way.”

While this liaison would not be a voting member of Richmond’s civilian review board, there is a bill currently making its way through the state legislature that could change that.

“One of the elements of HB 1000 is that a police officer, a former police officer would sit on any civilian review board in the State of Virginia,” Pelfrey said. “I think that’s a bad idea because it would begin to delegitimize the civilian review board. A civilian review board is supposed to be completely objective, and if you populate CRBs with police officers or a former police officer, in some people’s eyes, it’s going to diminish their objectivity.”

The measure is still being discussed. But if it passes, the City of Richmond, as well as other localities, would have to adapt.

Pelfrey said it will also be up to the City Council to determine how much subpoena authority the civilian review board would have. He recommended that such authority could be exercised following a majority vote, and that request would come from a city attorney to then be reviewed by an objective judge.

“The mayor says that he wants a CRB, the police chief wants a civilian review board and the City Council has said that they want a civilian review board,” Pelfrey said. “The devil’s in the details and figuring out who’s going to appoint how many people; how they’re going to proceed, how the CRB’s going to proceed; how they’re going to conduct their investigations; the degree of subpoena authority that they’ll possess.”

Although Richmond’s civilian review board would have the authority to make recommendations based on oversight of cases, Pelfrey did not recommend that the group should have final authority over discipline for police officers.

“Most civilian review board outcomes are advisory to a police chief, and that’s the norm, and the police chief can use that recommendation in conjunction with the outcome from the internal affairs investigation,” he said. “If the civilian review board believes that the internal affairs investigation was not legitimate or the outcome was inappropriate, then, they’ll make a different recommendation to the chief, and the chief can factor that into his or her decision-making.”

Pelfrey noted during his presentation that the first iteration of this board will not be perfect and that there may be a need to make revisions over time.