COVINGTON, Ga. — Develop trust through transparency is what Covington Police Chief Stacey Cotton believes a Citizen Review Board could do for the police department.
It’s the reason why he fully supported the city council’s unanimous decision Monday, March 15, to approve the first reading of an ordinance to establish such a board.
“We need as police departments to figure out ways to build trust in our communities. We’re part of several different things, working on trust initiatives across the state and in our community,” Cotton said. “… I see [the Citizen Review Board’s creation] as a big step in a way of building trust within our community that I believe was already there, to some extent, but we can never not look for other avenues to continue to build that trust — especially in these days and times.”
Per the proposed ordinance amendment, the “unbiased” board’s purpose would be “to foster transparency, enhance communication and ensure a relationship of trust and respect between the Covington Police Department and the community it serves … and to increase and demonstrate police accountability and credibility with the public.” In line with its purpose, the board would “review completed internal department investigations involving use of force, and cases and issues of importance or interest to the community.” Other duties would include “determine whether any such investigation and disposition of the case was consistent with department policies and procedures; make recommendations regarding the department’s handling of completed investigations and to determine whether any revisions or additions to department policy and procedures are appropriate; and report findings and recommendations to the chief of police with copies provided to the mayor and council.” The ordinance notes that the police chief would retain “full and ultimate authority, power, discretion, management prerogatives and responsibility” to set policies and take other appropriate actions deemed necessary. However, the chief could not accept a recommendation from the board to punish the same officer more than once for the same issue if already punished by the city.
Talk of creating a Citizen Review Board for the police department first began nearly five years ago to encourage citizens to feel more comfortable in filing complaints against police officers, if necessary. At the time, Cotton said he felt as though the department was operating according to its National Accreditation standards.
“In response, and at the suggestion of a citizen, we formed a group of citizens chosen by the mayor and council to compare how the Covington Police Department met the standards of President Obama’s 21st Century Policing recommendations,” Cotton recalled. “This exercise showed that we either met or exceeded the recommendations, and the council chose not to implement a Citizen Review Board at that time.”
Discussion resurfaced last summer when a wave of civil unrest relating to heavily scrutinized police brutality cases rippled across the nation. Cotton and the city’s leadership were then approached by the Newton County Ministers Union, led by Revs. Harold Cobb, William Gaither and Dwayne Stephens, to revisit the idea of forming a Citizen Review Board.
“Even though I know we work diligently to meet the needs of the community, the national conversation was building trust in the community, so I agreed that we should form this group to review our process and how we deal with officers who may not follow policy and procedure and how we take that seriously,” Cotton said. “Even though we have not had any issues that warranted a Citizen Review Board, and I know we still meet the same standards we met when we reviewed this the last time, I want this community to have confidence in the Covington Police Department. I see the Citizen Review Board as a way to allow citizens access to information they can share with the community and build trust and confidence in their police department.”
Cotton said he and the group didn’t always see eye to eye on every point of discussion, but they always found a way to work through those disagreements and was thankful for their efforts.
“One of the things I really appreciated from them was they always felt like this was something that could not only help the community, but help the police department’s [stature] within the community. So I always felt like they were looking out for the best interest of us, and I want to publicly thank them.”
City Manager Scott Andrews said Mayor Steve Horton and Councilman Kenneth Morgan played instrumental roles in working with the police department and ministers union since August to create the legislation first read Monday.
“I think it's a good start,” Morgan said after thanking the mayor and city personnel for their commitment to the issue. “It’s about being proactive, and it's about building trust and relationship within our community, so I appreciate everybody for what they’re doing. I think this is the right thing to do at this point in time.”
The Citizen Review Board will not be officially created until the ordinance amendment’s second reading is approved during the council’s next regularly scheduled meeting, April 5.
If approved, the council would next work to appoint board members.
Per the ordinance, the board would consist of seven voting members and one non-voting member, who would act at the board’s “coordinator.” One member would be appointed by the mayor, three would be appointed by council members from the East Ward and three would be appointed by the West Ward. The coordinator would be appointed by the police chief and would not be included in determination of a quorum.
Initial term length for the one member appointed by the mayor, one member appointed by the East Ward and one member appointed by the West Ward is three years. The remaining board members’ initial term length is four years. All terms would be for three years following the initial term. No member could serve more than two consecutive terms.
Board members can not include the mayor or council, a city employee, an immediate family member of a city employee, currently working for a law enforcement agency, hold a political office or be campaigning for a political office or have any prior felony convictions or any conviction involving moral turpitude. No member other than the non-voting member appointed by the police chief shall have been previously employed by the Covington Police Department.
Members must be 18 years old and a current resident of Covington. Members would be required to complete a written application, pass a background heck with no felony convictions, successfully complete the Covington Police Department Citizens Academy and devote a minimum of nine hours to participate in a ride-along on patrol with the department.
Members cannot miss more than three scheduled meetings annually without good cause.
The Citizen Review Board would meet quarterly, at minimum. All meetings would be open to the public.
Per the ordinance, actions of the board “shall not limit the powers and responsibilities of the police chief pursuant to the charter and other applicable laws, nor the rights of members of the police department with respect to disciplinary action."
The board is not allowed to not make any confidential police document or any information within such documents known to the public. Findings and conclusions of the board, including information received through interviews, study and review of documents, must remain confidential until the board publicly votes to approve release.
The coordinator’s duties would include assisting with training of the members; prepare the agenda and provide proper notice for each meeting; serving as administrative liaison between the board and the police chief; and reporting the board’s findings to the police chief. The coordinator would also be required to file a written report to the city council on an annual basis informing the council of the number and nature of matters considered by the board, the recommendations made to the chief of police and the official response of the department to said recommendations.