Late night council meeting leads to debate over civilian police oversight board

Late night council meeting leads to debate over civilian police oversight board
Photo/Missy Schrott

By Cody Mello-Klein |

City Council voted to send a series of models for a civilian police oversight board to the community for feedback during a contentious legislative meeting on Jan. 12 that stretched beyond 2 a.m.

Although council has been unified in the need for such an oversight body over the last year, the lengthy, fiery conversation on the dais showed a council divided over what a police oversight board should look like in the city and how much power it should have.

Based on the four models for how a police oversight board could operate in that city staff presented to council, council voted 4-3 to send an ordinance for a hybrid investigative model to the community for input. The other three options would be presented alongside this option.

“One of the things that the community asked for is for this body to have certain investigative authority with subpoena power,” Councilor Mo Seifeldein said. “I think there’s a general consensus as to why we brought this forth, and this is what the community wants.”

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer and the protests that swept the country in 2020, City Council unanimously approved a resolution on June 9, 2020 directing city staff to bring a proposal for an oversight board to council.

When staff brought that proposal before council on Sept. 8, it included only a single option – a hybrid model with a civilian-led review board and independent auditor – and drew criticism from City Council members. Council ultimately sent staff back to the drawing board and directed staff to return to council with a more comprehensive presentation of various models.

On Jan. 12, Sarah Taylor, the city’s legislative director, returned to present four options, which ranged from boards with advisory power to complete investigative authority.

The first two models Taylor presented included the poles of the oversight spectrum. One, model A, was a review-focused civilian oversight board that would provide recommendations based on reviewing investigations that had already been conducted by Alexandria Police Department internal affairs.

The second, model B, was an investigative-focused civilian oversight board that would, through an independent auditor, conduct investigations instead of APD and make binding decisions.

The last two options presented by Taylor, a model C and model C2, represented two variants of a hybrid investigative body and received the most support from council.

Model C would allow police to conduct internal investigations except in specific cases assigned to the oversight body under code, such as cases involving use of force or the death or serious injury to a person in custody. In those cases, an independent auditor would conduct their own investigation and present their findings to the board to render a decision.

This kind of hybrid oversight body would also provide feedback and direction for the police department’s policies, directives, programs, budgets and expenditures, allowing it to shape the police department outside of those individual cases.

In model C2, APD would continue to conduct all investigations, however, in any case where the oversight body deems it necessary, the hybrid oversight board could insert an independent auditor into the investigation. The auditor would sit in on the investigation and, if the result was found to be insufficient or questionable, the auditor would conduct their own investigation, issue findings to the board and determine discipline.

During the more than two-hour conversation on the virtual dais, members of council remained split over which variant of model C to push out into the community as a council-supported model. Even after Seifeldein put forward a motion, seconded by Pepper, prioritizing model C, members of council debated the value of both variants.

Throughout the conversation, Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker and Councilors Seifeldein, Canek Aguirre and John Chapman largely supported model C. Mayor Justin Wilson and Councilors Amy Jackson and Del Pepper remained skeptical of model C and supported model C2.

Bennett-Parker argued that model C provides the board independent investigative power while allowing council the flexibility to choose which kinds of cases it can exercise that power in.

“I think with model C it seems like you can assign it as much authority as you want to …” Bennett-Parker said.

Wilson spoke in support of model C2 and stated his discomfort with any investigative body that completely replaces APD’s investigative ability in specific cases.

“For me personally, I have concern about taking away the investigatory authority of the police department in those matters,” Wilson said.

Jackson echoed Wilson’s concerns and argued model C2 would allow the city to compromise between what the community and APD want.

“I’m also trying to find a compromise where I think we need something because the community has been asking for this, however, I don’t think we need something so intrusive as to feel the police are having their powers taken away because we don’t want that either,” Jackson said.

Aguirre asked Seifeldein to clarify what kinds of cases the oversight board would investigate in his proposed model C. Seifeldein specified that the board would be given exclusive investigative authority over use of force incidents, the death or serious injury of people in custody and abuse of authority and other serious misconduct cases. In all other cases, APD would continue to hold its own internal investigations.

Jackson proposed a substitute motion that would prioritize the model C variant, C2, in the information sent out to the community.

Jackson’s substitute motion ultimately died for lack of a second, and Bennett-Parker offered another substitute motion that would send both model C variants to the community as council-supported models.

In response to the proposed motion, Seifeldein fired back at his fellow members of council, accusing them of paying lip service to the fight against police brutality and watering down the concept of the police review board while ignoring what the community has stated it wants.

“At this point you might as well just table this thing because every time people of color in this nation try to do something to overcome a systemic, racist system, you have people who think they know what they’re talking about – they know what these communities are talking about – without having done an ounce or inch of research come substitute their opinion for what those communities want,” Seifeldein said.

“This [model C] is what the community has asked for numerous times,” Seifeldein continued. “You’ve seen it since June. You’ve seen it here in this community. Most of you were at the rallies. Some of you even spoke at the rallies and fed people a bunch of lies and BS and now here [what] you’re trying to do is water it down and kill it. Right? This is not what the community has asked for.”

After a moment of silence passed among those on the Zoom call, Aguirre said he had no concerns with staff presenting both variants to the community.

“Even if staff brings us two proposed ordinances around C1 and C2, we have to vote on which one we’re ultimately going to decide on,” Aguirre said.

Shortly after, Seifeldein launched into a speech about the “miraculous, bloody and gruesome” history of the country and how easy it is for ostensibly good people to feel like they have no role to play in the fight against systemic injustice because they are “just one person” and need to support themselves and their family.

During Seifeldein’s comments, Jackson interrupted him and pushed council to vote on the substitute motion the vice mayor had put forward, resulting in a back and forth between Wilson and Seifeldein.

Bennett-Parker ultimately withdrew her substitute motion, and Pepper withdrew her second to Seifeldein’s initial motion. Without a way forward, Seifeldein eventually restated his motion, which was seconded by Aguirre and approved 4-3 with Wilson, Pepper and Jackson voting against prioritizing model C. Staff will return to council in March to present the results of the community outreach efforts.