NC police officers accused of pointing gun at teen try to halt civilian review of case

Police officers accused of using excessive force against a teen playing tag with friends at a Durham apartment complex last year tried unsuccessfully Monday to delay a review board hearing in the case.

Durham attorney Daniel Meier filed a lawsuit on behalf of four unnamed officers that sought to pause the Durham Civilian Police Review Board’s examination of the police department’s investigation into officers who pointed their guns at and handcuffed then 15-year-old Jaylin Harris in August 2020. Two other children, 8 and 11, witnessed the incident.

Meier argued that review board Chair DeWarren Langley violated the board’s policy by expressing an opinion about the case in an interview with WRAL. He said the harm to his clients from a violation of confidentiality rules are “irreparable.”

“If the board comes out and makes findings that are against them or exceeds the scope of their authority, even later on if we succeed, you can’t unring that bell,” Meier said during the hearing.

Meier also argued that the review board shouldn’t be hearing a case in which families have said they plan to sue the city. He also asked the judge to ensure the board stays within the narrow scope of its review.

The board is supposed to maintain its independence as a quasi-judicial body, Meier argued.

“They shouldn’t be able to say, ‘We have these rules, but if we feel like ignoring them, there’s nothing you can do about it,’” he said.

Anna Davis, assistant city attorney, argued that it is unlikely the officers would prove Langley violated the open meeting laws or confidentiality laws related to public employees.

Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson agreed with Davis and denied the motion for a preliminary injunction that would halt the review board’s meeting, which was set to resume at 5 p.m. Monday, about 30 minutes after the court hearing concluded.

“So the meeting is going to go on tonight?” Hudson asked Davis.

“It is, your honor,” Davis said.

Langley, who wasn’t at the hearing, declined to comment afterward on the accusations in the lawsuit.

The board will move forward with the process to make a final determination, he said.

While the preliminary injunction was denied, the lawsuit can still move forward. Meier said the board’s decision will determine his clients’ next steps.

Body-camera footage

After Jaylin’s mother, Ashley Harris, and other families expressed outrage at the Aug. 21, 2020, incident, the city released in November related body-camera footage of the officers running after the teen at the Rochelle Manor apartment complex.

The video shows an officer pointing his gun and chasing Jaylin, who lay face down on the concrete. After the teen was handcuffed and patted down by police, Jaylin told police he was running because he was playing tag with other kids.

No one was charged. Police later said they had received a call about someone in a tank top, which Harris was wearing, holding a gun.

“My son, our kids are still going to therapy for this,” said Makeba Hoffler, the mother of the youngest child who saw the incident, after the body camera footage was released. “It’s not going to stop playing in their heads what they went through that day.”

After an internal investigation by the police department’s Professional Standards Division, Officer Z.B. Starritt was suspended without pay for one day.

No other officers were disciplined.

Review board hearing sought

Harris then sought a hearing before Durham’s Civilian Police Review Board, according to court documents.

The board hears resident appeals of the outcome of complaints against officers.

If the board determines a hearing is justified, it is limited to examining the department’s investigation of a complaint, not the complaint itself. Langley said there have been six requests for appeal hearings so far this year, and three have been granted.

In the 2019-20 fiscal year, the review board received one request for an appeal hearing, but it wasn’t granted, according to the board’s annual report. The previous year there were no requests for appeal hearings.

The board is to determine whether there has been “an abuse of discretion,” according to a recent memo to the board from a city attorney. The memo defined abuse as “ clearly unreasonable, erroneous, or arbitrary and not justified by the facts or the law applicable in the case.”

After the hearing is concluded, the board, which has no power to discipline or reprimand an officer or employee, will then make a recommendation to the city manager and the police chief.

The review board held a hearing Wednesday on the incident, but it was scheduled to continue Monday.

After Wednesday’s session, WRAL ran a story quoting Langley saying the video footage and testimony “was very concerning,” court documents state.

Debate over expanding review board powers

The case is the latest incident to highlight the limited power of police review boards in North Carolina.

Demands to increase such boards’ power gained traction as protests in North Carolina against police brutality followed the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, The News & Observer reported.

Gov. Roy Cooper’s Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice recommended that North Carolina expand civilian review boards’ investigative and oversight authority.

But some law enforcement organizations, including the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association, oppose such changes.

Residents have a voice in the process through their votes for sheriffs and district attorneys, who typically determine whether to press charges against an officer after an incident.

“As such, the Association believes that voting allows every citizen to be a member of a constitutional citizen review board and provides the necessary checks and balances in our justice system,” states the Sheriffs’ Association October 2020 report on Law Enforcement Professionalism, which outlined reforms the association supported and opposed.

The Raleigh City Council created that city’s Police Advisory Board in February 2020 after years of debate.

The board reviews police department procedures and can’t hear testimony or listen to citizen complaints.

Activists wanted the board to have broader powers, but city leaders said state laws limits the power of advisory boards.

In July 2020, the Raleigh City Council sent letters to three branches of state government asking for more authority to call witnesses and subpoena power, The N&O reported.

In March, two members of the 11-member board resigned, citing challenges of working with the city.

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