A brief history of efforts to establish a community board for oversight of police actions in the Port City.
Protests in Wilmington have died down for the most part. But an enduring change that might still come from the nationwide uprising — a response to the death of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer — is the establishment of a so-called “citizens’ review board” (CRB) of local police actions.
In July, Wilmington City Attorney John Joye, who has experience working with the citizens’ review board in Charlotte, where he was an assistant city attorney, said the city was in the early stages “of drafting a CRB structure for the review of city council, stakeholders and our community.”
Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo and Police Chief Donny Williams, among others, have expressed support for having a review board. As a review of minutes from old Wilmington City Council meetings and reports by the StarNews reveal, it’s not the first time Wilmington has looked at having a board of citizens reviewing how the police conduct their business.
In 1990, the Wilmington City Council hired a consulting firm to conduct a review of the Wilmington Police Department, which at the time was led by Chief Darryl Bruestle. This came after a year in which officers had fatally shot two unarmed residents in separate incidents.
In one, John Franklin Jones, a Black man, was shot and killed after a car chase by a white officer, Ed Gibson of the City-County Vice and Narcotics Unit. The shooting was ruled an accident, and Gibson was never charged.
As part of the review in 1990, a nine-member “police services advisory committee” was formed to advise the consultants conducting the review of the WPD. Committee members included the Rev. Keith Wiley, founder of Wilmington’s New Beginning Christian Church, and Rabbi Robert Waxman of the B’nai Israel Synagogue.
Among the steering committee’s goals were to provide to the consultants information about community problems and the effectiveness of the WPD. Ultimately, a report produced by the consultants included among its recommendations that hiring be diversified and the quality of police training improved.
As part of the process of the WPD review but separate from the committee, Richard Irving with Southern Christian Leadership Conference spoke to the city council in 1990, saying it should fire Chief Bruestle and Officer Gibson and form a citizens review board.
Ultimately, the advisory committee’s influence ended after the consultants’ report was submitted.
In 1998, the issue of a review board came up again in regard to the WPD, which at that time was led by Chief John Cease. Wilmington saw 14 murders during Cease’s first year on the job, and a StarNews story in April of that year quoted residents as saying “that the police department was contaminated by racism and did not support residents in high-crime areas.” Cease was quoted as saying that “some neighborhoods themselves” tolerate violent crime.
That year, an 11-member “citizens committee” was formed to conduct a review of the WPD and present its findings to council. Members included Rosa Webb, the Rev. James Utley and James Hankins, who was then president of the local chapter of the NAACP.
Reached by phone on Monday, Hankins, a real estate agent and retired New Hanover County Schools teacher, said the WPD was “not operating fairly” at the time.
“They were doing whatever they wanted,” Hankins said. “We were trying to get some fairness in the department.”
A major complaint from some Black residents, he said, was that majority Black neighborhoods were being policed almost entirely by white officers.
“That’s what it was all about,” Hankins said.
Ultimately, that committee’s recommendations included increasing the number of officers, as well as their salaries and benefits; emphasizing diversity; and creating a permanent “police advisory committee.”
Hankins said he and one other committee member voted against its findings, in part because he didn’t feel the report addressed the issue of racism as fully as it should have.
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But Hankins said “we definitely need” a citizens’ review board. “We needed one back then,” he added, because no one, including the police, can be expected to police themselves.
In January of 2002, Wilmington’s then-mayor, Harper Peterson, proposed the Mayor’s Ad Hoc City Review Committee for the WPD. He pulled it from consideration in February, however, after finding tepid support for it on council.
The Mayor Pro-Tem, Katherine Moore — who was embroiled in a controversy at the time over an altercation she had with a WPD officer — made the point during a council meeting that a board without subpoena power to call witnesses during investigations of police actions would have negligible power.
That refrain has been heard again in recent years during protests by Wilmington’s arm of the Black Lives Matter movement, which is led by Sonya Patrick.
In 2016, Wilmington and New Hanover County formed the County/City of Wilmington Community Relations Advisory Committee, a 12-member committee with goals that include addressing community discrimination of all kinds. One of the committee’s functions is supposed to be to serve as a resource during community conflict, but the committee has kept a low-profile during recent protests.
Reached by phone Monday, former Mayor Peterson, now a state senator, said “it’s an ongoing challenge, with a diverse population like this city has, (to address) the ills and deficiencies and inequities of the past.
“Since the ’60s we’ve made progress. Then, you feel like you lose ground,” Peterson said. “But any time you involve the citizens it’s a good thing.”
Contact John Staton at 910-343-2343 or [email protected].