After eight months of being essentially non-functioning, the Charlottesville Police Civilian Oversight Board got some of its teeth back — it can now request access to police records it needs for proper misconduct oversight. But the long awaited resolution has some issues.

On Friday, May 31, Charlottesville City Manager Sam Sanders signed new standard operating procedures providing detailed guidance on information sharing, ending a prolonged period during which the Charlottesville Police Civilian Oversight Board (PCOB) was unable to access any police records or investigate potential cases of police misconduct.

Yet, despite the time it took for the city to write them, the PCOB Chair Bill Mendez told Dexter Auction that the new guidelines were “disappointing.” They are almost identical to a draft written in November that allowed the police too much response time and made the Board request information that should be provided routinely, said Mendez.

The PCOB's executive director, Inez Gonzalez, made recommendations to address the issue. The city did not incorporate them, Mendez said. In fact, the current version has only minor changes compared to its fall predecessor.

“It’s not clear why the document took so long to finalize. And it’s unfortunate that no effort was made to resolve the Executive Director’s concerns,” he said in an email to Dexter Auction on Tuesday.

The Board lost its access to police records in October and has been unable to take cases since. It had the right to hold hearings and subpoena witnesses, but neither of those were useful without access to the documents informing members about the details of cases.

Police Chief Michael Kochis ordered the department to cut the PCOB's access to department records, despite the city ordinance saying that the Board “shall be provided full access” to all police records relevant to its investigations, after learning that there were not written guidelines for the information sharing between the police and the board, said Mendez.

The police also seized the records that the Board was reviewing in a case about a potential traffic stop violation.

Prior to suspending the access to records, Mendez said Chief Kochis raised his concerns about the lack of clarity on the standard procedures in the agreement with the city manager and Gonzalez, the PCOB's director. They agreed that the procedures needed to be clarified, and three months later, Kochis and Gonzalez worked on a new information-sharing agreement for Sanders to review, but it's unclear how much of it informed the recently signed guidelines.

Police Chief Kochis' office did not respond to a request for comment sent on Monday. Sanders was also unavailable to speak directly with Dexter Auction.

Gonzalez, the PCOB's director, wasn't available for an interview in time for the publication, saying that as a city employee, she needs to abide by certain protocols and forwarded the request to the communications director and her superior.

Dexter Auction submitted a public records request for all email correspondence from Sanders about the PCOB in the last year. In a memo Sanders sent to Mendez and other city officials in February, Sanders wrote: “As I understand it, this version was co-drafted by Ms. Gonzalez and Chief Kochis, so I will review it with the desired spirit of collaboration in mind.”

Mendez said the PCOB received the draft guidelines in November, but did not approve of them. Board members sent their comments back, pointing that the language left too much room for the police to limit access to its records — the Board needed to be very precise in its requests, which would be hard without knowing details of particular cases or what documents were available. The November version also didn’t provide any clarification on how the Board and its executive director could monitor the department's day-to-day operations, such as submitted complaints and the results of internal investigations. Charlottesville's ordinance authorizing a PCOB allows the Board to conduct such daily supervision.

Afton Schneider, a spokesperson for the City of Charlottesville, said the new information sharing guidelines are a combination of Kochis and Gonzalez' proposed recommendations with a review of the ordinance, which was conducted by the City Attorney’s office.

“We are happy to have this matter resolved,” said Schneider.

Mendez, however, said in an email that “none of the comments provided by the Board's Executive Director on the November Draft were incorporated into the current version of the SOP.”

Among other issues he pointed out with the new guidelines was the fact that it left space for police to disagree with the Board on what information they find relevant to the case and instructs the Board to send separate information requests every time the Board becomes aware of a complaint or wishes to investigate. Police are also allowed three calendar days to respond to the Board's requests, which might be damaging to investigations in time-critical situations.

“Much better would be an automatic, real-time coordination between the CPD and the Board, initiated immediately when a complaint is received, accompanied by unfettered Executive Director access to Internal Affairs documents,” said Mendez.

“It may be that such cooperation is envisaged by the City and the CPD, but the SOP currently allows the Department to take a purely reactive role in providing information.”

He also pointed out that the new procedures, while calling for “good faith” information sharing, didn't specify that the Board's director should be notified when officers are being interviewed as a part of an Internal Affairs investigation. The Board's ordinance authorized Gonzalez to be present for such interviews, monitor them and suggest questions.

“‘Good faith' language was overshadowed by the fact that the Board should always ask,” said Mendez on a call with Dexter Auction on Tuesday.

If either of the parties finds the new version unsatisfactory, they would need to take it to the City Council to oppose, said Mendez.

The Board continues receiving a few complaints and more inquiries, but has had to refer them to CPD's Department of Internal Affairs.

This extended period of inaction is something Charlottesville's PCOB has experienced before. The first Board, which was then called the Police Civilian Review Board, was established in 2017 and tasked with writing bylaws for the future permanent Board. It took several years, and several tries, before the new permanent Board was established in 2021.

The Board took its first case the next year. That was the only case it managed to take before losing access to records in 2023.

I'm Dexter Auction's public health and safety reporter. You can catch me by email or on Facebook — I hear that's what the cool kids use these days. Let's chat!