The ability to hold local police accountable is at the forefront of demands for addressing racial injustice from the Aiken County Branch of the NAACP.
Followed the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and protests nationwide calling for the end of police brutality and racial injustice, the local branch of the NAACP has been working through a list of demands it created in June, one being the need to establish a citizens review board for every law enforcement agency in the county.
Eugene White, Aiken County NAACP Branch president, read off the list of demands at a City of Aiken news conference in June involving government and community leaders in response to addressing racial injustice locally.
The local NAACP branch has been approaching the demands one at a time, White said.
The branch recently checked off "banning the box," which refers to requiring job-seekers to reveal their criminal history on applications.
Aiken City Council unanimously passed a "ban the box" resolution July 13 that applies to city government jobs.
White says the branch will now move toward addressing demands relating to the area's law enforcement, including the need for citizens review boards for every law enforcement division throughout Aiken County.
Citizens review boards can be found in cities across the nation with a general goal of citizens addressing and reviewing complaints against local law enforcement officers.
White believes these boards are a tool to reinforce public trust in police.
"Our intent isn’t to question the integrity of law enforcement leaders within the county," White said. "Citizen review boards are really a link between law enforcement and the community, an impartial body that ensures that law enforcement are handling engagements fairly."
Citizens Review Board in Aiken
In 2016, the City of Aiken established its own Citizens Review Board as a response to a lawsuit alleging an Aiken County man and woman were subjected to an illegal roadside cavity search during a traffic stop in October 2014.
The suit was filed in September 2015 in circuit court and then moved to federal court in November 2015.
Elijah Pontoon claimed he was subjected to a roadside cavity search in broad daylight on Horry Street near Richland Avenue in October 2014, according to the suit filed. Lakeya Hicks, who was with Pontoon during the police interaction, further alleged her chest was exposed during the search.
The City of Aiken responded to the suit immediately and later formed the Citizens Review Board, a board that specifically reviews complaints against Aiken Department of Public Safety officers.
On July 21, 2017, a settlement of $150,000 was reached between Pontoon and Hicks and the City of Aiken, according to documents.
Since its first meeting in 2017, Aiken's Citizens Review Board has held monthly meetings and has had the opportunity to review every complaint filed against Aiken Department of Public Safety officers.
John Dangler currently serves as chairperson to the review board of nine members who serve on a volunteer basis.
The board's makeup includes members of diverse races and work experience, Dangler said.
They hope to add on an additional member from Aiken's Hispanic community and possible additional members from Aiken's younger residents.
“I think the key things for a citizens review board is that we are committed to respect, accountability and transparency in serving the citizens in Aiken," Dangler said. "We’re here to ensure professional and accountable law enforcement to our citizens.”
When a complaint is filed against an officer with Aiken Public Safety, the officer's supervisor immediately conducts a thorough investigation which includes questioning the employee, witnesses and complainants, as well as collecting additional evidence, according to Aiken Public Safety policies and procedures.
The report containing findings and the supervisor's recommendations of the case are sent to Public Safety's director.
The director then reviews the report and any other supporting documents to make a final decision which is then communicated to the complainant.
If a complainant is not satisfied with the outcome of the investigation, Aiken Public Safety directs the complainant to the city's Citizens Review Board.
Dangler, a retired superior court judge from New Jersey and former Morris County prosecutor, said the board is allowed to review each complaint filed against Aiken's police officers.
The board reviews body and dash camera video in addition to reports and information documented by officers.
"We essentially look over each of these complaints to see if there’s a pattern here of conduct that we need to be concerned with, or do we continue to feel that these findings are appropriate?" Dangler said.
The board then brings its findings to the complainant and to Public Safety.
In 2019, the Aiken Department of Public Safety received 18 complaints with 21 allegations, Dangler said. Of those, four were sustained.
Since the board's formation, there have not been any reports that would make the board concerned about the department's handling of complaints, Dangler said.
"The fact that we have very little cases speaks for itself; but at the same time, if we see something we're a little but concerned about, we'll let the department know," Dangler said.
Public safety for everyone
Conversations and questions concerning police accountability have come to light following Floyd's death after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for nearly eight minutes. Floyd later died in police custody.
The interaction was captured on video by a bystander and was shared globally on the internet.
The Associated Press reported Chauvin had nearly 20 complaints and two letters of reprimand filed against him during his 19-year career.
Chauvin's case stands as a reminder for what Aiken's board looks out for.
"If we had something where we have had repetitive complaints, of the officers acting inappropriately, we would be spending a lot of time with the chief," Dangler said. "We would be very concerned with what they are doing to deal with that situation."
Although Dangler is proud of the work Aiken's Citizens Review Board and city police have done to promote transparency and accountability, he believes no city is immune to cases such as what happened to Floyd in Minneapolis.
Dangler encourages law enforcement agencies to consider the idea of forming their own citizens review boards.
"In these times, I think that the county would be a good idea to look into it and see the pros and cons of having it," Dangler said. "You could have a minor incident happen in a little town that suddenly is an explosion publicity wise. That certainly could always happen in Aiken; and I think, because of the system we’ve set up, we’ll hopefully never see that."
While White appreciates the work Aiken's Citizens Review Board accomplishes, he hopes new review boards for other municipalities in Aiken County will have "a little more bite," including the ability to hold independent investigations, call witnesses and be able to make strong recommendations when officer discipline is appropriate.
"The ultimate goal, really, is public safety for everyone," White said. "At the end of the story, we all want to live in a community that is safe for everyone."