By Greg Lacour
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Reuters) - A civilian review board in Charlotte, North Carolina, handed down a split decision on Thursday over a finding by the city's police chief that an officer acted properly in killing a black man in 2016.
It was the first time in the board's 20-year history that a majority on the panel in North Carolina's biggest city did not agree with the police chief in such a case.
Charlotte's Citizens Review Board spent more than two days hearing evidence in the death of Keith Lamont Scott, a 43-year-old black man shot by Officer Brentley Vinson in September 2016. His death touched off two days of sometimes violent demonstrations that left another man dead and resulted in extensive property damage.
The board split 4-4 in its vote on Thursday, meaning Charlotte-Mecklenburg Chief Kerr Putney’s determination that Vinson acted in accordance with department policy will stand. In November, District Attorney Andrew Murray determined that Vinson, who also is black, committed no crime.
"The board was split — which has come a long way from the chief's earlier determination that this shooting was absolutely, 150 percent justified,” said Scott family attorney Justin Bamberg. "We are still looking into the likelihood of success in a civil lawsuit."
The board has 11 members, but one seat is vacant and two members were unable to attend the hearing because of work commitments, said Cary Davis, the board’s attorney.
The board, established in 1997, lacks the authority to enforce its decisions.
City policy requires any board member who votes to have attended the entire hearing, which was conducted mostly in closed session because it covered a city personnel issue.
The review board also voted 8-0 to make a series of policy recommendations to Putney and the department. Those were not disclosed because they involve personnel.
The department "is committed to ensuring the safety of the community it serves, as well as encouraging transparency and open dialogue,” city spokeswoman Sandy D’Elosua Vastola said in a prepared statement on Thursday. D'Elosua said the department would consider any recommendations.
The board was founded after white police officers shot and killed three unarmed black citizens. But its lack of independent power has led to frustration, especially in Charlotte’s black community.
The city adopted reforms in 2013 that broadened the board’s ability to obtain internal police documents and question witnesses, and complainants have won more hearings since then.
SAFE Coalition NC, a Charlotte-based group pushing for more police accountability, has advocated for independent investigative and subpoena power for the board, plus the power to discipline officers on its own.
(Editing by Frank McGurty and Tom Brown)