Tuesday, 16 June 2020 21:55

Hamlet City Council approves police department citizen review board, appoints members

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HAMLET — One city councilman doesn’t think his small-town police department needs a citizen review board.

Councilman Oscar Sellers was the only member to vote no when the Hamlet City Council took votes on the establishment of the board and its appointees.

The necessity of the board wasn’t Sellers’ only objection.

When Police Chief Tommy McMasters came before the board with the list of appointees, Councilman Eddie Martin raised the point that the council had to approve the formation of the board.

“I want to congratulate our chief of police for going out and trying to do something for the community, for the city and police department,” said Martin, himself a former chief of the Rockingham Police Department, while making a motion to approve the review board.

Sellers asked City Attorney T.C. Morphis if the review board was legal.

“As I understand it, this is a purely advisory board,” Morphis said. “This is not a board that can change standard operating procedures of the police department. It doesn’t have a personnel review function or anything like that.”

Sellers then asked if the chief had the authority to create the review board without council approval citing a recent newspaper article saying it has already been established and there has already been a meeting.

“We’re rectifying that now,” Mayor Bill Bayless said.

“How are you rectifying it?” Sellers asked, to which Bayless replied, “We’re officially appointing this board.”

“But is the board a legal board,” Sellers asked again.

“It will be when we appoint it,” Bayless answered.

Sellers started again, saying that there had already been a meeting when Bayless asked what he thought the council should do about it.

“I suggest we abolish it and start anew,” Sellers said. 

After Councilwoman Abbie Covington seconded the motion, Sellers said he thought it was illegal.

Bayless then called for a vote by show of hands, with Sellers being the only one to oppose it.

Next came the list of names of those suggested to be appointed: Joe Ingram, Tony Clewis and Lois Jones.

Again, referring to the article, Sellers said it appeared that four people had already been appointed to the board following background checks.

Bayless said the council had nothing to do with anything prior to the meeting and that the council was appointing the members then.

“Now do you have some suggestions?” he asked Sellers.

Sellers again reiterated that it seemed the board was already established and asked about its legality.

“It was not a legal board before, it is right now, OK?” Bayless replied.

Morphis interjected, saying, “Sometimes things get done with the correct intentions but not the right process,” and, from his understanding, there was never any intent to do anything illegally.

Sellers then asked where the council and city manager come in, in regards to the board, citing the article that cites McMasters saying he has the final say.

The chief can make a recommendation to the city manager, who has hiring and firing authority.

“That’s not what the paper says,” Sellers said.

“Don’t pay any attention to what the newspaper says,” Bayless said. “You’re sitting here on council, you make these decisions. The newspaper doesn’t make decisions.”

After a little more back and forth, Sellers then asked if it was a conflict for a sitting city council member to be a member of the review board.

Covington said there were no council members on the list that was to be approved.

Sellers then cited the article, again, which listed Covington as one of the members of the review board.

She said she was originally appointed to the board before being appointed to the council in March to fill the vacancy left by Terry Moore, who resigned after being elected in November.

“The purpose (of the review board) was not to do anything other than stimulate conversation between the community and the police department,” Covington said. “It had nothing to do with city council. It was to add a layer of communication between the police department and the community.”

“That just answered my question, thank you,” Sellers said.

Bayless then said it seemed like Sellers had a problem with having a citizens review board for the police department.

“I just don’t see why we need one,” Sellers said.

With that, Bayless moved on to ask for a motion for the three applicants, who were approved by everyone but Sellers.

“In this time where there seems to be such a divide between the law enforcement community and the community as a whole, he’s (McMasters) is trying to bridge that gap by bringing the community and the police department together,” Covington said.

Since taking over in April of 2019, McMasters has gone door-to-door with his officers through the community, hosted community watch meetings and a “know your rights” forum in an effort to strengthen the relationship between the department and the public.

Councilman Maurice Stuart, who heard stories of what his parents went through, said it was “disheartening that will still … get stories like that.”

“So I appreciate the chief of police for going the extra step and making sure that policies and procedures  are just in place,” he continued. “We can easily say stuff like that won’t come to small town Hamlet, but I just appreciate things being put in place so something like that would never ever happen … we won’t to make sure that that doesn’t happen.”

Martin and Councilman Jesse McQueen also applauded McMasters’ efforts in community policing.

“I want to look at you dead in the eyes and tell you this: Thank you for your leadership, thank you for your forethought and your vision to create this board to enable the city of Hamlet Police Department to be one step further in their process of community relations and community policing,” said McQueen, a former Hamlet police officer. “That is an exceptional thing that you’ve done. I really appreciate it, the citizens will appreciate it once they see what the functions are.”

McQueen added that the board can be an influence over the city whenever its needed.

“Hopefully it will never be needed,” he continued. “Hopefully everything goes smoothly, but unfortunately, when police officers are doing their job — me and you’s had some tough conversations about what y’all deal with on the street. I think it’s an excellent addition to your legacy here at the police Department.”

While he had no comment toward the end of the meeting, Sellers reiterated afterwards his feelings on the review board.

“I don’t think the city needs a review board,” Sellers said. “We have a city hall, we have a council, we have a city manager and a mayor. People can come here and complain.”

He said a review board might be OK in larger cities with higher populations, but not a small town like Hamlet.

“We don’t need two boards.”