The District’s top attorney says the city’s police chief is not required to discipline officers found guilty of misconduct by the Office of Police Complaints — a major blow to the civilian board charged with investigating public accusations of wrongdoing.
The opinion, issued in a letter from D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan to the Metropolitan Police Department’s general counsel, frees Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier to essentially dismiss misconduct charges substantiated by the office — a practice that has evoked ire from the complaints board in a small number of cases in which the chief has dismissed charges in the past.
Officials with the office, an independent agency from the police department, said they are further concerned that their authority is being undermined and that the opinion runs contrary to the laws that enabled the board.
“We are puzzled and concerned by the letter,” said Philip K. Eure, director of the Office of Police Complaints. Obtained by The Washington Times, the letter was issued Jan. 22 and marked “privileged and confidential.”
“We’re going to be monitoring that to see whether or not our decisions are being enforced,” he said.
The dispute is nothing new. Nationwide, civilian review boards and police departments have frequently clashed over questions of the necessity and effectiveness of citizen-led oversight panels.
The New York Police Department’s Civilian Complaint Review Board was described as a “fundamentally flawed system” that often fails to effectively investigate complaints, according to a 2007 report by the New York Civil Liberties Union that reviewed more than decade of the board’s practices.
Civilian boards also often face stiff resistance from the departments they are tasked with reviewing. Published reports concluded in 2011 that Atlanta’s police chief rejected the findings of that city’s Citizen Review Board in every case in which an officer was found guilty of misconduct. That office was created in 2007 after the fatal shooting of a 92-year-old woman during a botched drug raid.
Civilian oversight agencies are common in large cities. A 2009 report in the Columbia Journal of Law and Social Problems identified 100 active civilian oversight bodies in the United States and said they were frequently created in the wake of high-profile scandals or investigations. The report said that, when crises pass, the agencies often were left with inadequate resources and authority.
The District’s Office of Police Complaints, which opened in 2001 after a similar panel was dissolved six years earlier, said in its latest annual review that its biggest hurdle to resolving cases more rapidly was a lack of investigators given the volume of citizen complaints.
With an approximately $2 million budget and 23 full-time employees, the office annually receives more than 550 misconduct complaints, ranging from insulting language to excessive force.
Cases can be resolved in a number of ways, including through mediation, referral to the Metropolitan Police Department, dismissal or adjudication.
Though such action is rare, it troubled the office so much that it was highlighted in the most recent annual report.