- The Washington Times - Monday, August 20, 2001

It's a familiar scenario in Maryland and elsewhere — shootings and accusations of police misconduct prompt calls for holding the police more accountable for their actions.

The familiar solution is a civilian review board, a watchdog panel of residents to investigate incidents and make sure departments are policing themselves.

In Prince George's County, a task force wants to significantly expand the power of the existing board, following numerous police-involved shootings and brutality accusations in recent years.

Montgomery County is holding meetings to discuss the formation of a review board, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is pushing for a similar panel in Frederick County.

"This would instill the kind of trust in the police that is necessary for them to properly police the county. Currently, we don't have that," said Prince George's County Council member M.H. Jim Estepp, author of a bill increasing the power of the county's existing board.

But the example set by more than 100 boards nationwide shows that they do not always bring the accountability they are intended to produce.

That's because the boards often do not receive the necessary cooperation from police and city administrators, said University of Nebraska criminal justice professor Samuel Walker.

Mr. Walker, who has studied civilian oversight boards and written a book on the subject, said, "It's a mixed bag nationwide."

Boards in Minneapolis, San Francisco and San Jose, Calif., are effective and are supported by both the communities and the police departments.

But the New York and Philadelphia review boards have struggled, Mr. Walker said, hamstrung by resistance from police departments, police unions and city administrators reluctant to give them full investigative power.

Civilian police review boards come in several forms.

Many consist of part-time staffs with small-time budgets, such as Cincinnati's board, taking citizen complaints but unable to conduct their own investigations, relying instead on information from police internal affairs units.

Others — like Philadelphia's — have greater authority, with full-time investigators and subpoena power to interview officers. Investigations are forwarded to city administrators and police, often with disciplinary recommendations for officers.

Mr. Estepp's bill would allow Prince George's Civilian Complaint Oversight Panel to independently investigate citizen complaints. The board now reviews only police investigations.

In Montgomery County, the NAACP and American Civil Liberties Union want a board with subpoena powers. The NAACP also wants a review panel to address complaints of police brutality in Frederick County.

Such boards are much more successful, Mr. Walker said, since subpoena power provides the teeth to take on police unions and departments reluctant to outside scrutiny.

"They need to be able to conduct their own independent reviews, not just rely on the police department for their information," he said.

More important, though, is the willing participation of police departments, police unions and city administrations, said a March report by the Justice Department.

Since almost all boards, even those with subpoena power, can only recommend disciplinary actions, they depend on police chiefs and mayors who are receptive to civilian oversight.

But many police and city officials often question the need for review boards and the qualifications of board members judging officers.

"You are putting people who generally have no knowledge of police procedures in a position to make judgments on police officers who have to make split-second decisions," said Jim Pasco, executive director of the 300,000-member National Fraternal Order of Police.

Police unions nationwide have challenged review boards legally, but most attempts have failed, Mr. Walker said.

The Philadelphia police union filed six lawsuits challenging the Police Advisory Commission's authority since its formation in 1994, said Hector Soto, the panel's executive director. All failed.

The commission has had little success despite its subpoena power and three staff investigators. That's because it can only recommend discipline against officers, Mr. Soto said. Final decisions are left to the police commissioner and mayor.

The department has not acted on any of the approximately 20 disciplinary recommendations the commission has made because the department pays attention only to internal affairs investigations, Mr. Soto said.

The Minneapolis board, though, has been successful. The Civilian Police Review Authority, created in 1994, has about the same investigative power as Philadelphia's board, but city administrators, police and the police union have been receptive to it, executive director Patricia Hughes said.

Most cases are handled through mediation between citizens and officers, she said.

The department fired an officer after a panel recommendation, and the city replaced an uncooperative police chief with one receptive to civilian review, she said.

Boards without investigative abilities have fared worse.

Cincinnati, torn by recent rioting after a white officer fatally shot an unarmed black man, has a part-time board with no investigators. Stiff resistance has come from the city council and police department, Chairman Keith Borders said.

The board often is blocked from accessing police records, while other records are slow to appear, he said. The city manager and police department also have ignored all of the board's disciplinary recommendations, he said.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide