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Thursday, Jan. 5, 2006 12:09 pm

Keeping a resolution

Civilian-review board plan moves forward, and that’s a good thing

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My friend Becky always made the same New Year’s resolution: to have a hot date on New Year’s Eve. That way, she had 12 months to work toward her goal, and it didn’t involve passing up beer or potato chips. I don’t recall making many resolutions myself. Way back in the 1900s, I accepted those extra five pounds by donating my favorite jeans to Goodwill. It’s been so long since I had any optional vices (caffeine and sugarless gum are necessities of life), my main resolution is just a pathetic middle-age version of Becky’s: to stay awake enough to see the crystal ball drop on TV. I don’t usually make it. But this year, I’m declaring an official resolution: to stop writing news articles about this city’s long, leisurely amble toward creating a citizen review board to monitor our police. I’ve written stories about the proposal being launched by a grassroots organization that used to regularly pack an eastside church fellowship hall. The fiery meeting, where everybody was baptized by the review board spirit, is such ancient history that the congregation has now moved to fancy new digs and the grassroots organization has dried up and blown away (remember Unity for our Community?). I’ve written stories about the City Council bringing in a panel of consultants to help draft an ordinance, and bringing them back again for an encore performance. And I was one of the handful of hardy souls who attended each and every one of the public hearings hosted by a council subcommittee seeking community input on the draft ordinance — meetings so under-attended yet tedious that I began to believe there was a conspiracy to kill the idea by boring all interested parties to death. But in October, after a bit of oral surgery to remove the bicuspids and incisors from the draft ordinance, the council unanimously passed a compromise version. It lacked funding, staffing and subpoena power, but Ward 2 Ald. Frank McNeil — who has been pushing the proposal for more than 15 years, including at that fiery Unity meeting back in aught-2 — said he just had to get the review board established; it could be beefed up later. “You know that old saying about the camel?” he had asked me during negotiations. “Once the camel gets his nose into the tent, you may as well let the whole camel in.” These days, McNeil is sounding downright hopeful about the Police Community Review Commission. He plans to meet later this week with the mayor’s executive assistant, Jim Donelan, who recently attended the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement convention in Miami and came back with the knowledge that review boards aren’t witch hunters. “Oversight is a good thing and something that’s needed,” he says. “The fact that there’s a process for independent folks to take a look at some complaints — it just seems to be a good thing.”
The mayor’s office has received some 70 résumés from citizens interested in serving on the PCRC, and Donelan says he’s helping the mayor put together a five-member task force to sort through the applicants. This task force — to be composed of four community leaders and one representative from the Springfield Police Department — will then come up with a list of 15 or 20 individuals to recommend for appointment to the seven-member PCRC. For McNeil, arriving at this point represents the culmination of “one of the toughest” battles of his two decades on the council. “It’s also probably one of the largest things,” he says. “I don’t think people understand the depth of the impact a review board can have just to be able to review internal affairs files and see if in fact the right questions were asked.” He hastens to clarify: “I would be the first to say we’ve got some very good police officers. In fact, most of our officers are very good,” McNeil says. “And anybody doing their job the right way, this [board] won’t have any effect on them at all.”
I should clarify, too: my resolution doesn’t mean I’m done writing about the PCRC. I plan to keep covering police issues for a long time. But I hope — I resolve! — to stop writing about tiny, halting steps, inching lackadaisically toward the establishment of a process that has been needed for so long. From now on, I want to write about a panel populated with real people, with the potential to investigate real cases involving real police officers. And while I’m at it, what the heck: I’d like to have a hot date next New Year’s Eve too.
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