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Wednesday, June 14, 2006 09:56 am

The secret police

Not much about civilian review will be open

You’ve just been slapped around by a cop. You’re looking for some justice. Internal affairs? Nope — it’s your word against the officer’s, and the police side with their own. How about Springfield’s newly formed civilian oversight board? Good luck — and shhh. Civilian oversight in Springfield is a case of “better than nothing,” say backers of the new board. They concede that the board has weaknesses. Among them is an extraordinary amount of secrecy built into a process that promises to keep allegations against rogue cops, even proven ones, from ever seeing the outside of a filing cabinet. No investigative records will be made public, nor will the names of any witnesses, nor will any record of whether anyone at all was interviewed. Indeed, not even what an officer is accused of doing can be publicly released by the board, set up by the Springfield City Council. The only time the board will appear in public to deal with an accusation is to vote on cases the public isn’t allowed to know anything about. “That’s fairly typical,” says Samuel Walker, a University of Nebraska criminologist who’s considered a leading expert on police brutality and civilian review boards. Some cities have bucked the penchant for secrecy in police misconduct cases. In Minneapolis, hearings are closed, but the written investigative record becomes public if an accusation against an officer is sustained. In Cambridge, Mass., the city’s Human Rights Commission holds public hearings when commissioners, after an initial investigation, conclude that an allegation has merit. This is entirely theoretical, however, because there have been no such cases since the city adopted the procedure two years ago. Previously, public hearings were held on every complaint, legitimate or not. “In my experience, that usually turned into a kangaroo court,” says Quoc Tran, commission director. Ron Stone, attorney for the Springfield police union, which last year pressured the city into removing provisions for a more open process, says that a case should remain secret regardless of whether an officer is proven guilty. “Confidential is confidential,” he says. Ald. Frank McNeil, who spent more than a dozen years pushing for the creation of the new board, blames the police union for the lack of openness. “That was, of course, driven by the union, and their argument, of course, is confidentiality,” he says. “I begrudgingly had to accede to that.” McNeil said he had hoped that the board could at least have stated the nature of accusations before going behind closed doors. Courts in Illinois and elsewhere have rejected the notion that cops who do wrong can be shielded from public scrutiny simply because they wear badges. The Missouri Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that internal-affairs records concerning alleged criminal behavior, proven or not, by police officers are public records, just as they would be if a civilian were accused of a crime. U.S. District Court Judge Ruben Castillo ruled in 1997 that investigative records of Chicago police officers accused of torture must be released to the public, rejecting arguments that disclosure would violate the privacy of officers. In his written decision, the judge quoted from Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, in which the late civil-rights leader compares injustice to a boil that must be lanced. “Similarly, this Court concludes that the allegations of police misconduct contained in the disputed files must be exposed to the light of human conscience and the air of natural opinion,” Castillo wrote. G. Flint Taylor, a Chicago lawyer who won that case, says that courts in at least two other cases have ruled that investigative records of the Office of Professional Standards, Chicago’s version of police review, must be made public. The 1997 decision was so poignant, he says, that he quoted it in arguments before a judge who last month ruled that a special prosecutor’s report on torture by Chicago police officers must be made public. The case is now on appeal before the Illinois Supreme Court. Springfield’s new review board doesn’t sound very good to Taylor. “If it’s in total secrecy, it totally defeats the purpose,” he says. “There’s an overriding public interest in knowing about police misconduct.”
McNeil says he’s hoping for changes. Besides a more open process, he’d like the board to have subpoena power so it can compel people to testify and produce records. “While I’m not happy that I didn’t get everything I wanted in this, at least we have a foundation to build on,” McNeil says.
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