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Friday, May 9, 2003 02:20 pm

Policing the police

What type of police review board will Springfield have?

The City Council meeting was packed with angry citizens outraged over the latest scandal in the Springfield Police Department. Mayor Karen Hasara tried pounding her gavel, she tried apologizing, and she even tried publicly admitting that, yes, "there is racism in the department." Finally, she tried promising a citizen review board, and police chief John Harris readily agreed.

It's now been four months since that stormy special session of the City Council--called in response to Illinois Times' revelation that former officer Renatta Frazier could not have prevented the rape of a fellow officer's daughter, as the SPD had allowed scores of media reports to suggest. The notion of empowering civilians to review police actions has been the meatiest bone available for citizens to gnaw on. Since November, activists involved in Unity for the Community have been cooking up a formal proposal for such a board. Alderman Frank McNeil filed that proposed ordinance last week. And both mayoral candidates have pledged to see some version of it through.

So it seems almost safe to assume that Springfield will have a panel of regular people to review police actions in the near future. The question remains: What type of review board will we have?

The range of options will be discussed next week when the Springfield Race Relations Task Force hosts a forum on the topic. The task force has invited three out-of-town guests: K. Felicia Davis, administrator of the Citizens Review Board of Syracuse, New York; Mark Gissiner, manager of Cincinnati's Office of Municipal Investigation; and Richard Jerome, a Harvard-educated attorney who aided the plaintiffs in the Springfield voting rights case in the mid-1980s and is now president of a consulting firm specializing in civil rights and police reform.

Task force members say they settled on these three guests after Chief Harris handed them a copy of the National Institute of Justice's 2000 manual, Citizen Review of Police: Approaches in Implementation. Davis and Gissiner are both listed as members on the advisory panel for that manual.

The manual profiles nine different police review boards that embody a smorgasbord of possibilities. For example, the Police Review Commission of Berkeley, California--the oldest continuously operating citizen review board in the nation--conducts its investigations simultaneously with the police department's internal affairs division. Instead of a citizen panel, the city of Flint, Michigan, has an ombudsman who investigates "official acts of any agency which aggrieve any person." Minneapolis's Civilian Review Authority hires former police officers to investigate complaints against the department. Rochester's Civilian Review Board is composed of mediators trained in dispute settlement; they must also take a two-week class at the city's citizen police academy and may stay on the review board for life.

One thing all these boards have in common is that some galvanizing incident inspired their formation. In Berkeley, it was allegations of excessive force when police cleared street people from a park. In Minneapolis, it was the killing of an elderly black couple by police. The citizens of Tucson, Arizona, began asking that their existing board be revamped after several officers were imprisoned for assault, armed robbery, and child molestation. The one exception is St. Paul, Minnesota, where the police chief himself asked the city council to set up a civilian oversight commission in the aftermath of the Rodney King incident.

Another common thread running through these various boards is the realization that they don't come with any guarantees. "Citizen oversight systems need to be part of a larger structure of internal and external police accountability; by itself, citizen oversight cannot ensure that police will act responsibly," the manual says. "The effectiveness of citizen oversight depends enormously on who the principal parties are."

In fact, as this manual points out, the establishment of a review board can create a backlash that causes more problems. "This worsening of the status quo has occurred for many reasons, such as unrealistic expectations on the part of activists or unrealistic apprehensions by police and sheriff's departments about what the oversight would accomplish . . . and political motives for setting up the procedure on the part of local officials."

The study shows citizen panels support sworn personnel more often than not. Flint's ombudsman, for example, sustains only about 4 percent of all complaints against police. In Rochester, the civilian panel arrives at their recommendation in a sealed room without knowledge of the recommendation made by internal affairs, yet the two bodies reach the same conclusion in 95 percent of cases.

The fact that two of the forum's expert guests were advisors on this manual suggests that they know what makes a citizen review board work. But their personal involvement with citizen review boards in their respective hometowns shows that they're also aware of the pitfalls.

Davis was just out of law school in 1993 when she was named administrator of the newly formed Citizen Review Board in Syracuse. In the decade since, her board has been hobbled by legal and political wrangling that has all but incapacitated it. A 2001 Syracuse New Times story called the board the "political hot potato of 1993" that became a "dud spud, wrapped in foil, and, in 2001, placed in the back of the freezer." Due largely to opposition by the police union, the board has so little power over officers that they refuse to attend hearings on complaints against them. A Syracuse University professor who once lobbied for the board was quoted as calling it "a farce and a scam."

"The fact is the movement could not be resisted, so the intent was co-opted," he said.

An attorney who served on the task force that created the board is quoted as calling it "a laughingstock."

The fatal flaw was built into the board from its inception, when the city of Syracuse ignored a clause in its contract with the police union. After the board was formed, the union went to court to challenge the board's subpoena power. Meanwhile, one of the council members who opposed the review board was appointed corporate counsel for the city. Not surprisingly, this former council member did not vigorously defend the review board's right to have subpoena power.

Gissiner, former president of the International Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, travels the world presenting scholarly papers on police oversight boards and has consulted with more than 70 governmental agencies setting up review boards. He obviously knows what it takes to make a good board.

But like Davis, Gissiner also has intimate knowledge of what can go wrong. His job managing the City of Cincinnati's Office of Municipal Investigation gave him a close-up view of the April 2001 riots following the police shooting of an unarmed 19-year-old black man running down an alley in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods. The fugitive had several outstanding warrants for such traffic violations as failure to wear a seat belt.

In the aftermath of the shooting and subsequent riots, the chair of the Citizen Police Review Panel resigned, citing the city's lack of cooperation. The board itself was eventually disbanded and restructured as part of the settlement of a racial profiling lawsuit against the police that pre-dated the riots. The new board, called the Citizen Complaint Authority, has both investigative power and a staff of full-time investigators.

Springfield alderman McNeil's proposed ordinance would establish a Police Community Review Commission with 11 members appointed by council members and the mayor. It would have access to all SPD internal-affairs files and power to subpoena information. It would report its findings to the police chief, the mayor, and the City Council. McNeil says this proposal asks for more power than his previous drafts. "My [earlier versions] didn't have subpoena power . . . and just requested a summary of the internal affairs files instead of the entire file," McNeil says. "They're going to wish they'd passed that one."