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Civilian-Review Boards Gain Public Support

Despite police opposition, the number of citizen panels is increasing

By James H. AndrewsStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 22, 1993


WHEN New York City Mayor David Dinkins spoke out last year in favor of a board to review citizens' complaints about police conduct, he sparked a near riot by the patrolmen's union. The unruly demonstration by 4,000 uniformed officers at city hall in September 1992 was a rare episode, but it reflected a common sentiment among police rank and file in cities across the United States.

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``Most officers resent and distrust civilian review,'' says Sheldon Greenberg, associate director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a law-enforcement think tank in Washington.

But police departments and their political allies on city councils haven't been able to thwart the tide of public support for civilian review boards that has swept the country in recent years.

``Civilian review of police conduct was an idea that had died and gone to heaven in the 1960s,'' says Samuel Walker, a criminal-justice professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, recalling that several cities abandoned early attempts at police oversight. ``But it was reborn in the '70s, and it really caught on in the mid-'80s.''

Professor Walker found in a 1991 survey that civilian-review procedures had been established in 30 of the nation's 50 largest cities. More cities have joined the list: In Boston a Community Appeals Board was established last year after a blue-ribbon commission identified disciplinary lapses in the police department, and in Philadelphia a Police Advisory Commission will begin work in January.

Many smaller cities like Omaha, St. Paul, Minn., and Dubuque, Iowa, have also established civilian-review panels.

``When I started in this field in 1981, there were just six of us [review-board administrators]. We could hold conference calls,'' says Eileen Luna, executive officer of the civilian review board in San Diego County, Calif., who held similar positions in Berkeley, Calif., and San Francisco.

In contrast, about 140 civilian-review professionals met in Cambridge, Mass., in September for a conference sponsored by the International Association for Civilian Oversight in Law Enforcement, based in Richmond, Calif.

In some cities, the push for civilian review has been sparked by public anger over alleged police brutality, such as the shooting death of a suspect. But panels examine a wide range of citizens' complaints about police behavior besides excessive force; these include rough handling of people, confiscations of property, verbal abuse, and simple rudeness.

``It's important to address problems of police discourtesy,'' Ms. Luna says. ``Lots of explosive confrontations between police and the public, especially in minority communities, have escalated from encounters when officers seemed rude.''

Tension between police and minority communities is often at the root of civilian review, and in many cities minority and civil-liberties groups have spearheaded the drive for review procedures. In Philadelphia, for example, black city-council member Michael Nutter sponsored the ordinance that created the city's new review board.

One of the few police organizations to endorse civilian review procedures, the National Black Police Association headquartered in Washington, supports the process partly because of its members' desire to improve police-minority relations, says executive director Ron Hampton.

Also, Mr. Hampton says, black officers have their own civil rights in mind. Asked if minority officers ever worry about discrimination in police departments' internal investigations of alleged misconduct, Hampton answers, ``Minority officers often have more confidence in reviews by representatives of the entire community, rather than by officers who bring to an investigation some baggage from the job.''

Proponents of civilian review emphasize that it's not just a civil rights issue, however. ``White people get beat up and harassed by police, too,'' Councilman Nutter says.