Civilian Boards Strain for Funds To Watch Cops

IN New York, dozens of police in tightly organized gangs have been stealing drugs and hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash in five precincts, the Mollen Commission on Police Corruption announced last month.

Targeting and terrorizing drug-infested minority communities, they beat drug dealers who wouldn't cooperate and lied so often under oath that they invented a name for it - ``testi-lying.'' Residents said they believed the department would ignore their complaints and protect corrupt officers.

After overcoming bitter resistance from police unions, various forms of civilian oversight to review allegations of police misconduct have spread from a handful of cities to 48 of the 100 largest United States cities over the last decade.

But as civilian-review supporters gather for their 10th annual conference next week, many are worried that a lack of funding, public indifference, and continued resistance from some of the nation's 600,000 police officers are keeping civilian review from being fully implemented.

``I think in general there's a malaise around the civilian-review board movement,'' says Arthur Ellis, vice chairman of the Richmond, Calif.-based International Association for Civilian Oversight in Law Enforcement. ``I've gotten a lot of calls from people trying to set up boards that have run into difficulties and roadblocks we didn't have in the past.''

Even existing boards have had trouble remaining effective.

* In Washington, a federal judge ruled last year that the city's police review board was so underfunded and responded so slowly and leniently to complaints that it actually encouraged misconduct by police.

* In New York, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is being criticized for not fully funding the city's new civilian review board. And Mr. Giuliani, who opposed civilian review as a candidate, has not committed to giving subpoena power to a new independent agency to investigate police corruption as recommended by the Mollen Commission, headed by Judge Milton Mollen.

* In Miami, a request for subpoena power for a civilian review board that oversees police and all government agencies in Dade County was rejected by the county commissioners last year. And in Los Angeles, longtime calls for a civilian review board are fading from the public eye in the face of opposition from the city's police union.

Police unions say the recent corruption findings in New York and the Rodney King beating case overshadow the fact that the vast majority of police forces and officers are hard-working and honest. The unions say civilian review is unnecessary, and police commissioners should be fired if they cannot stop misconduct.

``In general, police officers are suspicious of civilian review boards,'' says Liz Langston, research director for the National Fraternal Order of Police, which represents 250,000 unionized police officers. ``Officers generally feel it's difficult for a civilian to understand the pressure they are under and the split-second decisions they have to make.''

Civilian review takes on widely different forms in different cities. Some cities have created civilian-review boards with subpoena powers and their own investigators, while others only hire independent auditors to review the work done by police internal-affairs units.

All boards or auditors can only recommend that disciplinary actions be taken against an officer, leaving the final decision to the police chief.

``We're in an important transition period. We're experimenting with different forms, and we don't know what's going to happen,'' says Samuel Walker, a professor of criminology at the University of Nebraska at Ohama who studies civilian review. ``What worries me is that Washington is a typical situation.''

But supporters warn that the boards are on the verge of losing credibility with the communities they were designed to appeal to most - minorities.

``When someone from a minority community goes to a commission and it's not properly funded, your complaint doesn't seem to be taken seriously, and you lose faith in that process too,'' says Ronald Hampton, director of the National Black Police Association in Washington, which represents 35,000 black officers, and supports civilian review. ``We're getting back to the level where people don't think it's worth making the complaint.''

John Crew, director of the police-practices project of the American Civil Liberties Union in northern California, says some police have resisted civilian review since it was established.

In Oakland, Calif., the police union's contract allows officers to participate in civilian review only part of the time. ``The way they have it in the contract is they have to participate 60 percent of the time,'' Mr. Crew says, ``so they get to choose which cases they will participate in. The officers just decline to show up.''

Professor Walker says no conclusive study has been done on the effect of civilian boards. Numerous variables, including the wide variety of systems in place and how to define ``success'' make it difficult.

``We do know something that makes them not work,'' Walker says, ``a lack of resources and not having the staff to do the job properly is a way to guarantee failure.'' Some police officials predict that even if civilian review is established nationwide, societal problems will continue to encourage misconduct.

``I think corruption is a real problem, because we've never had so much drug money on the street before,'' says Gerald Arenberg, executive director of the National Association of Chiefs of Police in Washington, which represents 11,000 chiefs and supports civilian review. ``This is like prohibition all over again.''

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