Moves to Police the Police Gain Ground
Allegations of police abuse of authority prompt calls for citizen oversight groups across US
INDIANAPOLIS — For the 17 off-duty police who took part in a drunken melee in downtown Indianapolis - pointing guns, hurling racist slurs, and gesturing lewdly at women - it was just a night on the town.
But the officers' public fracas has left this strait-laced Midwestern city reeling: Residents are outraged. The police chief has resigned. Morale on the force is at rock bottom.
Most scathed by the Aug. 27 incident was perhaps Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, who last week lost a hotly contested bid for the governorship of Indiana. In an embarrassing upset, the GOP mayor was defeated by a wide margin in staunchly Republican Marion County, which includes Indianapolis.
"A bunch of drunken policemen out there waving their guns - it looked awful," says one local policeman, predicting Goldsmith would exact revenge.
On Nov. 7, two officers were fired; five others were demoted or suspended without pay. "Are there individuals who need more discipline?" says Goldsmith in a interview. "The answer is, obviously, yes."
From the Indianapolis brawl to riots in St. Petersburg, Fla., and protests in Pittsburgh, US communities are reacting to a string of recent cases involving on- and off-duty officers charged with abusing their authority. The incidents are spurring a broader movement to increase public scrutiny of discipline within urban police forces.
"There is definitely a move for civilian oversight," says Mary Powers, coordinator of the Chicago-based National Coalition for Police Accountability. "Citizens arm police and allow them to take lives. They have not only a right, but a responsibility to make sure [police] are doing their job on a professional basis."
The number of citizens' boards designed to review complaints against the police jumped more than 70 percent - from 38 to 66 - between 1990 and 1994, according to Samuel Walker, a criminologist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Most large US cities now have them, although their power and independence vary.
Giving the public a greater voice in law enforcement is increasingly important, experts say, as more guns on the streets escalate the potential for violent encounters between police and civilians. Despite a gradual decline in police use of lethal force since the 1970s - a result of new laws, better training, and technology such as bullet-proof vests - the wide gap in officers' skills is a wild card.
"All police departments have both extremes. They have the cop who can turn a traffic ticket into a riot, and the cop who can arrest the most dangerous suspect in a respectful manner," says William Geller, associate director of the Police Executive Research Forum.
Public oversight of police also creates a vital outlet for the racial tension that flares when white officers are accused of abusive treatment of minorities, experts say. "The biggest mistake is to give the general public no voice at all, because that only leads to alienation," says Wes Skogan, a police expert at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.
In many cities, most notably New York and Pittsburgh, police officers and their unions have vigorously fought citizen review. Police argue that citizens lack the knowledge and experience to judge matters of law enforcement. As a result, they say review boards are easily compromised by relying too heavily on police investigators and testimony. "Civilian oversight ... gives people a false sense that their police are being examined," says Neal Behan, a retired police chief now teaching at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
But community advocates, and some police chiefs and scholars counter that review boards, if given a broad mandate and autonomy, can nudge police into more productive ties with neighborhoods. In this way, external oversight can promote the popular crime-fighting strategy of community policing, they say.
"Citizen review is a way to prod police departments to improve their policies," says the University of Nebraska's Professor Walker. "You have something institutionalized to monitor progress," he says. Multiple complaints can feed into early warning systems designed to weed out bad cops. Cities with strong citizen review boards include San Diego County, Calif., and Portland, Ore., he says.
In Indianapolis, residents created the first citizen review board in 1989 after police were accused of shooting a black youth in the back of a squad car.
But the nine-member board, including three police officers, is widely viewed as impotent. It relies heavily on internal police investigations, lacks authority to enforce its decisions, and is barred from cases involving deaths.
Since the Aug. 27 "Downtown Brawl," however, momentum has built for stronger oversight. According to an internal police report, when the drunken officers emerged from a bar, some made lewd gestures and yelled obscene remarks at women, then beat two men who intervened, using a racial slur against the black man.
Goldsmith launched an investigation and convened a citizen's working group to review the existing complaint system. Groups including the local Urban League and National Black Police Association (NBPA) are lobbying for changes.
"The African-American community has no trust in the process," says Indianapolis NBPA president Officer Michael Blanchard. Citing "a very close-minded, racist element" in the force, he advocates hiring more minorities and women and year-round cultural sensitivity training.
The Fraternal Order of Police maintains the incident was blown out of proportion.