Brutality cases renew citizen interest in policing the police

The city of Cambridge thinks it's an idea whose time has come back: a civilian watchdog group to police the police. This week Cambridge is initiating a Police Review and Advisory Board. Other cities, concerned about several recent incidents of alleged police brutality throughout the country, are considering similar moves.

In creating the new board, Cambridge bucks a trend that has led most of the nation's cities to either dissolve or weaken their civilian oversight committees. Many such groups were formed in the 1950s and '60s during the surge of civil rights activity, but interest in them later flagged.

Revived interest in monitoring police tactics has typically come in reaction to local crises. Following riots in a Miami neighborhood in 1980, Dade County, Fla., created an independent police-review panel. Hubert G. Lock, dean of the University of Washington Graduate School of Public Affairs, notes that Seattle took action after police killed a barricaded citizen in a 17-hour siege.

Concern has been heightened by episodes such as the use of ``stun guns'' in New York City and the death of a Texas man to whom police applied a ``choke hold.''

The push for a Cambridge review board was sparked by the allegedly random arrest last year of eight blacks accused of attacking white youths.

About 30 civilian boards exist today in the United States and Canada, according to Werner E. Petterson of Chicago, Midwest regional director of the Community Relations Service of the US Department of Justice.

Two Democratic Party foes of incumbent Mayor Edward Koch of New York City are campaigning for a referendum for a civilian review board. Mayor W. Wilson Goode opposes a civilian board in Philadelphia, but suggests hiring ``outside attorneys'' to investigate the June bombing of the headquarters of the radical group MOVE, which killed 11 people and destroyed about 60 homes. Cleveland Mayor George Voinovich favors the creation of a civilian review board. Washington, D.C., had such a committee dating back to 1948; it dissolved in the '70s and was restored in 1980.

But opponents say such boards threaten public safety, efficient law enforcement, and police morale. The International Association of Chiefs of Police objects to any type of outside review board.

``The concept of a civilian review board has been tried for the past three decades, and it does not work,'' says Robert Angrisani, director of communications for the police chiefs' group, which favors an internal affairs division for each department.

``The most aggressive hearing a police officer can get is by another police officer,'' Mr. Angrisani says. ``Professional law enforcement officers don't condone violations and abuse by police officers. I know one city police board that disciplined more officers in nine months than did its civilian review board in nine years.''

Civilian oversight of police is not ``some sort of new radicalism designed to place unwarranted constraints on forces of law and order,'' Dean Lock of Seattle told a civilian oversight conference last September. ``This issue is one of the oldest, most time-honored issues of public policy in America.''

But creating a citizen review board in Cambridge wasn't easy. The police department is strongly opposed to the idea. It took two close votes in the City Council in May to approve the board and its $66,000 budget.

The Cambridge law calls for an unpaid five-member board, appointed by the city manager, representing five local districts as defined by the City Council. In consultation with the chief of police, the board will set policies for the police department and will act upon complaints.

Citizens' boards can be effective, says Martin A. Walsh, community relations officer of the New England region of the US Department of Justice. He cites the New Orleans Office of Municipal Investigation as a model unit. That board is not limited to the police department, Mr. Walsh says, but is ``authorized to study `alleged misconduct of any city employee' -- including the mayor.''

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