Civilian-Review Boards Gain Public Support

Despite police opposition, the number of citizen panels is increasing

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.

``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.

More broadly, police oversight is part of a growing public desire for openness and accountability in government, experts say. ``The civilian-review process is better seen as being about good government than about bad cops,'' says John Crew, director of the police-practices project of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) office in northern California.

``All government institutions should be subject to independent review,'' Mr. Crew adds. ``Our society gives the police great power and very large resources. They should be accountable for the exercise of that power and the use of those resources.''

From the perspective of the cop on the street, however, most civilians aren't qualified to second-guess an officer's conduct because they don't understand what police work is like: They haven't experienced the tension and danger, the sense of being outnumbered and often outgunned, the need to make split-second decisions in situations when hesitation can be fatal.

Still, you don't have to ``walk in a policeman's shoes,'' as one officer puts it, to recognize that something is amiss in a case like Edwin Cruz's. Last year Mr. Cruz, a Hispanic resident of Hartford, Conn., was accosted in his apartment building by cops looking for a suspect.

When Cruz was slow to obey an officer's command because of a physical disability, the cop pistol-whipped him, breaking his jaw and necessitating nearly 100 stitches in Cruz's head, according to his lawyer, Jon Schoenhorn.

Cruz's account of the beating was confirmed recently by Hartford's new Civilian Review Police Board, which started work in May. The Hartford police department has not yet announced what, if any, disciplinary action it will take against the officer.

Cruz's case illustrates some of the strengths and weaknesses of civilian review. Perhaps the greatest weakness is that most civilian-review panels are empowered only to make findings that may - but need not - be used by police or city officials as grounds to discipline officers who cross the line.

Some boards are authorized to recommend appropriate discipline, but many others, including Hartford's panel, lack even that power: In either case, the disciplinary authority resides with the police chief or other high city officials.

The thoroughness and impartiality of police in-house investigations vary widely, experts say. Even without their own investigators, however, most civilian review boards can engage in some independent fact-finding through hearings in which complainants and witnesses can testify.

In Cruz's case, the police's internal investigation determined that the officer used excessive force, a finding that the seven-member review board voted to ``sustain'' after a hearing (although the two police captains who sit on the board voted to overrule the department's finding).

Besides being patterned after differing models, civilian review boards also differ in terms of staffing, budgets, subpoena power, and the quality and commitment of their leadership. Experts like Professor Walker and the ACLU's Crew worry that too many review boards lack the authority, resources, and political will to be effective in curbing police abuses.

Yet the Cruz case also illustrates some strengths of civilian review. According to attorney Schoenhorn, even if the police department refuses to punish the officer who beat Cruz, the review board's publicized hearings in cases like this open the department's secretive internal investigations to public scrutiny, help deter future incidents of police heavy-handedness, and alert police and city leaders to problems in the ranks.

It's difficult to assess the overall effectiveness of civilian review, however, says the University of Nebraska's Walker, whose recent study was inconclusive for lack of data.

``Everyone's been so busy just getting civilian review off the ground that no one's really studied the process,'' he says. ``But now we're entering a second phase in which people will examine what works and why.''

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