More Civilian Watchdogs Patrol Thin Blue Line
Police brutality charges in Atlanta bring back review board
ATLANTA — DO communities need to police the police?
That question is being asked with greater frequency in cities and counties across the country as allegations of police misconduct surface from Philadelphia to Phoenix.
In Atlanta, the question has resurfaced after a recent shootout in which one man was killed and charges of police brutality have been sounded.
In the December shooting, three plainclothes officers entered a motorcycle shop where they thought they were stopping a robbery. But customers in the shop believed the officers were burglars and fired at them. Witnesses allege one officer fatally shot an unarmed man as he lay on the ground pleading for his life. In response to public outcry, Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell (D) reactivated what he called the city's "defunct" civilian review board to investigate the matter.
Civilian review boards examine a wide range of citizen complaints about police behavior, including excessive force, discourtesy, and racial slurs. Supporters say they're simply good government and ensure the democratic system of checks and balances; many police see them as intrusive and say most citizens aren't qualified to examine police conduct.
"We have a long-standing, excellent system of citizen's review, and it's called the grand jury system," says Chip Warren, national vice president of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers in Atlanta. "Police already are reviewed more stringently because they're reviewed by their internal-affairs division, and they may be reviewed by the criminal investigation of the police department.... This is just another level to put officers through that's unnecessary."
Despite the opposition to civilian review boards, which comes mainly from police unions, their numbers are growing. In 1981, only six existed in the country; now there are more than 100, says Eileen Luna, the executive officer of the San Diego County Citizens Law Enforcement Review Board.
Citizen review has gained support in wake of reports of police corruption and brutality complaints. More than three years after a commission recommended police reforms in Los Angeles post-1992 rioting, activists are still stirring for the city to form a review panel.
"A lot of municipalities have decided to move to civilian oversight because ... it sends up a flag to a community, and to officers as well, that they're not going to tolerate misconduct," Ms. Luna says.
But experts on both sides of the issue struggle with how to make civilian review boards more than a symbol.
"The most accurate measure of the success of a civilian review board is whether a community has confidence in it, is willing to go to it, and is satisfied with the treatment it gets," says Wes Pomeroy, a former police chief and executive director of the Dade County Independent Review Panel in Florida.
The structure of review boards can in part determine their effectiveness, experts say. If not given the power or budgets they need or if not peopled with independent citizens, they can fail. Such was the case in Washington, D.C., which disbanded its board last spring. It was set up so that two members of the board's 25 represented the police community, and held up board decisions. For many years, the board also had no way of streamlining cases and ended up with a huge backlog. Then it was defunded.
Efforts to disband civilian boards have become more aggressive in recent years, especially as budgets become leaner. "They're [often] a paper tiger," says Mary Powers, coordinator of Citizens Alert, a nonprofit group in Chicago, which convenes the National Coalition on Police Accountability. "A lot of them are set up so they can make recommendations, but the [police department] doesn't have to adopt them."
FORMER Mayor Andrew Young created Atlanta's board in 1984, appointing 27 members to serve one-year terms. But since the early 1990s, those appointments have not been made, though some members say they've continued to serve. Now Mayor Campbell has appointed 26 members, promising the new board sufficient resources to review the evidence in the motorcycle shop killing.
But many who work in civilian oversight express concerns that Atlanta's effort to establish a board is an action without sustainability. "It's the creation of the mayor, and that's a problem," Luna says. "When that interested person goes away, so does the board."