Tuesday, July 31, 2007

New Police Watchdog Panel an Example of Mayoral Control

The Boston Globe reported that the Boston Police Department's police review board is now in place and ready to take cases.

What I find most interesting about the story is not the establishment of the police review board, but rather the parameters under which it is created and operates. See this table from the Globe comparing police review boards in Boston and Atlanta, two cities which have recently established them:



Some people may be criticizing the police control of the process of this review board, but what I see is Mayoral control all over the place -- appointing all the members, having them report annually directly to him, and the right of the Mayor to unilaterally terminate the board altogether.

That's not accountability; it's Mayoral meddling. Let's have a police review board with the independence to pursue cases of misconduct reasonably without having to worry about getting canned by the Mayor if he doesn't like what they're doing.

1 comment:

Jamie said...

You're exactly right on this one, Michael. Councillor Arroyo has been working on this issue for the past several years and remains tremendously dissapointed by the weak authority of the Mayor's new Panel. See below for the Councilor's Op-Ed on this subject published a little more than a year ago in the Globe.

- Jamie

Building Trust in Boston's Police
By Felix D. Arroyo, The Boston Globe
June 7, 2006

With crime in Boston on the rise, it is imperative that the city seek out and embrace fresh mechanisms to improve public safety. At many meetings I've attended as chairman of the City Council's Committee on Youth Affairs, one continuing point of concern is the relationship between civilians and the Boston Police Department. Simply put, growing community mistrust of the police is hindering joint efforts to ensure that crime is both prevented and reported.

For this reason and others, it is in the best interests of all parties, including the Police Department, that there be independent, thorough, and unbiased investigations of complaints of misconduct by officers toward the public. While Boston has had a limited complaint system in the past, it is time that a new civilian review board be created with expanded capacities.

Boston needs a board that is both accessible and permanent. A new board should have investigatory and subpoena powers and receive adequate funding. People who come before it should be able to air freely their grievances and to voice recommendations. Complaints should be followed by hearings, investigations, and cross-examination of witnesses. Results should include responsive actions that help to rebuild relationships between the police and the public, with appropriate discipline as directed by the police commissioner.

Who would benefit? People like the friends and family of Victoria Snelgrove. Two-and-a-half years after Snelgrove, a college student, was killed while celebrating the Red Sox winning the pennant, there has been little public review of the circumstances and individuals responsible for her death. The independent panel that investigated her killing recommended creating a civilian review board to handle future incidents.

In addition, there are the everyday, less-publicized incidents, such as the alleged harassment of young people or other cases where deadly force has been used, perhaps inappropriately. The Globe has reported that the city's 2,000 police officers have received 2,448 allegations of misconduct over the past five years. Clearly, a new monitoring mechanism is needed.

Also, a civilian review board could track allegations of racial profiling, discourtesy, and repeated charges against a particular officer, while studying trends in misconduct, such as increases coming from a certain geographic area from one year to the next. Along with accountability, greater trust between police and the neighborhood residents would increase much-needed witness cooperation, resulting in more efficient policing and more arrests. The review board could also benefit the police by protecting officers and their supervisors when it curtails unsubstantiated charges.

It is important that politics not become enmeshed in the Police Department's internal operations. New York City's board, signed into law by former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, consists of members who cannot hold another public office. Only those members appointed by the police commissioner can have experience as law enforcement professionals.

Adequate funding does not mean that a civilian review board will create a financial burden for the city. Baltimore created its board with no budget, though Mayor Martin O'Malley found funds to hire professional investigators. Baltimore's city staff provides administrative, clerical, and legal support.

Other major cities, including Washington, Philadelphia, Denver, Phoenix, San Diego, and Minneapolis, have independent civilian review processes in place. In establishing those programs, many cities successfully overcame understandable resistance from local police departments. The legality of such boards is beyond dispute. State and local courts have consistently rejected police union appeals and have supported the boards' powers.

A police department that acts with equity and justice has nothing to fear from measures that call for accountability. Rather than letting a few wayward officers give the whole department a bad reputation, it's time that the Boston Police Department embraced transparency. It is in everybody's interest that a civilian review board be put in place and that it have teeth.

The responsibilities placed on our law enforcement officials are complex, risk-producing, and sensitive. But we must continue to press for high standards when it comes to equity, justice, and respect. Together, we should invest and build trust in a Police Department that works for and with the people.