Review boards scrutinized as way to better police the police
Published: Monday, December 17, 2012 at 5:28 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, December 17, 2012 at 5:28 p.m.
The Gainesville Police Department has a citizens review board. Kind of.
The advisory committee was created in 2010 after some misbehavior by police so inflamed black residents that an association of black law enforcement professionals came to study the agency and recommended a review board.
But some believe the limited power of the committee does little to make it an effective watchdog of police agencies, which critics say do little to police themselves.
Attorneys and others who experience what they believe is questionable behavior by police say review boards with greater authority would lead to improved policing.
“The perception for the public would be that a review board is a neutral body that can look at the facts, and it is not just law enforcement investigating its own,” said 8th Circuit public defender Stacy Scott.
The GPD Police Advisory Council was formed by City Manager Russ Blackburn to provide feedback to GPD on its recruitment, orientation, training and other operations.
When requested by Chief Tony Jones, it will review internal affairs reports of investigations of officers.
Unlike a board that is more advisory in nature, such as GPD’s, others such as the board in Key West have broader authority.
A key power in Key West is the ability to subpoena witnesses and officers to testify at its meetings. The panel was created about 10 years ago, and its current executive director, Susan C. Srch, is a former career police officer in Chicago.
Srch said the board receives complaints from the public and forwards them to the police department, which has 45 days to complete an internal affairs investigation.
The board then reviews it to ensure it is complete, fair and impartial. It can agree with the findings, disagree with them and make recommendations to the police chief and city manager. The board also can recommend policy changes.
Srch said that over the years, the number of complaints received by the committee dropped from around 40 annually in its initial years to roughly 10 now. The board agrees with the internal affairs findings about 80 percent of the time.
“For the most part, the police department does a really good job with their investigations. I think they understand — why do you want two or three bad apples who keep getting the attention when you can take care of it right away?” Srch said.
“I think we are getting fewer complaints because we have a very good police department. And studies have shown that the mere existence of a police review board will reduce complaints because officers actually know that somebody is watching.”
The ability of citizen review boards to initiate investigations and subpoena witnesses has been the subject of legal action, and some officers believe that authority will be curtailed by courts.
Among those with that belief is GPD Officer Jeff McAdams, head of the Gator Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police. But McAdams said he favors review boards as long as they meet state law.
“I know a lot of citizens who were pushing for a citizens review board didn’t feel like they got the justice they deserved with the board that was created. I don’t even attend the meetings,” McAdams said.
“I think the citizens of Gainesville have every right to have a police review board within the context of the law. There are case rulings and law that forbid officers from being disciplined by anybody but the agency head.”
The problem with leaving it up to the agency head is that they too often will not discipline officers for repeated bad arrests or similar issues, said Gainesville defense attorney Robert Rush.
“If an officer who was caught lying was immediately suspended, you wouldn’t have other officers lying. They catch on real quick. If you are caught in a bald-faced lie, do you really have the right to remain a police officer?” Rush said.
“There is no check and balance on that. I cannot recall a prosecution of a police officer for lying even when it is documented on videotape, but he then comes into court, raises his hand and swears he is telling the truth.”
One local attorney linked the number of dismissed charges in the 8th Circuit to the perceived lax oversight of law enforcement.
“I think one of the reasons for this phenomena (of dismissed cases) is that there is very, very little — if any at all — sanctions or consequence to an officer for making a bad arrest,” said Gainesville defense attorney Craig DeThomasis.
“If police have a problem officer, they ought to get rid of him like any employer should get rid of someone who doesn’t achieve the responsibilities of the job,” he said.
“It is more incumbent upon the employer of a police officer than any other employer to make sure that the quality of work is what is constitutionally mandated.”
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