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Police resist civilian review as proponents push for city board

In the wake of the Rodney King morality play in Los Angele comes an idea that proponents say will effectively restore community confidence in law enforcement. Opponents say it will politicize the issue and, possibly, damage a police department's internal discipline.

To an extent, both sides may be right.

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On a national level, a civilian-controlled review process for police misconduct complaints is a growing trend -- one that has not gone unnoticed in Baltimore, where a majority of City Council members have sponsored a resolution seeking a new Citizens Review Board.

"It's an idea whose time has come," says Councilman Lawrence A. Bell, D-4th, the resolution's chief sponsor. "I see a civilian review board as consistent with the goals of the community-oriented policing plan under way in the department. It helps citizens feel that they have a role to play in the process."

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Council President Mary Pat Clarke agrees: "I feel it would bring some balance in the relationship between police officers and citizens . . . Community policing is a two-way street."

But from rank-and-file officers to the top of the Baltimore Police Department hierarchy, the idea of an independent review process -- an idea resisted for years by police commissioners and mayors alike -- is seemingly regarded as evidence that barbarians are at the gates.

"Some people believe that police brutality is when the police officer wins the fight," says Lt. Leander Nevin, president of the city Fraternal Order of Police. "These people who are for this can't control their own children, their own neighborhoods, their own blocks. But they want to control the police."

Similarly, though with somewhat more restraint, Police Commissioner Edward V. Woods has argued for a compromise. Both Mr. Woods and the police union support adding community representatives to the existing Complaint Evaluation Board, an oversight body that can only advise the police commissioner on complaint cases.

"Since 1966, this department's disciplinary process has shown a long-standing record of fairness and objectivity," Mr. Woods wrote in opposition to the resolution.

But many council members and black community leaders remain unconvinced, citing the small number of brutality complaints upheld in recent years. Department officials estimate that perhaps two of every 100 such complaints are confirmed but say many of the allegations against officers are unwarranted.

Nonetheless, the videotaped beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers and more recent police brutality controversies in Detroit and New York, have created a climate favorable to civilian review.

"There's no question that this is a trend," says Mr. Bell. "And Baltimore needs to get on board now. Because of Rodney King, people are so much more sensitized to react in a much stronger way than they did before."

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A recent survey showed that 30 of the nation's 50 largest cities have instituted some form of civilian review process -- with half of those boards created within the last six years.

Among that number, however, are boards with varying amounts of authority. Mr. Bell says he is advocating a board with power enough to review and, if necessary, amend the decisions of the police commissioner. In addition, Mr. Bell hopes the panel will have its own staff investigators and the power to issue subpoenas.

"It's important that it be able to investigate independently," the councilman says.

Whether support for civilian review exists here is an open question, even after the Los Angeles riots. Mr. Bell's resolution has attracted nine co-sponsors, but a council resolution is insufficient. The new board can only be created by an act of the General Assembly.

Mr. Bell says he is conferring with several members of the Baltimore legislative delegation. He expects a bill to be filed for next year's session.

But if change does come, proponents and opponents of a civilian review process may be surprised by the ultimate result -- if the experience of other cities is any indication. For both sides, expectations are often at odds with reality.

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Proponents believe that an independent review of complaints by a civilian panel will effectively punish brutal or discourteous officers, thwart internal police cover-ups and reassure citizens that complaints are being seriously reviewed.

Conversely, police officials and unions fear that civilians with little understanding of police procedure or the necessity of physical force in police work will have the opportunity to systematically destroy the careers of conscientious officers.

Although no study of the issue yet exists, anecdotal evidence suggests a mixed reality: While the mere existence of a civilian review board enhances the credibility of the process, the actual effect on the case-by-case review of complaints is unclear.

Typically, civilian board members are chosen by a mayor or county executive, and typically -- to assuage police officials and police unions -- the majority of those members often have experience in law enforcement. In San Francisco, the police commissioner appoints the head of the review panel, while former police detectives and private detectives without direct departmental ties fill the ranks of investigators.

Such a scenario is a far cry from the worst fears of Baltimore police, many of whom equate civilian review to the black community's response to such controversial incidents as the Booker Jones shooting in May 1989. Indeed, in their City Council testimony, proponents of civilian review cited the case as one that might merit attention of a new board.

Booker Jones case

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Wanted for the slaying of two Anne Arundel County children, Booker Jones was shot to death while wielding a carving knife on a West Baltimore street. NAACP officials, citing the 10 police gunshot wounds inflicted on the suspect, expressed concern about the incident after neighborhood residents alleged police had used excessive force.

Autopsy results, however, showed that only one wound was lethal and that all were from different trajectories -- a finding inconsistent with allegations that Jones was shot repeatedly by police when he was already on the ground. It was also determined that Jones was struck by most, if not all, of the rounds when he charged and fell on one officer. That officer and three others fired simultaneously, accounting for the number of wounds.

The state's attorney's office and the police internal probe both concluded that the Jones shooting was justified. Rank-and-file officers are alienated by the fact that the 3-year-old case still is cited as an argument for civilian review.

Says Agent Doug Price, a police spokesman: "Civilians without a background in law enforcement might not be able to properly assess the circumstances behind a particular incident."

And the Jones case is not the only example cited by officers. Rank-and-file suspicion of the NAACP stems, too, from a 1989 report by the civil rights group which lacked supporting data in alleging a rise in brutality. That report was disputed by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who showed that brutality complaints had been low for the previous two years.

While police fear their worst critics might control a civilian board, Mr. Bell's resolution itself suggests otherwise.

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Seven of the new board's nine members would be appointed by the mayor; two by the police commissioner.

Adds Mr. Bell: "I think that the police may be underestimating the intelligence of civilians, especially since the mayor and council will be responsible for getting a good mix of people on the board."

Surprisingly, civilian review boards in some other cities have been strongly criticized by police chiefs for being too lenient in handling police misconduct cases dealing with matters other than police brutality.

In Phoenix, police officials have quarreled with the Civil Service Board, which has repeatedly overturned recommended punishments for officers found guilty of failing their duty. Police officials in that city said departmental attempts to enforce paramilitary discipline were undermined by civilian reviewers forgiving of even grave lapses in duty.

Elsewhere, review boards have been viewed with hope by police officers sick of departmental politics. In San Diego, the police union itself supported the creation of an independent panel after allegations that police investigators lied to fire a particular officer.

"There's no question that what happens in IID [Internal Investigations Division] is all political," says one Baltimore police commander, who asked not to be identified. "If City Hall, the police commissioner or someone else of rank wants the officer found guilty at a trial board, he'll be guilty. If they want him to get off, he'll get off."

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Other cities have found that a civilian review board can indeed take some of the politics out of a police department's internal investigation process, but only if the civilian panel is appointed by a diverse group of political or community leaders.

Mr. Bell's current proposal -- which gives the mayor seven of the nine appointments -- is unlikely to gain support among police disenchanted with the politics of the existing process: "The mayor, through the police commissioner, calls the shots now, and he'll call the shots on a civilian board," says one veteran officer. "There's no difference."

However, proponents of civilian review can offer one unassailable advantage: credibility.

"If the community-oriented policing plan that this department is proposing is going to work, then they're going to have to have credibility with the community," says Mr. Bell. "There has to be a balance there. If the police want support from the community, they're going to have to give the community a say."

Civil liability

Nationally, police officials concede that in the wake of Rodney King, the public has little faith in the ability of departments to police themselves. And while Commissioner Woods may suggest that the current system in Baltimore is fair, other police officials privately concede that the department and the city both have a built-in financial reason to exonerate an officer in a brutality case.

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"If you rule against an officer, you open yourself up for the lawsuit," says one homicide investigator experienced in probing police use of deadly force. "Civil liability is a real issue."

Even those involved in the process admit that current reviews are carefully skewed in favor of the officer.

And because most IID complaints about brutality or deadly force often pit the word of police officers against that of civilians, many of whom are burdened by criminal histories, few complaints are upheld.

In the last two years, only six brutality complaints have been confirmed by police internal probes, and of those six officers, three were found guilty by administrative trial boards, department officials said.

Whether or not a civilian review process will change those figures is unclear, but supporters say the data itself is evidence enough that something has to change if the department is committed to community-oriented policing.

"The police department would do well not to look at this resolution as adversarial," says Mr. Bell. "In the next few months, I'm going to be looking at a lot of issues involving the fact that the Police Department needs more support and resources. But to argue for these things, particularly to the black community, there needs to be a balance."


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