2009-04-15 / Opinion

Citizen oversight of the police: the real and the sham

GUEST OPINION
BY DR. HOWARD L. SIMON Executive Director, American Civil Liberties Union of Florida

Finally…

• Four years after Steven Cunningham died from Taser shocks while in the custody of Fort Myers Police;

• Three years after Jadell Gilyard was injured by police while being arrested;

• Two years after Ernest Weston, unarmed and mentally ill, was shot and killed by police officers;

• A year and a half after the Institute for Law and Justice, hired by the City to review use of force policies and practices in response to mounting criticism of the police, issued 15 recommendations to address the "historical mistrust" of the police

…the Fort Myers City Council is considering an ordinance to create a Citizens Police Review Board for the city's troubled police department.

But there are genuine citizen police review panels, and there are shams. This one is a sham. It should be rejected.

Alternatively, voters will have an opportunity in November to approve a Citizen Oversight Panel that can conduct independent investigations of allegations of police misconduct and other problems.

Here are some examples of how the council's proposed Citizens Police Review Board would be an ineffective review board:

Authority

In the council's version, the review board can only investigate complaints that are not being investigated by the police department and only complaints about allegations of excessive force or police action that results in death or serious bodily injury. The council's review board cannot look into other matters that may improve police/community relations. The board cannot make recommendations for reforms in police policies and practices — recommendations that might prevent problems from occurring in the first place. The review board cannot even call its own meetings to respond to a community problem; it only meets monthly or on request of the chair or city manager.

The Citizen Oversight Panel that will appear on the November ballot will have subpoena power to obtain necessary documents and interview relevant witnesses so it will not be dependent on information spoon fed by the police department.

And it will be able to make recommendations for changes in police department policies and practices, so officers don't continue to be blamed for bad departmental policies. Under the council's version, the police chief is not even required to respond to any recommendations by the review board; they can simply be ignored.

Training

The training for review board members illustrates how the City Council's sham review board doesn't take civilian oversight seriously and how it is a body designed to fail.

Police oversight is serious business, but in the council's version people are qualified to review citizen complaints about police misconduct after a "ride along" and a two hour class on use of force. By contrast, members of Miami's Civilian Investigative Panel must complete training in ethics, conflict of interest, Florida Sunshine Law, and a Citizens Police Academy Training course approved by the National Association of Citizens' Oversight of Law Enforcement.

Appointment Process

The appointment process for the council's review board ensures that the board will be steeped in politics. Each City Council member nominates (in effect appoints) one member of the board, a system that creates patronage plums for pals of council members.

Qualifications

Excluded from eligibility to serve on the review board is anyone who is not a permanent resident (regardless of how many decades they have resided in the city) and anyone with a prior felony conviction (regardless of how many decades old the conviction, and how much they have turned their life around and contributed to the community). People should be judged, individually, on their fitness to serve. (Does any other city agency have a similar blanket exclusion?) At the very least, there is no reason to categorically exclude those who have received clemency and have had their civil rights restored.

There is much work needed to restore confidence in and cooperation between the police and the community. (The Institute for Law and Justice Report indicated that, in 2006 alone, 99 disciplinary actions for misconduct were taken against Fort Myers police officers — by the Department's own internal affairs investigations with no civilian oversight.)

The council's version of Citizens Police Review Board will make a bad situation worse, and Fort Myers residents should raise their voice in protest.

The community needs a truly independent Citizens Oversight Panel that can foster confidence in the integrity of an investigation of police misconduct. But with the council's version it will get a politically handpicked and powerless body, from whose membership significant elements of the community have been excluded.

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