Panel Rejects Proposed Civilian Review Board For Police

Action Is 'Very Frustrating' To Critics Of Department

September 15, 1991|By Michael James | Michael James,Staff writer

A special committee appointed to study the county police department has voted not to recommend the creation of a civilian review board, much to the chagrin of some who say the committee is overtly pro-police and ignoring public concerns.

The Citizens' Advisory Council forPublic Safety voted, 6-4, Wednesday against the review board idea, which would establish a citizens' panel to investigate complaints against police.

Since the council has 22 members, critics of the proposed review board said the low attendance indicated a lack of interest.

"It's been a very frustrating experience," said David Parrish, a Columbia resident who voted in favor of the review board.

"The board memberswho do show up are a very polarized group, and some don't want to hear anything negative about the police," Parrish said.

"At one point I almost made a motion that we get ourselves cheerleading uniforms and call ourselves the Howard County Justice-ettes."

The advisory council was created in January by County Executive Charles I. Ecker, who described the council as a short-term investigative body made up of qualified local panelists.

Advisory council chairman William E."Ned" Eakle, one of the six who opposed the review board, said boardmembers "didn't think a review board would be the most productive way to do things" and said he favored "a more cooperative approach."

Eakle said it was impossible to expect all of the council members toattend the hearings, since many have numerous commitments. But the council had "a solid base" of about 15 who regularly attended the hearings, he said.

The board has met 25 times and heard from approximately 75 people, most of whom said they had negative experiences with county police officers.

In 1990, the NAACP branded the department with a "Dirty Harry Award" for what the group perceived as hostility toward the public.

According to police records, the department hasreceived six excessive force complaints so far this year. But policeofficials argue that they have been unfairly blackballed by a handful of residents holding a grudge.

"A review board is not the way togo," Eakle said. "A more cooperative approach would go much farther,I think."

But that view is not shared by County Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, who has supported the review board and who recently received a petition signed by 2,400 county residents supporting the idea.

"I hope they (the board members) are not sticking their heads in the sand and saying no problems exist," Gray said. "I'm sorry they've gone through months of hearings only to say that they have no viable recommendation."

Gray said the negative perception of police by some county residents could be negated by a civilian review board, which would give the department more credibility.

The board did recommend to the county executive that the administration gather "citizen input" in police recruitment, interviewing and training methods. But it is undetermined how the input would be solicited.

Complaintsagainst Howard County police officers are currently handled within the department and are investigated by an officer'ssupervisor or an internal affairs officer.

Sherman Howell, an NAACP member who serveson the council, said he has been satisfied with the advisory council's progress, even though he said he is disappointed in the decision not to recommend the review board.

Howell, who voted for the reviewboard, said that "the current administrative process of reviewing complaints hasn't proven effective enough to maintain confidence in thepolice department."

But Howell said he was pleased with the formation of the council. "This was the first time Howard County has done this, and I think it's been successful," he said.

Sandra Keyser, who prepared the petition in support of the review board, said she wasupset by the council's decision and accused the council of being "a definite whitewash."

Keyser, a Columbia resident, is the mother ofMickey Bowie, who has filed excessive force complaints against two county police officers now undergoing an internal affairs hearing.

"I think a lot of the people (on the advisory council) already had their minds made up," she said. "I think there's a lack of integrity onthe board."

Some advisory council members who opposed the civilian review idea said their decision was partly based on a recent non-scientific survey by the board that showed that most of the 1,800 respondents are overwhelmingly satisfied with the county police force.

The study reported that 71 percent of those surveyed thought county police behaved with "very high" or "high" levels of competence. Only 10 percent rated the officers' competence as "low" or "very low."

Approximately 15,000 people did not return the surveys, which were mailed out in county water bills and free newspapers.

Robert Rutan, who has publicly announced strong support for the police department, read the board a subcommittee report Wednesday that gave high marks tocounty police management policies and to new chief James N. Robey.

Rutan said he was not in favor of the review board, since citizens "would not know the right questions to ask" in the complaint process.

However, fellow board member Tyde O. Mowers, a sergeant in the county police, questioned whether Rutan's report was an effective critique of the department.

"Did you find anything negative? Is the department effective?" Mowers said. "I'm on the inside looking out, and I just wonder if it's as effective as your report suggests it to be."

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