Police resist civilian review as proponents push for city board

November 30, 1992|By David Simon | David Simon,Staff Writer

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.

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."

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."

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.

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.

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