Memo from Philly: Police review boards ease tensions

Claude Lewis

December 01, 1992|By Claude Lewis

IT'S no coincidence that 30 of the nation's 50 largest cities have implemented one type of police advisory board or another since 1986. Most of the boards, which monitor police complaints and make recommendations, involve private citizens.

Baltimore, Detroit, Newark, N.J., Houston and New York are among the cities that have proposals before them to review police behavior by involving private citizens in monitoring of officer brutality cases.

In some cities, the road to review boards has been paved with political hazards. When New York Mayor David Dinkins supported such a panel in September, he came under fire from as many as 10,000 officers who held hate-filled rallies criticizing him for "caving into political interests."

In Philadelphia, Councilman Michael Nutter and eight co-sponsors have introduced two bills that would establish a police civilian review board before the end of the year -- unless Mayor Edward G. Rendell vetoes them. In Baltimore, Councilman Lawrence A. Bell, D-4th, is the chief sponsor of a City Council resolution seeking a citizens review board.

According to Mr. Nutter, public hearings and support of a civilian review board would "help increase community confidence in the police and, at the same time, provide officers with a clean bill of health, not only by the police internal affairs division, but by public citizens as well."

Mr. Nutter said in a telephone interview, "There's nothing inherently threatening to police in establishing a review board. I certainly am not anti-police. I'm pro-police and pro-community. I believe my bill would help the total community.

The councilman insisted that a civilian review board "takes no authority away from the police or Commissioner Richard Neal."

According to Mr. Nutter, the nine members -- who would include two individuals with law enforcement backgrounds -- would recommend and advise police but their input would not be binding.

The fear among many who are pushing for a civilian review board is that Mayor Rendell won't be comfortable with a panel that actually does anything. A civilian review board conceivably could chip away at Police Department sovereignty.

"I think he'd like to put a board in place that has no real power or authority. I don't want to permit him that luxury," Mr. Nutter said of the mayor.

The mayor is on record as not "altogether opposed" to a review board but is against a panel that would carry out investigations. He believes that investigation of charges about police misconduct is the province of his police commissioner, rather than a citizen's group.

What would be so wrong about a combination of police and citizens? Especially since statistics concerning Philadelphia police officers suggest that the internal review mechanism of the Police Department seldom finds misbehavior within its ranks. Internal Affairs has found guilt in only 4 percent of misconduct charges.

Karen Black, a lawyer and member of the Public Interest Law Center, known as PILCOP, is in favor of a civilian review board.

"We don't feel it's wise to sit back and wait for the frustrations on the part of the public to explode. At that point, we'll have a real problem on our hands. We think the mere existence of such an advisory board will relieve community tensions and provide citizens with a greater sense of accountability," Ms. Black told me in an interview.

Several groups have gotten together to push for a civilian review board. Among them are representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Guardian Civic League (a black police organization), PILCOP, the NAACP and gay and lesbian organizations.

According to the coalition, the need for civilian participation in reviewing police complaints was made clear by the Police Department's own statistics. The data indicated a substantial increase in police brutality charges. Charges of physical abuse by police have increased by 71 percent in the last few years.

While former Commissioner Willie Williams' policies generally improved community-police relations, conflict between the police and some citizens -- black and white -- continues to exist.

If a board is established, its presence should be more than merely a vehicle to allow the public to ventilate its feelings and frustrations. An effective panel ought to have the authority to conduct -- with police cooperation -- investigations into specific charges or cases.

Mayor Rendell, who would appoint its members, should entrust the panel with a reasonable amount of authority to examine the facts in specific cases and to make meaningful recommendations to the police commissioner, who would either follow or dismiss the board's advice.

Surely, Mayor Rendell knows that many of the problems affecting most of America's big cities exist in Philadelphia. Such problems include smoldering hostility, a pervasive belief that the police must be policed and a sense of futility on the part of some citizens.

If those feelings are unchecked, they will become a formula for disaster. They could be offset by a thoughtful and sensitive mayor who puts the safety and concerns of citizens before politics. A civilian review board could ease those tensions.

Claude Lewis is a Philadelphia Inquirer columnist.

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