No police review board

March 19, 1999|By Shelly Greenberg

CITIZEN oversight of local police is essential. However, establishing an independent civilian review board to oversee discipline of Baltimore police officers is not.

Independent civilian review boards have merit in some cities where they help restore the public's willingness to file complaints once police officials have demonstrated that they are unable or unwilling to discipline officers.

This is not the case in Baltimore. The vast majority of police officers are committed to protecting individual rights, adhering to law and policy and providing a high degree of service. Of course, there's room for improvement, but a civilian review board is the wrong approach.

There is a high degree of myth and hype surrounding civilian review boards; they are not the panacea some people claim. Some anecdotal evidence suggests such boards may improve communication between citizens and police, but just as much evidence suggests review boards may drive a wedge between the two.

There is no concrete, objective study that correlates independent civilian review boards with reductions in abuse of authority by officers or reductions in the use of excessive force. Claims that such boards speed investigations, improve public confidence over the long term and improve respect for police are equally without basis.

Some people believe the current Complaint Review Board lacks a high public profile, and even Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke cited that as a reason to adopt a civilian review board.

But a high-profile board can become a political tool more interested in satisfying public outrage than dealing fairly with police misconduct. Such problems have crippled the effectiveness of civilian review boards in other cities.

There are other problems. The boards can be costly and their decisions can be used against a city in a civil suit.

Recently, Del. Kenneth Montague Jr., was quoted as saying the "police will always protect their own." Such a statement has no merit.

Police officers in Baltimore and its surrounding jurisdictions are subject to harsher discipline and more oversight than almost any other profession.

Officers' reputations -- and, in fact, their careers -- can be destroyed by a single allegation.

The move toward a civilian review board in Baltimore is based, in great part, on exceptional incidents, resulting in gross generalizations.

No one has studied the number of encounters in which Baltimore police officers could have applied lethal force but chose other alternatives. For every act of abuse or excessive force, there are hundreds of situations faced by police officers where the use of force is appropriate and legal, but resisted.

There are many steps that could and should be taken before lawmakers in Annapolis permit the establishment of an independent civilian review board, including improving the current Complaint Review Board or establishing a citizens advisory panel on police discipline to advise the commissioner and his internal affairs unit. The advisory panel should get public input on reforming the complaint and internal affairs process.

There are other alternatives that warrant consideration. If all else fails and a broad-based breakdown between the police and the public can be substantiated, an independent civilian review board may be viable.

Sheldon F. Greenberg, Ph.D., is chairman of the Department of Interdisciplinary Programs and director of the Police Executive Leadership Program in the School of Continuing Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

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