Police reform advocates like the newly forming Coalition for Justice and Equality and coalition member ACLU of Maryland are taking a close look at the “Law Enforcement Bill of Rights” (LEOBR), the statute that governs procedures when Maryland police stand accused of wrongful injury or death. One measure under discussion is to authorize strong Civilian Review Boards (CRBs) that could serve as an independent, civilian check on police. I decided to do a little research.
Lessons from Charlotte, NC
MCCRC’s long-time ally and coalition partner, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee (BORDC) is in touch with activists around the country with experience in trying to make CRBs work. They put us in touch with one of those activists: Robert Dawkins, a Democracy North Carolina organizer who‘s had notable success in reforming the Charlotte, NC Civilian Review Board. In a phone conversation, Mr. Dawkins identified some of the key issues as …
- Information gathering: i.e., is the board empowered to make informed decisions? Police departments often only share summaries of a case rather than whole case file, citing concerns about confidentiality. Perhaps understandably, it’s a key issue for police unions — but the practice meant CRB members were forced to take the police department’s word about the case, rather than review it themselves. The solution to the dilemma was for Charlotte CRB board members to sign confidentiality agreements — and see the full case files.
- Threshold for investigation: before the Charlotte reforms, its CRB could only go forward with cases where a “preponderance of evidence“supported the complaint (n.b.: when much of that evidence was unavailable to the board and plaintiffs). That was too high a burden, one leading to game-changing headlines that the “CMPD review panel rules against citizens – every time” (Charlotte Observer 2/16/13): “…It’s not surprising citizens have never won: The board has no independent power to investigate, and citizens must meet an unusually high standard of evidence for the board to even hold a formal hearing.” After months of debate, Charlotte City Council revised the process: the new threshold for review was “substantial evidence” supporting the complaint.
- Difficulty for plaintiffs: the complaint process can be confusing and bureaucratic; while the police officers and their lawyers are familiar with it, new plaintiffs are not. The city of Charlotte now appoints advocates to help plaintiffs navigate the process.
- Transparency: reforms in Charlotte helped make it easier to know who was on the CRB, how often they met, and how they are appointed — keeping both the board and the city government that appointed its members accountable to the public.
But the principal issue for a truly effective CRB — one that’s “worth a hill of beans,” to quote Mr. Dawkins — is this:
- Decision making power:what power does the board have to subpoena or investigate independently? In Charlotte, the answer unfortunately remained: “none.” State laws would need to be changed for North Carolina CRBs to get real power. There’s an excellent proposed “Prohibition of Discriminatory Practices Bill,” sponsored by Rep. Rodney Moore, that would give North Carolina CRBs subpoena authority, but it’s unlikely to be passed by the state legislature.
There’s an association for everything, so there’s one for CRBs: the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE). For those of us who’d like to learn more about CRBs, the NACOLE web site provides a listserv, newsletter, detailed oversight agency profiles and enabling legislation for CRBs in cities from Albany to Portland and San Francisco, as well as a number of backgrounder white paper reports.
The association has submitted a statement to the Presidential Commission on 21st Century Policing,” the body convened by President Obama in response to events in Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland, and elsewhere. In it, NACOLE President Brian Buchner writes,
The current crisis of mistrust and breaking or broken relationships between police and the communities they are sworn to serve and protect is one of the most pressing challenges facing the nation. In communities of color particularly, policing practices that are perceived to be overly harsh, unjust, or unfair, regardless of whether those practices are deemed lawful, can undermine police legitimacy.
…and concludes with five recommendations (emphases added):
- Ensure that police officers continue to have the proper tools, guidance, training, and supervision to carry out their law enforcement responsibilities safely and in accordance with individuals’ constitutional rights.
- Make constitutional policing and transparency core values of policing, as well as building systems of accountability that include independent oversight to carry out those values to support the many police officers who uphold their oaths, engendering greater public trust.
Ensure police continue to function as a part of the community; that police continue to work to cultivate legitimacy by engaging with the community fairly, impartially, and respectfully; and, that the police become more directly responsive to the community.
- Improve the quality and integrity of police disciplinary systems, including investigations of misconduct complaints and uses of force, while vigilantly safeguarding the rights of officers.
- Ensure that independent oversight is a part of efforts to identify and resolve underlying systemic problems within law enforcement, with a primary focus on reducing and preventing misconduct and enhancing accountability, as well as promoting effective policing and developing strategies for positive organizational change.
Civilian review boards are not a panacea, and they’re hard to do right. But these boards — an idea that grew out of the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s — can restore confidence, prevent mistrust, and carry out independent, trusted reviews when necessary.
The story in Montgomery County
The idea of a civilian review board has been raised by the Montgomery County ACLU chapter and MCCRC in conversation with Executive Ike Leggett and the police. As Martine Zee wrote then,
Former chapter leader Mike Mage “shared the history of previous attempts to establish a “citizen review commission” brought by a broad coalition of groups. It initially had the support of the FOP (Fraternal Order of Police) union since the original concept was to allow officers to bring complaints against department management. But after a while they backed off and the idea stalled, then went nowhere. … Today there is no public visibility/transparency in complaints lodged against county police officers. Mage says most if not all complaints are determined by Internal Affairs to be “without merit” or result in “officer was reprimanded” which is meaningless, nothing but a slap on the wrist.
This is the first in a series of posts about possible police reforms in Maryland advocated by MCCRC and the Maryland Coalition for Justice and Equality. Others include renewal of the “Driving While Black” legislation requiring record-keeping of vehicular stops and detailed procedural reforms of Maryland’s”Law Enforcement Officer Bill of Rights.” We will be listing suitable bills and ways to advocate them on our 2015 Maryland lobbying web page. So check back soon!