Police Balk at Review Panel Despite Success Elsewhere

Times Staff Writer

Over the past decade, police executives around the nation have routinely offered the same dire predictions about civilian review boards that Police Chief Bill Kolender and his top assistants are now forecasting for San Diego.

They warned that, if citizens were allowed to scrutinize police behavior, discipline hearings would turn into kangaroo courts, police morale would plummet and officers would skirt potentially dangerous situations.

"Setting up a police review board has never been the answer to anybody's problem," Kolender said in a recent interview. "It just doesn't work. It's been tried many places, and most of them are extremely unsuccessful. They demoralize the police, and they even bog down the system."

In some cities where civilian review boards have been introduced, however, police officials say they haven't seen negative consequences on police operations, officer performance or morale.

Apprehension Initially

"I haven't had that big of a problem," said San Francisco Police Chief Frank Jordan. "At first, there was a great deal of apprehension. We felt our investigators had the expertise and they could do a more thorough job . . . but sometimes it's turning out that (civilians) give us the benefit of doubt where our officers did not."

As the debate continues in San Diego over whether citizens should review allegations of police misconduct, surveys of various models in other cities offer few direct parallels for city leaders to draw on. That's because no two civilian review systems are the same--each has been tailored to meet the specific needs of an individual community.

Investigations, for example, are conducted by police detectives, civilians or a combination of the two. Some civilian review boards hold open hearings and publicly announce their findings; others meet in private and keep their decisions secret. Some review all complaints by citizens; others receive only those referred by the chief of police. Most panels recommend appropriate punishment, and a few have the authority to mete out discipline.

'A Real Worth'

But most experts agree on one point--civilian review boards are not the complete failure being portrayed by San Diego police.

"I would say that there seems to be a growing awareness that there is a real worth in having the community feel that it has some say in how police decisions are made," said Wesley Pomeroy, executive director of the Metropolitan Dade County Independent Review Panel in Miami and former Berkeley chief of police.

Civilian participation in the police review process has been accepted by many officers in Sun Belt cities, according to interviews with police officials and police union representatives. Some officers even said they preferred to be judged by responsible citizens instead of police administrators, whose decisions were perceived by the rank-and-file officers to be arbitrary.

In San Diego, police administrators have rejected the concept of civilian review in favor of a proposal to let county grand jurors randomly audit internal investigations once or twice a year. They say that involving citizens in confidential police investigations would violate the City Charter and a section of the state Penal Code.

The police recommendation--which the San Diego Police Officers Assn. strongly opposes--is now being studied by City Manager John Lockwood and the Citizens Advisory Task Force on Police-Community Relations, which is expected to respond on Wednesday. Last week, a subcommittee voted to suggest that the full task force recommend some form of civilian participation in the review process.

"I don't think we have to model after anyone," Assistant Chief Bob Burgreen said. "We have to determine what is best for us. What should we be doing differently, if anything? The fact there are 100 different models is good. It means there is no right way to do it."

Minority leaders have criticized the police proposal as ineffective and offering too little civilian input. They are particularly concerned that, under the Police Department's proposal, the community could not review controversial, highly publicized complaints of police beatings or shootings.

Though police officials acknowledge the need to restore public confidence in the department's complaint process, they remain adamantly opposed to any full-fledged citizen review board.

Burgreen said the department has concluded that civilian review boards have "a very negative impact on policing in any particular city."

"We have looked at an awful lot of civilian review boards . . . and what we have seen we don't like," he said. "We have seen a deterioration of police morale, a deterioration of effectiveness and a lack of ability by the chief of police to control discipline.

"You are gaining civilian review at a severe cost. Most of us would hate to see this department, which we feel is a fine department and does a fine job, suffer those kinds of consequences to get civilian review."

Burgreen's stinging criticism contradicts the views of police officials in other cities that have adopted civilian review boards. Similar objections initially were raised by police in San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, Phoenix, Dade County, Fla., and other communities, but many of these same officers now say they have learned to live with civilian review and they cite numerous benefits.

"I don't think the officers necessarily like the fact that the civilian is on the board, but they accept it as part of the job," said Mike Petchel, president of the police officers association in Phoenix.

Bob Barry, president of the San Francisco Police Officers Assn., said, "I have no problem with civilians overlooking what we do. They should."

Police administrators in San Francisco and Phoenix said that civilian participation in discipline cases has improved police-community relations. They emphasized that, though civilian review has its share of problems, it has changed the perception among citizens that the police departments protect their officers.

"I think people feel more content with the Police Department now than two years ago," said Maj. Jerry Oliver, a police administrator who runs the Phoenix review board. "We have not had a major police-citizen confrontation because politicians and citizens feel (the police) are more open and responsive to citizen complaints."

Jordan, San Francisco's police chief, said that part of his job has been made easier by having civilians investigate citizens' complaints against officers.

"I find it is helpful to me in community meetings," he said. "People tell me of an alleged impropriety against a police officer, and I tell them about the Office of Citizen Complaints. They seem to accept it better because they know there is nothing we can hold back and hide in the process."

'What We Have Works'

Police officials in San Diego do not believe that a significant portion of the community favors appointing citizens to review police conduct. They said that extensive publicity of police brutality allegations in the Sagon Penn police murder case and a few outspoken minority leaders are responsible for the sudden interest in a citizen review board.

"I think what we have works, and I think most of the people are satisfied with it," Kolender said. "There are some that aren't and never will be."

Kolender and Burgreen gave the following reasons why they oppose any form of civilian participation in police internal investigations:

- Officer performance and morale would suffer if civilians reviewed police conduct.

"We've looked at a number of traditional police review boards and typically productivity and morale of the police department goes in the tank," Burgreen said. "Police officers really slow down when it comes to going out and doing their work."

Burgreen said he has not visited other U.S. cities to research civilian review boards but studied surveys and traveled to Scotland four years ago on a grant to look at civilian review. Burgreen said he fears that some officers would be hesitant to take risks--such as confronting an armed suspect in a dark alley before backup units arrived--if they perceive their conduct will be second-guessed by naive citizens who don't fully understand the complexities of police work.

"The officer says, 'I am not going to put my rear end on the line and then be judged by a kangaroo court,' " Burgreen said.

Petchel, the president of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Assn., said that he believes the lives of Phoenix officers and citizens were jeopardized two years ago when the city appointed citizens to police disciplinary review boards.

Shortly after civilians began reviewing police conduct, according to Petchel, two Phoenix officers failed to shoot at suspects in situations where they would have been legally justified in doing so. In both cases, the officers said they did not want to be subjected to public ridicule or risk having their split-second decisions scrutinized by citizens who harbor anti-police feelings.

"I think the community would have been responsible if any of those officers had been killed," Petchel said. "Why would you want to gamble with the life of any one police officer to get civilian review in place?"

However, police officials in other Western cities said they did not know of any officers who changed their approach to police work after establishment of civilian review boards. They said they doubted that any thought of a civilian review board crosses an officer's mind when he responds to calls for service.

"I think it's bull, myself," said Capt. Phillip Coleman, head of Oakland police internal affairs. "The kind of person attracted to police work is action-oriented, a bit of a romantic. You train him, equip him, give him extraordinary powers and say, 'Go get 'em.' And they get 'em.

"I don't think it's true. First off, you are what you are. You're not going to change. Second thing, every police officer out there thinks he's doing a good job."

Oakland Police Officers Assn. official Bob Muszar concurred: "I don't care what kind of (citizen review) panels are going to be created, the officers are professionals. They will go out and do their job."

- The police chief will lose control of his department if stripped of his authority to discipline officers.

"He who controls discipline controls the police department," Kolender said.

Many civilian oversight panels do not have the authority to discipline officers. Instead, they review investigations and recommend punishment to the chief of police.

"We have absolutely no power to tell anyone what to do," said Pomeroy, head of the Metropolitan Dade County Independent Review Panel. "Our power is to recommend. That is a very powerful kind of tool. We make recommendations publicly and clearly. If (the police chief) chooses not to follow those recommendations, he has to take the heat one way or the other."

Pomeroy, a former Berkeley police chief, added: "I think chiefs of police have to be able to continue to administer discipline. He has to have that authority. If you take away that power, he has no responsibility for discipline. That is a pretty sorry mess."

In San Francisco, where police internal affairs investigators have been replaced by civilians who recommend discipline, Chief Jordan said he still runs the department.

"If a complaint is sustained (by the civilians), I get that report," Jordan said. "I can either concur or ask for additional information or . . . have a disciplinary hearing of my own. I'm not out of the process. We're not just looking at innocence or guilt. We're looking at behavioral patterns."

- Police internal affairs investigators conduct more thorough, objective and fair investigations than civilians who have no training or knowledge of law enforcement.

"Civilian review boards are historically very, very poor and very, very slow at coming to any conclusion and getting anything done with police discipline," Burgreen said. "Less discipline is generally meted out.

"You can usually safely say that commanding officers are going to be tougher on their own police officers than would be a citizen calling the same thing. That's because of the pride we have in the profession. Because of the concern we have when an officer falls short, we are tough on ourselves."

Yet in those cities where civilians participate in the review process, many police officers said they welcome citizen input. They said that having a citizen oversee the complaint process helps to ensure that commanders do not play favorites.

"I think the overall perception is that it's a positive step toward more equitable discipline that not only the officers can accept but citizens can deal with because they have a say in it," said Royce Beydler, a police detective in Phoenix, where one citizen and four police representatives sit on the discipline review board. "In the past, the officers' perception was that discipline was not equitable for a variety of reasons. The creation of this board tends to even things out. This board tends to take out personalities."

San Francisco Officer Bobby Geary said officers "didn't get a fair shake under internal affairs. It depended who the investigator was and what kind of ax he had to grind. Some went to great lengths to uncover information. Others just whitewashed the whole thing."

Burgreen responded: "Officers who are continuously in the grease would probably rather see a civilian there than a police commander because a police commander is going to be real tough to con."

Civilian investigators are not under the same pressure as police to sustain complaints, said Frank Schober, director of San Francisco's Office of Citizen Complaints. Nor, he said, do they know many individual officers on a first-name basis.

"In the old-boy network of the Police Department, if you are tagged a jerk there's no way you can avoid a ton of bricks falling on you. They will get you," Schober said. "On the other hand, if you are a golden boy, you can do nothing wrong. They will take care of you.

"We don't do that. We don't think that is our purpose."

- Bringing citizens into the review process violates state law and the City Charter.

Penal code section 832.7 prohibits the release of police personnel files and confidential records to the public and the City Charter prevents the mayor, council members and/or any advisory committee from interfering with the operation of the Police Department.

"One thing that is being overlooked here is we are staying within the law," Burgreen said of the department's proposal to use grand jurors to audit police investigations. "A lot of people are discussing things that are not legal and will not happen.

"It seems to us (the grand jury proposal) now offers the best alternative for providing a forum for citizen review of what we're doing that satisfies the law."

Police administrators and the city attorney's office said their preliminary research indicates that the legal obstacles to providing civilian review in San Diego are nearly insurmountable.

"I haven't seen a model yet that I haven't had a problem with," said Deputy City Atty. John Kaheny said. "I'm not saying no. I'm saying I see some problems and would have to study the model and do some research. I certainly wouldn't give a green light right now."

Being Creative

Other California cities have found creative ways to sidestep restrictions that prohibit civilians from reviewing confidential documents. For example, San Francisco made its civilian investigators city employees; Berkeley changed its City Charter; Oakland drafted a memo of understanding between the city and the Oakland Police Officers Assn.

Members of the city's Task Force on Police-Community Relations have discussed putting citizens through a mini-police academy to give them the official status to review internal documents.

"Whoever did that would have to become part of the Police Department, which seems to fly in the face of the argument that you need independent citizen review," Burgreen said.

Consequently, few people in San Diego can agree on what shape civilian review should take--the Police Department wants the county grand jury to conduct audits; the Police Officers Assn., representing the officers, prefers the Civil Service Commission; leaders in the minority community are pushing for full-fledged review, and the citizen task force continues to study different models.

For civilian review to succeed in San Diego, police and community leaders in other cities agree that everyone must be willing to compromise and give the system a chance.

"If the key players don't want it to work, it won't work well," Miami's Pomeroy said. "If the police chief really doesn't want it, there will be some kind of quiet sabotage."

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