If city leaders hope to restore public confidence in the Burbank Police Department, they must also be willing to empower the city’s Police Commission to better fulfill its watchdog role.
That the commission has finally set a date for its first public forum since scandal erupted within the department last year is a good first step toward reversing years of institutionalized impotence.
But beyond that Aug. 18 meeting, more must be done to heal public trust scarred by allegations of excessive and improper use of force that have resulted in the firings of 10 police officers, multiple lawsuits involving claims of widespread racial discrimination within the department and a veteran officer’s work-related public suicide.
For far too long the role of Burbank Police Commission members involved little more than keeping their chairs warm.
And though more active today in the wake of department scandal, the commission should be encouraged to continue its evolution with broader oversight powers and more effective procedures for hearing and handling complaints.
For starters, Commissioner Jim Etter would like individual city e-mail accounts for members to replace the single commission account currently administered from within police headquarters. That is, the very body residents would be writing to complain about.
That’s right: Send a complaint about police to the police commission, and that e-mail is first read and then distributed to commission members by an assistant to the chief of police.
“You can’t communicate with me individually without going through the Police Department, and we’re supposed to be here if you have a complaint against the police,” said Etter, a retired motion picture lighting technician.
Nonetheless, Etter believes the commission has made much progress since his appointment last year, when during one seemingly pointless meeting he abandoned his chair in frustration. A weekly Boy Scout troop meeting was being held the same night, he said, “and I walked out because they were doing more at the Boy Scout meeting. I taught three kids how to tie a square knot.”
At that time the commission met quarterly, not monthly, and according to Etter city officials routinely prevented commissioners from receiving the most basic information — even documents later obtained by citizens through Public Information Act requests — and quashed early requests to set a town hall meeting.
Mayor Anja Reinke, who served on the commission before her election to City Council in 2007 and is now the council’s liaison to it, says calls at the time to increase the commission’s oversight functions were ignored, leaving the body underequipped to deal with serious issues.
Unlike the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners, which sets LAPD policy and functions like a corporate board for the department, the Burbank commission’s primary role is to advise the City Council.
In other words, “right now the Police Commission really doesn’t do anything,” said Reinke, who supports increasing the council-appointed body’s oversight tasks and complaint-taking abilities.
Continuing the commission’s evolution from absentee police-civilian middleman to engaged citizen advocate — something in between the current LA and Burbank models — promises to be a complicated process, and one that will require City Council members to rethink administrative procedures while navigating privacy protections and other rights of police officers.
Progress depends on not only the outcomes of ongoing investigations and lawsuits, but also the desires expressed by Burbank residents at the commission’s upcoming town hall meeting.
After all, if we’re going to have a commission, we might as well use it.
JOE PIASECKI is an Annenberg Fellow with USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and a contributing editor for the Pasadena Weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.