Police Are Learning To Accept Civilian Oversight, But Distrust Lingers | KERA News

Police Are Learning To Accept Civilian Oversight, But Distrust Lingers

Feb 21, 2015
Originally published on March 11, 2016 6:26 am

Late last month, during a meeting of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen, a shoving match broke out among members of the public — some of them off-duty police officers.

The cause of the tension was a proposal to create a new civilian oversight authority for the police. Advocates of police reform like civilian oversight, but police officers say the boards are often politicized and unfair to them.

The concept of civilian police oversight isn't new. In 1965, New York Mayor John Lindsay proposed including civilians on a review board as a way to address complaints from minority groups about police misconduct. But the move backfired; the police union and conservatives such as William F. Buckley rallied against civilian oversight, and voters later defeated the idea in a city-wide vote, returning the board to police only. It took more than two decades for civilian oversight of police to be restored in New York.

The idea fared better in other cities. In Kansas City, Mo., the Office of Community Complaints was the brainchild of a personal injury lawyer named Sid Willens. He says his eyes were opened to the problem of police accountability in 1965, when he tried to get justice for a client who'd been badly beaten while handcuffed. Willens says the police department's internal investigation simply confirmed the officer's version of what happened. "It's like having the fox guard the chicken house," Willens says.

Willens proved that his client had been mistreated — and in the process, he concluded that the Kansas City police needed what he called an "ombudsman," an independent entity to address complaints. The department resisted at first, but in 1970 gave in.

"Once the cops got used to it, it worked," Willens says. "And it's still working, because what you're doing is simply trying to do what every business tries to do, [which] is get rid of the rotten apples. And there are very few overall."

Today there are more than 200 civilian oversight entities around the country, though their powers to investigate and punish officers vary. The entities are usually the product of contentious negotiations with police unions, which tend to distrust them.

"You need to have an appropriate mindset towards policing," says Jim Pasco, the national executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police. He believes civilians just aren't qualified to judge whether a cop followed a department's rules governing use of force.

"The fact of the matter is, an officer has to make a split-second decision involving life or death," Pasco says. "And the civilian review boards tend to, by definition, be made up of civilians who have no particular experience or insight into what went through that officer's mind, what the circumstances were and how desperate things can become in that nanosecond."

Pierce Murphy, the director of Seattle's police oversight entity, the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA), doesn't agree. "I don't think it necessarily takes having been in a squad car or walked the beat to be able to take the evidence, weigh it and decide whether the rule is followed or not," he says.

Murphy's office investigates police misconduct. While police sergeants work for him, he's a civilian, and he's the one who decides whether to pursue a case. The city is now trying to put even more distance between the OPA and the police department, in response to Justice Department pressure for reform.

Murphy has moved his office two blocks away from police headquarters. This way, he says, "People don't have to go to the police department if they want to complain about the police."

These days, when federal authorities investigate a city's police department, one of the main things they insist on is a civilian review of complaints. It's a philosophy that's in ascendance again in the post-Ferguson landscape, but it's one that officers continue to resist, not just in St. Louis, but in other cities as well, such as Newark, N.J., which announced the creation of a review board last month.

In St. Louis, after the shoving match, a Board of Aldermen committee gave preliminary approval for the creation of a civilian oversight authority. The full board may vote on it in April and May. Mayor Francis Slay told reporters he supports the bill.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Late last month in St. Louis, there was a brawl in City Hall.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Chaos erupting at St. Louis City Hall, and it all happened in front of News 4 cameras.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Pushing and shoving match, and at of the center of it is the president of the Police Officers' Association.

SIMON: The matter before the city's aldermen - whether to create a civilian review board for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police. As NPR's Martin Kaste reports, civilian oversight is a favorite tool for police reformers, but police say the boards are unfair.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Civilian oversight of the police isn't new. One of the pioneers of the idea was a lawyer in Kansas City named Sid Willens. He says his eyes were open back in 1965, when he tried to get justice for a client who'd been badly beaten while handcuffed. Willens says the police department's internal investigation just confirmed the officer's version of what happened.

SID WILLENS: It's like having the fox guard the chicken house.

KASTE: Willens managed to prove that his client had been mistreated. And in the process, he decided that the police needed an ombudsman, a civilian entity outside the police department that could take these complaints. The department resisted for a while, but this was the mid-'60s and there was pressure to reform the police, so eventually it gave in.

WILLENS: Once the cops got used to it, it worked and it's still working. Because what you're doing is simply trying to do what every business tries to do, is get rid of the rotten apples - and there are very few, overall.

KASTE: The concept spread, promoted by civil rights leaders who saw it as a remedy for police racism. Today there are more than 200 civilian oversight entities around the country, though they vary a lot in their powers to investigate and punish officers. And the police still tend to distrust them.

JIM PASCO: You need to have an appropriate mindset towards policing.

KASTE: Jim Pasco is the national executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police. Like many officers, he believes civilians are too prone to play Monday morning quarterback.

PASCO: The fact of the matter is that an officer has to make a split-second decision involving life or death. And civilian review boards tend to be, by definition, made up of civilians who have no particular experience or insight into what went through that officer's mind, what the circumstances were and how desperate things can become in that nanosecond.

KASTE: He says the civilians just aren't qualified to judge whether a cop followed a department's use-of-force rules. But Pierce Murphy doesn't agree.

PIERCE MURPHY: I don't think it necessarily takes having been out in a squad car or walked the beat to be able to take the evidence, weigh it and decide whether the rule is followed or not.

KASTE: Murphy is the director of the civilian oversight entity in Seattle. It's called the Office of Professional Accountability. His office investigates police misconduct and he has police sergeants working for him, but he the civilian is the one who decides whether to pursue a case. And he's trying to put even more distance between the police and his office.

MURPHY: I've moved it outside and down the street from police headquarters. We're two blocks away. We're in just a generic civilian office building with a doughnut shop in the lobby. And, you know, people don't have to go into the police department if they want to complain about the police.

KASTE: This is happening in part because Seattle is one of the cities that the U.S. Justice Department has been pressuring in recent years to reform the police. These days, when the feds investigate a city's police department, one of the main things it insists on is civilian review of complaints. It's a philosophy that's in ascendance again in this post-Ferguson landscape and, increasingly, it's something the cops are having to learn to live with. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.