Like Congress and the courts, this quasi-judicial body must have rules and procedures that steel it for the long haul
COLUMBIA, 8/29/11 (Op-Ed) --
When a black man wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood tells an entire room of people at City Hall to "F-off" after a contentious encounter with a citizen commissioner, you know you're in for an interesting evening.
Last Wednesday night saw one of many forces
that would tear asunder the Columbia Citizens Police Review Board
(CPRB), in this case a white-hooded Marlon Jordan, demanding the board be disbanded in favor of something separate from city government.
Mr. Jordan would probably say the Klan getup is an ironic protest against white injustice. I'm all for irony, and I protest white injustice almost every time I write this newsletter.
But as the quasi-judicial body it represents, the CPRB shouldn't have to stand for such abuse. When its chairman politely asked Mr. Jordan to remove his offensive signs from the front of the room, he should have done so pronto. Instead, Jordan got the last F-word -- many times.
Following Mr. Jordan, 70-year-old Bill Easley verbally ripped into board members, with testimony so loud and shrill it set the entire room on edge. As Mr. Easley heaped condemnation and scorn on the citizen volunteers, nervous giggles and uneasy squirming skittered around the room.
It was another unfortunate demonstration of forces that can tear at a body charged with an important yet delicate task: adjudicating claims against a police department, in this case one with a history many citizens consider checkered, and a lackluster reputation across many walks of city life.
Angry people who disdain police aren't the only forces that would diminish this pivotal committee. The police chief himself has presented challenges and compromises that could weaken the Board's resolve and its public mandate.
As a rough framework for CPRB activity, some of Columbia police chief Ken Burton's suggestions make sense. But as the finishing touches on the two-year-old citizen commission's policies and procedures, many of Burton's proposed changes would reduce the citizen police oversight Columbia has resoundingly approved.
A group, effectively, of administrative law judges, CPRB must remain politically and procedurally independent of both the City Council and city staff, which includes the police. Board independence is top of the list for CPRB supporters, but a low priority for Chief Burton, who is suggesting City Council members revisit the ordinance that governs the Board.
Any necessary ordinance amendments should be minimized. Changes to the structure or function of CPRB should come -- after due consideration of stakeholder voices -- from Board members themselves. Wrangling the City Council back into the debate only opens the entire Board concept back up to review.
Chief among functional changes Board members should consider are strict procedural rules, similar to those adopted by courts around the nation. These rules should spell out who has standing to file a case; the definition of an "actionable offense"; mandatory timelines; and so forth.
The ordinance establishing the board
contains this express provision: "The board may establish rules and procedures
that do not conflict with this code or the rules and regulations governing internal affairs investigations." More importantly, rules and procedures will help "steel" the Board against claims of inequity, unfairness -- and illegitimacy -- on both sides of a claim.
Fictional Harvard Law professor Charles Kingsfield might have said it best to a beleaguered student in "The Paper Chase." His directive went something like this: "You, Mr. Hart, will be charged with finding justice, no matter how tortuous your roadmap. You will accept that charge with the law as your guide, rules and procedures as the ground beneath your feet."
Rule adoption is tops on Chief Burton's wish list, and it should happen posthaste as a critical part of the Board's all-important operational framework.
Like most court and Congressional hearings, CPRB proceedings must be open; the Board must have subpoena power; and witnesses from both sides need to be available for on-the-record examination. These areas appear to be sticking points for the police department, but as a judicial body much like the Congress when it investigates the military, the CPRB has to have such powers.
At the same time, judicial bodies allow challenges if proper procedures are followed, so in its Rules of Procedure, CPRB should define under what conditions challenges to its authority may be made. Judicial bodies also allow for strictly-confidential mediations, during which both sides mediate their claims privately. CPRB may also benefit from offering this alternative in select cases.
Finally, Section 21-48 of the enabling ordinance mandates police procedure training for CPRB members. Chief Burton wants additional training. Though members of an administrative law panel should understand the culture and practices of the organization(s) they oversee, CPRB members should be PAID to undertake any additional training and it should be voluntary. It's not fair to create an all-volunteer group and then add non-voluntary requirements.
At Wednesday night's meeting, these concepts appeared muddy and ill-defined, leaving them open to challenge by all sides.
Once the dust settles, Columbia might consider a second citizen's review board, to examine crazy court decisions that let violent offenders "bond out" of jail and onto the streets, do jail time at home, or engage in other whacky alternatives to true justice. Maybe this new commission could look at what's bringing all these robberies to town. Maybe it could figure out how to stop landlords from renting to chronic criminals.
Maybe it could start a real conversation about how to reduce crime in Columbia, one that doesn't rely on old racial stereotypes and dishonest propaganda. One that aims to reduce the stress police officers experience on the streets, and citizens encounter whenever crime comes home.
Call it the Columbia Citizens Criminal Review Board.
After all, if keeping an eye on cops is a good idea, keeping an eye on crooks should be, too.