A Response to Champaign Authorities Who Dispute Need for a Citizen Police Review Board

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In a recent News Gazette article by Mike Monson, dated January
21, 2007 and entitled, Cities Taking Different Tacks on
Police Review Issue, City Councilman, Michael La Due is quoted
as saying that he would “want to see compelling evidence
for the need for one before I’d sour relations with the police
department unnecessarily.” In the same article, Champaign
Mayor Jerry Schweighhart, a retired city police officer, made it
clear he’s unalterably opposed to a review board and is quoted
as saying, “With a civilian review board, you’ll have amateurs
who think they know the law making judgments on people’s
careers. You’re going to take something that’s workable now
and make it into something that’s adversarial.” I, for one, have
to take exception to the quoted remarks and think that these
comments deserve some attention, analysis, and response.
With respect to Mr. LaDue remarks, I think that they show
a bias in favor of the status quo without furnishing any
rationale for assuming such a bias. One has to wonder why
Mr. LaDue does not ask to see compelling evidence that
there is not a need for a citizen police review board, rather
than asking for compelling evidence that one is needed.
Since there has never been a local citizen review board,
there is no empirical evidence available to provide compelling
evidence to show the need for one other than the
following: (1) the fact that a significant portion of the population
feels that there is a need to at least try some form of
citizen review given their mistrust of the existing processes,
and (2) the fact that any statistical evidence that might exist
is dependent on what the police department has collected
and will make available to the public. Those statistics are
limited in that they were never collected, they were not collected
in any systematic fashion with respect to the issues
in question, or those statistics which do exist are not readily
available to the public in raw data form—if at all.
I would think that, since the existing processes have
been in existence for some time and there is a history of
experience with its operation and impact, it would be easier
(and incumbent on) those who support the present system
and oppose a review board to collect, assemble, and
present compelling evidence to show that the current system
works and that there is no need for a review board.
However, if Mr. LaDue were really interested in viewing
and evaluating the evidence pro and con for various forms
of the citizen police review process, he could always do a
Google search where he would find that a number of cities
and towns across the country—big and small—have some
form of civilian citizen review process. There are at least
1,200,000 web sites with information on this subject
when looking under the subjects “cities with civilian
police review,” “cities with citizen police review,” “cities
with citizen review boards,” etc.
Furthermore, I have to wonder how many pieces of legislation
and what legislation brought before the City Council
have elicited from a member of Council the requirement
that there be compelling evidence presented on behalf of
the legislation before they would consider voting in favor of
it. It is only on the rarest of occasions where “compelling
evidence” has been used as a standard; the common standard
uses have tended to be “sufficient evidence” which
need not be compelling. I ask Mr. LaDue if he would care to
specify and define exactly what he would consider as being
“compelling evidence” and would accept as such. To the
best of my knowledge, this has not been specified anywhere;
and the standard of “compelling evidence” only
serves as a means to cover up the capricious and arbitrary
exercise of some undisclosed, discretionary judgments and
decision-making by council members when evaluating the
proposals and acting on them.
Lastly, whose relations with the Police Department is
Mr. LaDue concerned about souring unnecessarily? His
relations? The City Council’s relations? The complaining
community’s relations? The public in general’s relations?
With respect to the Mayor’s remarks, his argument is both
arrogant and absurd, even though – on the face of it—the
argument sounds both rational and applicable. If the concern
is with amateurs being on the board who think they
know (but really do not know) the law, then that can be
resolved easily by appointing a few lawyers and retired
judges to the review board who can inform the other
members of the applicable law.
Moreover, there is no reason why civilians cannot, over a
brief period of time, be taught and learn the relevant laws
just as police officers are taught and learn the law over a
brief period of training and experience. If teaching civilian
amateurs about the relevant laws were not possible, then
why would it be possible to do so with respect to new police
officers? Maybe we should require our police officers to be
attorneys with law degrees in addition to attending the
Police Training Institute for training in policing methods so
as to assure that they actually are both specialists and
experts in the law rather than uncertified amateur lawyers
who have had a few hours at PTI dealing with the law. If the
police officers were so knowledgeable of, and expert, in the
law, then one has to ask why some of the charges they file
are often not prosecuted by the states attorney’s office,
which is made up of legal experts, and, when the charges
that they file are prosecuted and brought before the courts, a
number of the defendants have been found not guilty. It is
obvious that the officers are not infallible and actually do
not always know for sure the law and its application to the
situational circumstances they encountered. Why insist that
members of a review board be any less fallible?
Moreover, if the Mayor’s arguments were valid, then the
same can be said about grand juries and trial juries which
are made up of common everyday civilian citizens who are
not experts in the law but are charged with making legal
and other decisions which impact on the lives of the
defendants. Would he say that the legal system be changed
so as to prevent amateur civilian citizens from serving on
juries because they do not know the law and might think
that they do? Who would he propose that we replace them
with? Police officers? Lawyers? Former judges? Academics
specializing in constitutional law and/or other forms of
law? As with grand juries or trail juries, those brought
before a civilian review board should be expected to make
arguments to the board members which convince them
and make them understand why the board should take no
actions or make no recommendations in their case. It is
incumbent upon the defendant to educate the members of
the board on what the appropriate law is and how to interpret
the relevant law in the case before them just as one
would expect from the advocates in a grand jury hearing
or a court hearing with a jury.
Just because a process is adversarial does not mean that
it is unworkable which is what the Mayor seems to be
implying. In one stroke, the mayor appears to be condemning
the entire U.S. legal system for its adversarial structure
as being unworkable. I assume he would prefer closed nonjury
court proceedings where the defendant is not allowed
to challenge the prosecution or question the witnesses.
Furthermore, if the Mayor’s standards of not allowing
amateurs who are not experts review, evaluate, pass judgment
on or make recommendations concerning decision in
fields where they are not certified as being experts are valid,
then I am left with the question of how can members of the
City Council assess and evaluate, decide to enact or reject
proposals and proposed legislation of a technical nature
brought before them by the city staff consisting of engineering
projects and designs, municipal planning, finance, and
so on which they have no expert knowledge or certification
to suggest that they are anything more than competent amateurs
in most cases at best? How many members of city
council have engineering degrees and licenses, credentials in
city planning, municipal finance or risk management, information
systems, or any one of a multitude of issues and subjects
that come before them for review and decision?
There is not just one type of citizen review process; there
are many different forms of review that are possible—each
having different focuses and levels or types of decision
making authority attached to them. While there may be
good arguments in support of and/or against each of the
various forms of civilian review, those offered by La Due
and the Mayor are not among them.
Both sides of this issue need to bracket their pre-established
points of view and be much more open-minded in
approaching a serious examination and discussion of all
the questions and issues involved. The fact that municipalities
such as San Diego, Fort Collins, Iowa City, Corvallis,
New York City, Pittsburg, Oakland, Baltimore, and Dallas
have found that some form of citizen police review process
was useful enough to institute one should suggest that the
subject merits a serious open-minded discussion, analysis,
and assessment of the possibilities.
There certainly is no harm in trying out an acceptable
method of citizen review which will accomplish or help
bring about the goals of the community for some fair and
alternative mechanisms to investigate, review, evaluate,
and adjudicate instances of alleged police misconduct and
abuse so as to allow the community to have some formal
input into the decision-making – even if that is merely to
furnish recommendations to the decision-makers in
authority. There must be methods available which will
protect the rights of both the police officers and the members
of the community, which are more transparent and
more available to the public than currently is the case.
Such a review process should provide an alternative set of
avenues for handling citizen complaints that the members
of the public can avail themselves of when and if they do
not trust or have faith in the police department handling
such things in-house without any public scrutiny.

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