Courts & Corrections

Policing the Police

Though troubling, the recently leaked video of a Springfield, Mass., police officer beating an apparently helpless suspect with a metal flashlight while three other officers...
by | March 31, 2010

Though troubling, the recently leaked video of a Springfield, Mass., police officer beating an apparently helpless suspect with a metal flashlight while three other officers looked on highlights a chronic problem in mid- and large-sized cities nationwide: Who polices the police?

Data suggests that actual incidences of overzealous police officers injuring or killing nonthreatening suspects are rare, but they can dominate the news for months. From Rodney King in Los Angeles to Abner Louima in New York City, such incidents sully reputations, tarnish whole departments and damage community relations, while sometimes costing cities millions of dollars in legal fees and restitution.

To reduce excessive use of force incidents, cities have devised various schemes for overseeing police, the most common of which is a citizen oversight board charged with investigating reports of abuse. The battle surrounding these boards has always been over how much authority they have, and whether they have the expertise to do the job. As a rule, police don't like being investigated--or second guessed--by civilians. Meanwhile, community activists tend to not trust the police to conduct thorough internal investigations, particularly in cities where there is significant tension between police departments and ethnic minorities.

In the Springfield incident's immediate wake, Mayor Domenic J. Sarno announced a new "community police hearing board," consisting of a group of citizens he appointed. Some in Springfield wonder if this citizen oversight board will actually have any teeth. They worry that the board will be mere political window dressing rather than an effective mechanism for investigations and discipline.

Getting the balance right--between ensuring rigorous, thorough investigations and protecting the police from overzealous or politically motivated outsiders--has always been the trickiest part of police oversight. But one city seems to have devised a system that balances police rights with citizen concerns--a system that, since its creation in 2001, has proven remarkably successful in significantly reducing excessive use of force incidents.

At Portland, Ore.'s low point in the late 1990s, its police were shooting suspects at a rate of one per month. The bulk of those shootings, says former Portland City Auditor Gary Blackmer, was taking place in the city's heavily African-American community, which was badly damaging city and community relations. "When you had one shooting a month," says Blackmer, who is now with the state auditor's office, "it made it pretty hard to go out there and talk to citizens about cooperating on crime fighting."

At the city council's request, Blackmer hired a consultant to look at use of force incidents and make recommendations for how to reduce them. Besides some fundamental tactical suggestions--Portland police were consistently putting themselves in unnecessarily dangerous situations where they had to shoot their way out--the most fundamental reform suggested was to shut down the city's existing police oversight board, which lacked clout and credibility, and replace it with a professionally run board within the city auditor's office, comprising a smaller, carefully chosen group of highly qualified members.

Since the oversight board overhaul, use of force complaints in Portland have plummeted by more than 60 percent, a number that Blackmer argues represents millions of dollars in savings in legal fees, lost time and lost personnel. It has also led to an incalculable increase in community goodwill.

Symbolic of the new approach, incidences in which citizens reported being verbally abused by police decreased dramatically. "The department's policy was that they used profanity to avoid use of force," says Blackmer. "We said, 'Fine, then we want police officers to write up a report every time they use profanity and explain why.'" Profanity complaints went down 75 percent.

By the same token, the oversight board has come to the police's defense: The board has explained to citizen complainants that handcuffing before arresting a subject is acceptable police procedure. It's also perfectly legal for police to question a subject without reading the Miranda rights as long as the subject hasn't yet been placed under arrest.

Essential to credible, effective oversight is the concept of a professional, experienced intermediary, says Richard Rosenthal, who as an "independent monitor" oversees investigations into use of force incidents by the Denver Police Department. Only those who are experienced in both law and police work should ever investigate allegations of police misconduct, says Rosenthal, who was the original prosecutor in the Los Angeles Police Department's infamous Rampart scandal in the late 1990s. The scandal involved extreme police misconduct that included bank robbery, and the shooting and framing of an unarmed gang member by an officer.

Besides hard data on lowering and keeping the lid on use of force incidents, Rosenthal judges his department by the responses he gets from police and citizens. "I get criticized by the police union, which says I have way too much influence and I'm out to get them; and I get criticized by citizens who say I'm in bed with the cops. That's the fine line we walk."

It's a fine line worth walking, though, notes Blackmer. Far from the days when Portland was seeing one police shooting a month, today that number is down to one per year.

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