How Citizen Review Boards Get Undermined

Many big city police departments have civilian review boards to look at accusations of police brutality and misconduct, with varying degrees of authority and effectiveness. They are often established in response to high-profile cases as a means of assuaging public concerns. But once they’re created, they are often undermined by a lack of authority and many other problems. The Atlanta Journal Constitution details how this has happened to the board in that city, formed in response to the Kathryn Johnston case in 2006:

Outrage over a botched raid built on lies from informants followed by cover-ups by cops who killed a frightened, innocent 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston in her home — and then planted drugs in the house — led to the birth the Atlanta Citizen Review Board.

The board was given investigators, subpoena power and a mandate to provide a credible, independent and “safe and welcoming place” to bring complaints and accusations of misconduct and abuse by public safety officials.

More than five years later, the oversight board’s existence is threatened by resistance from the police force, an apparent lack of interest from city government, internal board politics and a damaged public image…

The citizen watchdog panel is at a critical place in its so-far rocky existence, and the strain on the members is showing more and more in meetings that sometimes disintegrate into name calling, the decision to hire and then not hire a former federal prosecutor as the ACRB’s second executive director, and public complaints that the board seems too concerned with placating the police department and is sacrificing transparency.

“It had the capability of having effectiveness but the city of Atlanta is a huge political machine and I don’t think it was ever strong enough to be effective,” said Joy Morrissey, who had been on the board since its inception until May 10, when her replacement was announced. “I don’t know if anyone is going to allow it to be effective.”…

APD has never embraced the board, though the department says it does not oppose oversight. But the argument has been that, except in the most egregious cases, there is no need for an independent investigation of what APD’s Office of Professional Standards would do with its internal investigations. APD, the police union and the Atlanta Police Foundation, which provides private funds for some police programs, agree there should be oversight but that it should come in the form of reviewing, or auditing, findings of completed internal investigations.

“The Atlanta Police Department does not oppose accountability to the citizens it serves,” said APD spokesman Carlos Campos. “However, we have always advocated for an ‘audit’ model approach to a Citizen Review Board, rather than the current ‘investigative’ model. We believe the audit model is more effective at providing the level of departmental oversight the public is seeking.”

Citizen groups see that argument as one to weaken the city’s watchdog system.

“It’s obvious … that [police] want a symbolic organization. They want an organization with no teeth in it. They want a citizen review board in name only and they do not want a board that will serve as a serious checks and balances on police actions,” said the Rev. Anthony Motley of Lindsay Street Baptist, which has been a leader of efforts to fight crime in Kathryn Johnston’s neighborhood.

This is the argument the police always make — just let us handle it internally, let other police officers decide whether an officer has done anything wrong. It’s the very definition of the fox guarding the hen house. Bear in mind what happened in the Kathryn Johnston case. It was revealed, by two officers who cut a plea deal, that the entire narcotics unit from the Atlanta PD was corrupt, that they kept drugs in their vehicles to plant on informants and suspects and routinely lied to get warrants — not to mention the fact that they killed an old woman who’d done nothing wrong, shooting her 6 times and then handcuffing her on the living room floor to watch her die while they planted drugs in her house. And that was after doing the same thing to an informant to get the warrant to break into her home to begin with. That entire unit was corrupt and their corruption had been going on for years, with no one doing anything about it. Hell no I don’t trust police departments to monitor themselves.

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  • Aliasalpha

    I’m sure its only 95% of the bad apples giving the honest 5% a bad name…

  • caseloweraz

    Ed Brayton: “And that was after doing the same thing to an informant to get the warrant to break into her home to begin with.”

    Sorry; what was it they did to the informant again?

  • mkoormtbaalt

    They should stick with having Internal Affairs investigate matters, but hand IA over to a civilian authority, without reducing IA’s access to police officers, crime scenes, witnesses, etc. I think that a large part of the problem is that IA investigations are always performed under duress. They report their findings to people who have the ability to limit their careers and make their lives miserable. Those same people have a greater interest in making the numbers look good than they do in actually having good numbers. It’s like complaining to HR if your CEO is harassing you.

  • Ben P

    Ed Brayton: “And that was after doing the same thing to an informant to get the warrant to break into her home to begin with.”

    Sorry; what was it they did to the informant again?

    I’m not intimately familiar with the details of the case but I think the informant himself had been arrested and charged with drug possession (possibly with planted drugs). The police then used that as leverage to coerce him into giving them a statement that so and so was a distributor (or maybe they just pressed him for a name and he made it up).

    At it’s core it’s a relatively common police tactic, you arrest the little fish and use the threat to give them an incentive to testify against the big fish. However, given that people rarely check what an informant actually knows and given how many cases end in plea bargains, informants are never cross examined on their BS and it’s very easy for police to abuse the process.