Is Civilian Police Review Outmoded? 

In all the planned reform of Oakland's police department, not one word was mentioned about its citizen review board.

As part of a huge class-action settlement of one of the lawsuits in the Riders police brutality scandal, the city of Oakland has agreed to overhaul the operations of its police department. On top of the $10.9 million the city is awarding to 119 citizens who say they were victimized by the rogue cops known as the Riders, officials agreed to spend another $10 million over five years to implement a series of reforms that begin with ethics training for new police recruits and extend all the way to how the department investigates alleged misconduct.

Central to many of the reforms is the department's secretive disciplinary arm. The Oakland Police Department's Internal Affairs Division was central in rooting out the Riders, but only after former rookie officer Keith Batt took the extremely rare step of complaining about the behavior of his fellow officers. Many of the civilian plaintiffs in the Riders settlement say their own prior complaints to Internal Affairs fell on deaf ears.

Now the division is undergoing an overhaul. Its office will be moved from police headquarters to city hall, more investigators will be added, and a 24-hour complaints hotline will be set up. Police Chief Richard Word has been given specific deadlines to write up new policies about investigations. The results will be tracked by an independent monitor or monitors appointed by a federal judge.

But while the settlement focuses its energies on the true source of police disciplinary power, nowhere does it even mention the city's extraordinarily flawed Citizens Police Review Board.

For decades, the Police Review Board has charted a parallel course to that of the Internal Affairs Division, publicly investigating cases of alleged police misconduct. The board's review of officer conduct is largely symbolic, given its lack of disciplinary power. After hearing a case of alleged police brutality, the most the board can do is to recommend options ranging from training or counseling to demotion or dismissal. The city manager then decides whether or not to heed the board's advice and sends his own recommendations to the police chief. Even when civilians win a case before the board, they don't know for sure if an officer is ultimately disciplined, because once a complaint hits the city manager's desk, it becomes private under the city's personnel guidelines. Thus, few citizen complainants ever leave the board satisfied, and many end up later taking their claims to court.

In recent years the police review board has fallen into severe disarray, limiting its ability to track patterns of police misconduct. Case files were lost under furniture for months. Investigative records were kept on index cards.

Under the terms of the city ordinance that created the board in 1980, the agency should employ seven investigators -- one for every hundred police officers. At the moment, it employs but one. Two more positions remain unfilled, and a fourth has been frozen by budget constraints. In total, seven investigators have quit the agency within the past two years, leaving just a single person to research all allegations of excessive force, discrimination, or malfeasance against a police force of seven hundred officers.

Consequently, the current backlog of civilian complaints against the police department numbers a whopping 110 cases. The backlog is significant because, by state law, investigations involving a police officer must be completed within one year. In 2001, 29 cases were dismissed because they had timed out -- more cases than the board actually heard. Two of those cases involved the Riders.

Last month, the city finally fired the agency's manager because of this excessive turnover. Former director Linda Bytof claims she didn't have the support she needed to do the job.

In spite of all the turmoil at the agency, politicians and lawyers insist that the board has a future. "The Citizens Police Review Board has been in the city for over twenty years, and there will continue to be a CPRB, unless the city council itself proclaims it, and I can't imagine that happening," City Manager Robert Bobb declared after a press conference announcing the reforms at Internal Affairs.

But if the city isn't out to weaken the board, neither is it extending a helping hand to an agency for which the word "crippled" might seem like a compliment. Even the lawyer whose investigation of a police shooting first led to independent oversight of the department back in 1980 admits that the review board was overlooked in the Riders settlement. "We thought it was still functioning fine," said lawyer John Burris, one of the attorneys who negotiated the pact. "We did not want this case to impact adversely in any way the CPRB."

And yet in spite of these assurances, the inability of the agency to curb or even detect the behavior of the four rogue cops central to the Riders case calls into question its value to the city. Mayor Jerry Brown suggests restructuring the agency, while the city of Santa Cruz recently eliminated its board altogether.

"It was a flawed, consumer-fraud model of civilian review," concedes former ACLU lawyer John Crew, who worked to strengthen the board's powers in the mid-'90s. "That's more dangerous than having no model at all because people say, 'Oh yeah, we have civilian review.' But really you don't."

Samuel Walker, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, who has been tracking such agencies for more than twelve years, says that compared to the country's other hundred or so citizens' review boards, Oakland is "near the bottom."


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