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.

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The perception of the board as a failure is felt most deeply by people who allege police wrongdoing and walk away with nary an apology. Of course, police review boards invariably attract a multitude of people with a beef against cops in general, some of who are a couple cans short of a six-pack. In one case closed last month for "lack of specificity," a man accused Oakland police officers of injecting isotopic radium into his bloodstream in order to track him electronically and make training videos of him. In 1998, another filed the bizarre, although strangely plausible, allegation that a cop had forced him to listen, prostrate and handcuffed, as the officer warbled "The Piña Colada Song."

But most of the complaints are considerably more serious. Four-fifths of the complainants are black, and most come from poor areas of East or West Oakland. Exactly none have emanated from the city's posh Montclair district since the board's staff first started tracking locations of the complaints several years ago.

Less than 14 percent of the 108 allegations filed with the board last year were sustained. That such a low percentage of cases are sustained is certainly due in part to the weakness of many of the initial complaints. But board policy requiring the votes of five members to sustain an allegation is another factor. In addition to being plagued with staff turnover, the nine-member volunteer board also has been plagued by vacancies.

Mayor Brown, whose duty it is to fill those positions, bristled when asked if he would soon appoint two regular members and three alternates to fill the seats that have remained vacant since last fall. "I've appointed as many people that have quit," Brown says. "They get frustrated -- they don't want to stay until one or two o'clock; that's what it is. A lot of people involved think the process should be changed."

The two models of civilian oversight that have proven effective across the country are widely divergent, Walker notes. One, which San Jose has adopted, employs an independent monitor who reviews Internal Affairs cases and makes policy recommendations. The other is Oakland's model, which Walker believes is a good one, at least in theory. "On its face, the Oakland CPRB is a strong model," concurs Mark Schlosberg, director of police practices policy for the ACLU's Northern California chapter. "The board has the power to make policy recommendations and has power to recommend discipline."

Brown, however, considers it a waste of effort. "So we have the internal review of the police department, we have the monitor, we just hired ten sergeants, and we've got the Police Review Board, and a lot of times these are on parallel tracks," he says. "So how much redundancy do you need to really do the job?" Brown wants the city to consider the San Jose model. Even City Manager Bobb acknowledges that Oakland's $19.5 million budget deficit will clearly be a factor in the future staffing of the $800,000-a-year board.

Arguably the board's biggest supporter is Rashidah Grinage, a community activist and member of community group People United for a Better Oakland. "This model is the only one that guarantees that at least some of these cases will be public record and that the hearings are public and the officers have to do what they do in front of citizens, and they can't just do it in the OPD and Internal Affairs to their own brothers in blue," she says. "To me that's absolutely nonnegotiable. I don't care what Jerry Brown says; he'll move this board and put a monitor in over my dead body."

Grinage has a decidedly personal stake in all this. In 1993, Oakland police officers shot and killed her 21-year-old son and wheelchair-bound husband after her son allegedly pulled out a shotgun during an argument with police, who wanted to impound his dog. A police officer was killed, and her husband was slain in the crossfire. Grinage said all three deaths could have been avoided if the officers had not run out of patience and decided to arrest her son, thus escalating an already tense situation. "As long as I'm in Oakland, I will work to the extent that I can to make sure no other family has to go through what I went through that's what it's about," she says. "It's not about getting even with them."

Politics aside, the key question really is what type of oversight could have identified and prevented the biggest police misconduct suit in Oakland history. Because, obviously, the current regime didn't.

None of the 119 plaintiffs from the Riders suit first went before the board. But that's probably a good thing. Of the dozen Riders-related cases filed by other citizens that went through the civilian review process, only three even made it to the hearing stage. In two of those cases, allegations of excessive force were not upheld. In the third case, the board sustained allegations in 1999 that officer Matthew Hornung had choked D'wayne Wiggins, a well-known local producer and former member of the group Tony Toni Toné. Board members could not agree on what discipline to recommend; the city ultimately paid out $25,000 to settle a lawsuit over the same incident.

One obvious barrier to the agency's effectiveness is its policy of not considering the prior complaint history of citizens and police officers. Doing so might have been educational in the case of Officer Mario Bermudez and citizen Fred Pruitt. Bermudez has been named in citizen complaints six times over the past three years either as a subject or witness officer. Pruitt, meanwhile, had no police record until Bermudez filed charges against him, which were soon dropped.

Pruitt alleged at a CPRB hearing in September that the officer used excessive force while making a bogus arrest, including grabbing his scrotum until he felt "an ache in my stomach" and slamming his head against the hood of a police car. Bermudez told review board investigators he had used standard arrest procedures on Pruitt, who he said became hostile during the arrest. The board decided not to sustain any of the seven allegations in favor of Pruitt, who said he had moved his family out of Oakland because he felt threatened by the police.

Following the board's ruling, Grinage stood up and chastised the board, waving a handful of review board files on Bermudez and others. "These are not isolated incidents," she said. "These are patterns and practices. You can continue to close your eyes and close your ears to what's going on in this city, and all you're doing is encouraging officers to continue those behaviors and rack up more millions and millions of dollars of lawsuits, not to mention the insult, injury, and death of the people who live in Oakland, forcing them to flee."

Joyce Hicks, the longtime city employee slated to take over as review board director this week, says the immediate solution is to add a full staff. Then she plans to address how the CPRB hearings are conducted. "With two hearings a month, we are never going to get where we need to go, which is to give the complainants an opportunity to be heard," she says. Hicks expects to meet with the board March 27 to come up with a plan of action.

But without a serious commitment from city leadership, nothing much will change, says Jim Chanin, the lawyer who teamed up with Burris to file the Riders class-action, and in 1973 helped set up Berkeley's police review board. "You have to have political will," he says. "If the garbage is not picked up on time, then garbagemen are disciplined. That's actually how the police should be treated. No different."


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