This question came up again, with new force, after several Los Angeles police officers were videotaped beating an African-American motorist named Rodney King in 1991. In April 1992 they were acquitted of brutality charges, and this led to massive rioting and outrage in Los Angeles and other cities.
A CBS/New York Times poll, conducted shortly after the King incident, revealed that 65 percent of white Americans felt most charges of police brutality were probably justified. Over 80 percent of black Americans agreed.
Necessary vs. Excessive Force
Like all police agencies, the Los Angeles Police Department has a policy on the proper use of force. This policy says that officers are permitted to use the "force that is reasonable and necessary to protect others or themselves from bodily harm."
But just having the policy does not guarantee that the policy will be followed. After the King beating, a special commission was created to investigate the Los Angeles Police Department. Warren Christopher, later named Secretary of State under President Clinton, headed the commission. The Christopher Commission found that "a significant number of officers . . . repetitively misuse force and persistently ignore the written policies and guidelines of the department regarding force."
From 1986 through 1990, Los Angeles paid out more than $20 million in over 300 lawsuits concerning excessive use of force by police. Rodney King himself is suing Los Angeles for $56 million.
Who Should Police the Police?
There are many different approaches to investigating citizen complaints against the police. Some police departments simply refer complaints to an internal affairs division, within the police department. Others have independent or semi-independent review boards, usually made up of citizens plus senior police officers. None of these bodies have proven very effective in watching the police.
The main problem in reviewing police behavior is often a fierce resistance by the police themselves to being investigated. There is almost always an unofficial code of silence, which means officers refuse to testify against other officers. Review boards are often stuck with contradictory evidence, with citizens claiming one thing and the officers claiming the opposite. In addition, many citizens and jurors are willing to give the police the benefit of the doubt. Police officers perform a dangerous and difficult job, dealing regularly with violence and crime, and many people excuse an occasional overreaction.
Still, any abuse by those who enforce the law is serious, and many social critics insist that some system must be developed to police the police.
Some of the earliest police review boards were formed at the end of the 19th century, but the boards became much more common in the 1960s. Because of the demonstrations and upheavals in the 1960s, police response to street unrest was often in the news. In Los Angeles in 1967 and at the Chicago Democratic Party Convention in 1968, there were massive attacks by officers on demonstrators. Some social critics even called these "police riots." Large groups of officers took off their name tags so they couldn't be identified before beating demonstrators.
Many cities around the country set up review boards in the 1960s to provide a forum for citizen complaints. These boards were usually formed in an atmosphere of hostility and confrontation, and they were almost always opposed by local police unions. Many boards lacked any real authority and soon went out of existence.
During the 1980s, however, there was a revival of interest in civilian police review boards. One 1992 survey reports that 32 out of the 50 largest U.S. cities have some kind of civilian review of police conduct. A closer examination of the boards in four large cities shows how these police review panels vary in their make-up, authority, and success.
New York City: Us vs. Them
In 1966, the liberal reformer John Lindsay was elected mayor of New York City, and he established a Civilian Complaint and Review Board. From the beginning, New York police distrusted the civilian-dominated review board. The board was made up of four civilians and three police officials. It held public hearings in which police officers had to defend themselves against citizen complaints.
New York's police union fought the board bitterly and, after four stormy months, they persuaded the voters to abolish it. A new board was set up later with an equal number of citizens and police officials.
In 1991, the New York Civil Liberties Union launched a drive to set up an all-civilian police review board. The Civil Liberties Union claimed that the public had lost faith in the existing board. In 1989, for example, the board took action on only 93 out of 3,515 complaints against the New York police. Board defenders insisted that this was because the vast majority of complaint cases lacked objective witnesses.
Mayor David Dinkins backed the all-civilian board proposal while Police Commissioner Lee Brown and the police union strongly opposed it. On September 16, 1992, off-duty police descended on city hall in a massive and angry demonstration to oppose the civilian board.
In late 1992, Mayor Dinkins and the city council were discussing a compromise. Their proposal would include former employees of the police department on the board. Under the compromise proposal, the review board would have jurisdiction over complaints about alleged racism, discourtesy, or excessive use of force. It would also have its own staff of investigators. After independently investigating a complaint, the review board could recommend disciplinary action to the police commissioner.
The police commissioner would still have the sole authority to punish police officers for misconduct. This is the situation in virtually all cities with a review board. The boards make recommendations, but actual punishment of officers is still up to the head of the police department.
Dade County, Florida: Community Watchdog
Dade County, Florida, which includes the city of Miami, set up an Independent Review Panel in 1980 after the beating death of a black motorist by four white police officers. The panel includes civilians named by local community organizations and the county manager. They investigate citizen complaints against officers only after the police department has completed its own investigation.
Dade's police review panel uses both police and civilian investigators, conducts public hearings, and recommends officer discipline. It also spends considerable time attempting to settle citizen complaints informally.
The Dade approach is a much more modest review body than New York's. Some groups of citizens have expressed skepticism, but there haven't yet been any major moves, either to strengthen it or abolish it.
Portland, Oregon: Watchdog with No Bite
In 1982, a popular referendum in Portland created a Police Internal Investigations Audit Committee. The police bitterly opposed it, even though the committee is virtually powerless.
The city council appoints citizen volunteers to the audit committee. The committee basically only reviews investigations that the police department has already conducted. It has no authority to conduct investigations of its own, hold hearings, or review the police use of force.
Portland police officers commonly refuse to cooperate with committee requests for information, and the committee has no subpoena power to demand it. As a result, few citizens take their complaints to the audit committee.
Los Angeles: More Civilian Oversight
The Los Angeles Police Department has a long history of total independence from civilian control. This developed in the 1930s through the 1950s as a way to fight corruption and keep the police independent from politicians. Most police critics, however, feel the independence went too far.
Los Angeles has no civilian review board at all. A citizen with a complaint has to go to a police station to file the complaint. The complaint is then investigated by the department's own Internal Affairs Division. When officers are called to account for their actions, they appear before a Board of Rights made up entirely of other police officers.
The Christopher Commission, after the Rodney King beating, stated in its report that "No area of police operations received more adverse comment during the commission's public hearings than the department's handling of citizen complaints." In 1990, only 85 cases out of more than a thousand complaints even went before a Board of Rights.
In June 1992, Los Angeles voters approved a measure to include some civilian oversight in the complaint review process. The most significant change was the addition of a civilian to the department's Board of Rights panels.
Judging by these four very different approaches, there is no consensus yet in this country on the proper way to implement citizen review of the police.
For Discussion and Writing
1. What do you believe is the difference between necessary police force and police brutality? Give an example.
2. You are a police officer. One night you are present when your partner brutally beats a suspect who is not armed or resisting arrest. You are the only witness to this beating other than the victim. What should you do?
3. Who should police the police? Select and defend one of the following choices:
a. the police themselves
b. a review board made up entirely of civilians
c. a review board made up of both civilians and police officers
A C T I V I T Y
Police Review Board
1. Form four study groups and a fifth group to play the role of your community's city council.
2. The study groups should each design a police review board to propose to the city council. In designing a review board, each study group should read over the examples discussed in the article. Study groups might also interview police officers, city officials, community group leaders, lawyers, and ordinary citizens. Each police review board proposal should address all of the following questions:
a. Who will make up the membership of the review board? Who will appoint or elect them?
b. What types of complaints will the review board be authorized to investigate?
c. Where will citizens go to make complaints against the police?
d. Will police or independent detectives investigate citizen complaints against the police?
e. Will the review board hold independent hearings to directly consider citizen complaints, or examine investigations already complete by the police department? If independent hearings are held, will they be in public or private?
f. Will the review board have the power to subpoena witnesses, including police officers?
g. Will the review board have the authority to recommend disciplinary action for police officers?
h. Who will have the final authority to discipline or fire a police officer for misconduct?
3. Each study group should present its proposal for a police review board to the city council. Council members should quiz each group on the reasons for its review board design.
4. Finally, the city council should vote to decide which police review board proposal should be adopted in your community.