Police Civilian Appeal Board

Should promote Communication and Reconciliation

Three years ago there was an outcry from many members of our community saying that there was too little civilian review of Police Department activity in our neighborhoods. The public outcry was accompanied by the submission of many thousands of resident petition signatures.
In response to the demand for civilian review of police practices and policies, and individual officer behavior, the City Commission established the Police Civilian Appeal Board.  This appeal board has had the same results as a similar board established and then disbanded several years before.  Neither civilian appeal panel has reviewed many appeals and neither has found nor corrected many problems with the police department or individual officer's behavior.

    Reporting on a meeting of the present Civilian Police Appeal Board.  The January 21, 1999 issue of The Grand Rapids Press,  quoted Gloria Chandler, a Crime Prevention Worker as saying:
" I've been on this board for a couple of months now, and I hate it.  There's a lot of things going on that people just don't know about".   The Press article goes on to say:
"With no power to question witnesses and no right to see all police Internal Affairs Division cases, some Civilian Appeals Board members ask "Why are we here?" "
..."Maribeth Jelks a labor relations specialist said the police officers' contract prevents the City from bringing them (police officers) before citizen tribunals"
Noting that the (present Police Civilian Appeals) board was created on a narrow 4-3 vote on the City Commission,  (board chairman James) Burr said it's not clear whether the current commission will support giving more power to the board or remain content with the role it currently plays."
"Burr asked the board members for suggested changes he could include in his annual report to the City Commission.  None was suggested by board members."
During the first years that I served on the City Commission, the Commission was convinced by police and city staff that the Police Civilian Appeal Board and its work was an unnecessary waste of time.   I think that when we disbanded the first appeal board we made a mistake.  We should have looked much more closely at the issue. The present City Commission must look close enough to rectify the cause of the boards ineffectiveness and help shape a process that is less adversarial and more reconciling.
I feel that several changes should be considered to the way city residents are allowed to compliment officers, report complaints, or to appeal how they are treated by the Police Department or individual officers that will promote communication and reconciliation:
1. Each police officer could be required to give a service evaluation postcard to every person with whom he/she makes an official contact.  These cards should be addressed to and reviewed in an office in City Hall, rather than to the Police Department.
2. Every person wishing to appeal or complain about their experience with the Police Department should be referred to a person in the office of either the City Manager or the City Attorney.  Presently people are referred to the Police Internal Affairs Office.  This may explain why few complaints get to the Civilian Appeal Board.
3. There should be at least one City Commissioner serving on the Police Civilian Appeal Board. When I served on the City Commission, residents appealing decisions of the City Attorneys office about property damage claims were referred to an appeal board that had two City Commissioners serving on it.  This appeal board heard from city employees, including police officers, from the persons making the appeal, and from supporting witnesses.
4. Like the property damage appeal board, the Police Civilian Appeal board should be able to hear testimony from the persons making the appeal and from supporting witnesses. City employees and police officers should also have the opportunity to be heard. This would allow the board to do legitimate fact-finding, evaluation, and reconciliation. The goal should not be to prosecute,  but to help change attitudes and behaviors of both residents and police officers, and to review policies of the Police department.  Cases that merit prosecution already have a District Court remedy.
5. Presently no one outside the Police Department or the City Attorney's office reviews the internal Affairs records of residents claiming police misconduct.  The Civilian Appeal Board or the City Commission should review all Internal Affairs reports.
6. The Police Civilian Appeal Board should report their successful peacemaking efforts and identified unreconcilable problems to the City Commission for continued effort. 
On February 16, 1999 I suggested to the City Commission:
  "If the Police Department would "hold harmless" officers who came before the appeal board and admitted making mistakes, and if the complainant agreed to wave their right to prosecute the officers or the City for issues that were brought to the hearings maybe we could resolve some ongoing problems.  Maybe we could uncover some policies that need changing and people that need better training.
The new government in South Africa has pioneered some  attempts to heal and correct deep personal and institutional problems in this way.  Maybe their experience could be instructive to us. 
The public always has the court to appeal to if they don't want to use an appeal board that has as its mandate communication and reconciliation." 
Bill Blickley         An e-mail response opportunity is below.

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