“Watchdog or Lapdog?” (1991 Revisited)



[ed. After talking to a veteran comrade about our most recent posts (on Sheriff Baca, Fullerton and the LAPD), he dug through his archives and produced the following long-form article about police accountability, originally published in 1991 in “Minority Trendsletter,” a publication out of Oakland, CA. We are publishing it here, despite it being now 23 years old, because of its striking relevance today (the LA Times has suggested a review board for the LA County Sheriff, citing the “success” of the LAPD’s dog & pony board) and to serve as a reminder to our comrades of the need to study and seek input from others, particularly our elders, before we try to reinvent the wheel.]

Heads bashed in for traffic violations. Teeth knocked out and bones broken for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Throats crushed in vicious chokeholds, bodies stomped, cattle prods and electric “stun guns” used on prostrate victims – a bullet in the back for failing to stop on command. Torture, murder and mayhem.

Nazi thugs? Salvadoran death squads? Nothing so exotic. Just your local police keeping the peace.

There is probably no more deeply felt issue in communities of color across the country than the question of police brutality. “When I saw those cops beating on Rodney King,” said one African-American activist, “I felt like they were hitting me. Every black man knows what it is to be afraid of the police.”

Hundreds of police accountability organizations have been mobilized to demand decent treatment for their communities; by some estimates, these organizations are more common in communities of color than groupings on any other single issue.

And it is an issue that moves people to levels of anger seldom seen in the United States. Almost invariably, the rebellions that exploded in American cities in the 1960s were sparked by what the community felt was inappropriate police use of deadly force. Last year, the Latino community in Washington, D.C. blew up after a cop shot a teenager, burning stores and police cars for several days.

It is a problem that refuses to die – and one that may be getting worse as some communities of color become ever more segregated and depressed, while the police are given more and more power. “The police act like an army of occupation around here,” a teenager from Richmond, California recently told a newspaper reporter, articulating a commonly-heard complaint in low-income communities.

Demanding Accountability

Complaining is one thing: finding a solution or at least a way of holding the police department accountable to the community is something else entirely. The principal method that has been tried so far is the creation of various committees whose job it is to keep an eye on the police. Nearly every major city has one; they are generally called “citizen review boards” or “police review commissions.” Whatever the name, however, the boards have one thing in common – they are almost always ineffective.

In Berkeley, California, for example, in 1987 a new city manager reviewed the operations of the operations of the board under his predecessor and issued a memo reporting that the board’s reports and investigations had never once been used to overturn or modify a decision about misconduct made by the police.

Most of the boards that have been established are severely circumscribed. Almost uniformly, the boards are essentially advisory boards, rarely capable of exercising even limited disciplinary powers. Cities which have supervisory police commissions restrict them to policy-making, not day-to-day oversight. If citizens (called “civilians” by the police) are found somewhere in the process of determining officer culpability for abuse or other violations of policy, they are subordinate to the power of the mayor, or, more often, to the police chief’s authority over his or her own department. Complaint review boards are usually prevented from bringing criminal charges.

Avoiding The Law

The Philadelphia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which originated the first such board, eventually issued a report viewing review boards more as a hindrance and diversion than a solution, because they avoid the central, political question of police abuse:

“Review boards only work where the police department itself is already intent on dealing with a few rogue officers… Review boards allow the executive and legislative branches to evade their responsibility for dealing with (police abuse as) a political problem… A review board can have no real power without a change in fundamental law. Where police abuse is highly institutionalized, the board’s recommendations will be ignored, creating more cynicism”in the communities affected by the abuse. 

According to organizers, there are a number of reasons why police review boards fail to exercise significant control over police behavior:

1. They seldom have the power to bring charges against officers, impose discipline or even subpoena officers for questioning

2. Strong opposition on the part of the police weakens the powers they are given

3. They can be compromised by police involvement, to the point where they are more friendly to cops than to victims of police abuse

4. They are often not independent, and come under the political control of the mayor or police chief

5. Review boards often exclude community activists and exhibit the same racism and disregard for communities of color exhibited by the police department

6. There are many different law enforcement agencies; a board charged with overseeing one agency seldom has any power over others

In part, the weakness of review boards reflects the inability of organized communities to present a clear list of demands and follow-through on them to make sure they are met. In Los Angeles and a few other cities, however, the vulnerability of the police in the wake of highly-publicized incidents and the maturity of the movement for police accountability have led to some expectations that a real review commission can be established. Organizers hope that the new commission will finally be able to institutionalize the long-standing demand in communities of color for an end to police abuse.

Although most boards are more ornamental than substantive, police departments – and particularly patrol officer’s “unions,” have fought tooth-and-nail against their implementation. The demands of community advocates for real power and independence for the commission are often reduced or diluted in response to police demands.

President of LA's Police Commission having breakfast with the police "union's" President...

President of LA’s Police Commission having breakfast with the police “union’s” President…

Even as elementary a consideration as having non-police personnel on the board has been breached. “Civilian” may mean only non-sworn or non-uniformed “civilian” employees of the Police Department, or former police officers. Independent investigative staff and subpoena power to compel testimony from officers and witnesses are often lacking. The absence of these powers means that the board is totally dependent on police internal investigations to determine the facts. Some observers feel that witnesses are much less likely to come forward without the protective cover of being forced to testify by a board subpoena because they fear retribution by the police. They also consider the ability to compel sworn testimony by officers vital in order to overcome the “code of silence” that prevents cops from providing evidence against fellow officers.

The recent case of Minneapolis, Minnesota is typical of the way in which recalcitrant police can shape the board more to their liking. A civilian review board was established after a campaign fueled by outrage over several brutal and deadly acts of police racism. But the board as constituted eventually abandoned the effort to obtain the subpoena power it had been potentially authorized to exercise. The necessity to obtain police “cooperation” meant that a significant number of appointments when to police sympathizers. Police officers gained leverage against the board by threatening to resign from their voluntary assignments to the city’s SWAT unit. This pattern of police stonewalling, particularly by police unions, is quite common and debilitating to boards. In Cleveland, police union lawsuits tied up the board, preventing it from beginning operations for almost four years. In San Diego, the threat of a lawsuit by sheriff’s deputies made the board tread very slowly, taking over a year to adopt regulations.



Consulting the Cops

The Minneapolis board began to rely heavily on the attorney for the city patrolmen’s union, with a conservative majority on the board consulting him before adopting resolutions, according to a critical article about the board in City Pages magazine, by Jennifer Vogel, a University of Minnesota student whose piece won the I.F. Stone Award for Student Journalism from the Nation magazine.

The board also adopted a very high standard of proof to sustain complaints, requiring not merely a preponderance of evidence, but clear and convincing proof of the validity of the complaint. Officers admitted privately that they felt they would get better treatment from the Board than they would receive from the Internal Affairs division of their own police department. In fact, less money and staff were allocated to investigating citizen complaints under the Board than had been by Internal Affairs.

In the protracted process of setting up the committee and adopting rules of procedure, the Minneapolis review board lost the support of most of the activists who had campaigned for its adoption. Clyde Bellecourt, a long-time Native American activist, told City Pages that under the circumstances he would “advise people to avoid (the Board) and see a lawyer” to file a civil suit in case of police abuse.

Ron Bear of the American Indian Movement (AIM) believes there has been some improvement in relations between the Native American community and the Minneapolis police compared to several years ago, but he doesn’t attribute this to the review board. “When we got real concerned about police brutality and other attacks on our people, we went out and organized the AIM Patrol on the streets. For awhile, the police were suspicious of us and hostile, but eventually they saw we were operating inside the law to improve things and they have become more cooperative,” he says.

Review boards can also exhibit the same disregard for people of color found in police ranks. When Shirley Cain, a Native American member of the review board, proposed sensitivity training for members of the board and its staff, she was ignored. A Native American woman, Marnie Stately, applied for the position of head of the board’s staff, the only woman and the only person of color to do so. She was asked different questions than were the white male applicants. After she was rejected for the position, the city’s Civil Rights Commission found that she had grounds for a charge of bias in the hiring process.

These problems are hardly unique to Minneapolis. In San Francisco, the former head of the Office of Citizen Complaints staff, Frank Schrober, was quoted as urging his investigators to be skeptical of complaints, because “it’s in the nature of Black people to lie.” In San Francisco, the O.C.C. also sustains a smaller percentage of complaints than did the Internal Affairs Division before civilian involvement was established. Wes Pomeroy, former President of the International Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, a professional organization of people involved in police commissions and review boards, claims that “civilian boards are generally easier on the police than their own organizations.”

He feels that members of the boards get too chummy with the police they are supposed to oversee. They become sympathizers even if they didn’t feel that way to start with. “The board has to be careful it doesn’t start advocating the police and forget the other guys.”

President of LA's "Police Commission" encouraging holiday shopping...

President of LA’s “Police Commission” encouraging holiday shopping…

Minneapolis also illustrates another problem with the review board approach, rooted in the federal nature of the U.S. government. Although the city police department now has a board, and Minneapolis police worked cooperatively with Native American demonstrators protesting racist team names at the World Series and the Super Bowl this year, Annie Young, who works with the AIM Patrol, notes that there are 47 other jurisdictions in the county besides the Minneapolis P.D. Just recently, University of Minnesota police allegedly brutalized several people at a conference on the campus, she reports. Few if any of the other police forces have any provision for civilian review, although activists in St.Paul are beginning a campaign for civilian review, attempting to apply lessons from their twin city.

Too Many Police Forces

The multiplicity of jurisdictions contributes to the intractability of the problem of police brutality. Situations will vary from city to city, or even within jurisdictions within the same city. A great deal depends on the configuration of political forces. For example, in San Diego, California, the Review Board for the San Diego Police Department is considered by community activists to be virtually powerless and ineffective. The S.D.P.D. has often been implicated in killings and other brutality, and has a bloody history of operations along the U.S.-Mexico border. The city council and police chief have been hostile to calls for community control.

But, according to Roberto Martinez, Executive Director of the Border Project of the American Friends Service Committee, the recently established Citizens Law Enforcement Review Board for the San Diego Sheriff’s Department is more extensive, enjoys authentic community participation and has received backing from County supervisors and cooperation from the new Sheriff.

In another example, in Long Beach, California, a multi-racial coalition called the Steering Committee for Proposition One was able to rush a citizen review board proposal onto last November’s ballot. Unfortunately, in the interests of haste, the final proposal was the result of a compromise with the City Council and the City Manager. It was passed, but it is advisory in nature and its recommendations are kept secret even from the complainant. Its staff and investigators are appointed by the City Manager and “piggy-back” their investigations onto ones conducted by Internal Affairs.

The City Council is now considering a plan to scrap the entire L.B.P.D. and turn policing of California’s fifth largest city over to the L.A. County Sheriff’s Dept. According to long-time gay activist Rick Rosen, the City Manager had signed a contract turning over 20% of the policing to the Sheriff’s Department before the Board had even gone into effect. He doesn’t feel this was a deliberate attempt to circumvent the board, but that has been the result, as the County Sheriff, Sherman Block, is adamantly opposed to civilian review of his agency, claiming he is an elected civilian leader of the department.

The sheriff’s department did agree to an informal process whereby a subcommittee of the Long Beach board can consult with the department regarding its internal investigations of complaints against deputies in the city. But if the city attempts to turn policing in its entirety over to sheriffs, Rosen vows that the Steering Committee for Proposition One “will take every legal means to ensure that the language of the City Charter ensuring civilian oversight takes precedence.” He admits, however, that currently California case law supports the Long Beach city attorney’s ruling that the charter provision would not apply to a contract with Sheriff’s Department.

The bottom line is that a majority of civilian complaint review boards have little real power. They uphold a small minority (under 10%) of citizen complaints (compared to a 90% conviction rate in the criminal courts of civilians charged by police.) As the boards are institutionalized, they tend to become co-opted by police departments, in the common fate of many regulatory bodies that become agents of the industries they supervise. At best, they are little more than cosmetic. Civic authorities in New York, Los Angeles and other large cities are willing to pay out millions of dollars each year to victims of police abuse in civil suits, rather than fundamentally reform the way policing is supervised or carried out. Even where review boards have been adopted, they do not allow community representatives to exercise real power in disciplining abusive police officers or transforming the racially-charged “us against them” mentality of their police departments.

Movement Weakness

Why is this so? Police officials and police officers have a strong vested interest in minimizing the powers and influence of the review boards. On the other hand, the pattern of community struggles over civilian review of police reflects critical weaknesses of popular movements around the issue. Police brutality is most often taken up on a case-by-case basis, in one community or another, often focused on a particular incident or family, around the demand of “justice for the victim.” It has been difficult to generalize the struggle to other communities in the same city, let alone to national political action.

For example in Los Angeles, the African-American community has been dealing with the L.A.P.D., while Latino/Mexicano concern has been focused primarily on the Sheriff’s Department. This is a typical example of how the patchwork quilt of law enforcement bodies in the U.S. has been an effective obstacle to communication, cross-support and solidarity between communities and to maintaining effective momentum against police abuse. Cities where multi-ethnic coalitions have been put together, including Black, Latino, Asian/Pacific, Native American and gay and lesbian groups that deal with police brutality have had more success. But even then such struggles seem to go about reinventing the wheel in case after case, city after city. The closest thing to a national organization or voice on the question of police abuse is the ACLU, which tends towards legalism in dealing with the issue and to procedural rather than a political focus.

Grabbing the Opportunity

On the other hand, in some cities the combination of a political opportunity and an effective police accountability movement with sophisticated strategies has pushed the civilian review model about as far as it has gone in the U.S. These opportunities usually arise as the result of some scandal, where incontrovertible evidence of police abuse is revealed to the public at large and the resulting outrage leads to demands for action.

For example, Rosen points out that in Long Beach, the Steering Committee for Proposition One failed in several previous efforts to get a civilian review board on the ballot. However, they were able to ride the crest of a wave of popular anger after a sting operation by Don Jackson, a Black former police officer who brought an NBC-TV crew to the city and was videotaped while his head was smashed through a plate-glass window by two white Long Beach cops.

Similarly, a series of financial and other scandals left the San Diego Sheriff’s Department politically vulnerable in 1990. The county grand jury was harshly critical of sheriff’s department operations in the jails and abuse of prisoners. Voters approved a charter amendment creating the Board in November 1990, and the concept was embraced by County supervisors who appoint its members, as well as by the incoming Sheriff, who defeated an opponent endorsed by the departing Sheriff.

Yet even with these relatively favorable conditions, the Board was forced into a go-slow strategy by intense opposition from sheriff’s deputies and conservative groups. Roberto Martinez was initially critical of the slow pace with which the Sheriff’s board was put together. Referring to the delay of over a year in getting the board up and running after it was approved by voters, Martinez said he was “a little frustrated. This does nothing to encourage complaints to be filed, to encourage people to come forward.” But he now feels that as a result of constant community organizing and pressure, the effort has successfully placed people on the board who are responsive to community concerns.

Rodney King

The videotaped beating of Rodney King is another example. It served to focus national attention on the issue of police racism and abuse, and in Los Angeles local organizations are busy building a model for organizing around the issue in a sustained way. An extensive, comprehensive Civilian Review Board proposal is now at the stage of signature-gathering to qualify for ballot status as an initiative. The sponsoring Coalition for Justice and a Civilian Police Review Board has drafted a sweeping proposal after studying measures adopted with frustrating results in other cities.

Compared to existing boards, in fact, calling it a civilian review board proposal is probably a misnomer. The proposal includes elected membership of the board (one representative in each City Council district) selected by popular vote rather than appointment. It calls for an independent staff, hired by the board itself, substantial budget and subpoena powers, the ability to directly discipline officers and to settle minor cases brought against the city by victims of police brutality for financial damages. The most novel aspect of the proposal is the creation of the associated office of a special prosecutor to deal with criminal charges against police in more serious cases. All of this would be established by City Charter amendment if it gets on the ballot and is passed, thereby bypassing all the pitfalls of negotiation with the police and the existing political establishment.

According to Michael Zinzun, co-chair of the sponsoring committee, a former local leader of the Black Panther Party and a longtime police abuse activist, the proposal and the campaign grows out of an effort to overcome the weaknesses they have seen in existing boards in other cities, and previous failures to mobilize effectively in Los Angeles. “We learned important lessons,” he says, “from a failed attempt to enact a similar measure almost a decade ago after police atrocities like the killing of sister Eulia Love by the L.A.P.D. over an unpaid utility bill.”

Developing National Fronts

National efforts are developing around the entire issue of police abuse and lack of accountability. According to Mary Powers of Citizens Alert in Chicago, a group which participates in a local coalition against police torture and brutality, a national consultative meeting was held in that city in May of last year, following the wave of national attention generated by the videotaped beating of Rodney King. The conferees decided to convene a broader national conference, which was held last November, to establish a permanent national network. The conference drew participants from groups around the country and established the National Coalition on Police Accountability.

A six-person steering committee was selected, with representatives from victims of police harassment, civilian oversight agencies, organizations of color, church groups and activist groups dealing with police issues.

NCOPA called for a national week of actions for police accountability on the anniversary of the King beating during the first week of March and programs were scheduled in California, Washington, Texas, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Maryland.

The network has been functioning as a national clearinghouse on the issue, providing background to national news media on police abuse stories. The Minnesota Coalition for Police Accountability has agreed to produce a national newsletter. A second conference is planned for later this year, probably in Minneapolis.

This entry was posted in ACAB/FTP, Archival, California, Liberalism, Los Angeles, Media, Prisons, War on the Poor, white supremacy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to “Watchdog or Lapdog?” (1991 Revisited)

  1. I would add a couple of other points if I were writing with the benefit of hindsight, First, that the “complaint review board” model is predicated on the idea that the problem is police MISconduct, when in fact the problem is institutional and rooted in police CONDUCT — that is, the police are designed to serve and protect capitalism and colonialism — they have a mandate to enforce white supremacy and exploitation and do so 24/7, regardless of their efficiency, professionalism or “following the rules.” Two, because the police are an occupying army in communities of color, and an internal border guard in more privileged areas, all issues related to policing have to be seen in a military context, and community-oriented policing in particular is a strategy of domestic “psy-ops”, controlling the thinking of the population or the enemy. It is too easy for even the best-intentioned or -designed civilian review boards to fall into this strategy of pacification.

  2. Pingback: “While Their Eyes Were Watching Don: On the Systemic Supremacisms That Really Run LA” | Anti Social Media

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