Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Police Union Concerns about Citizen Oversight May Be Overblown, Based on Atlanta and Knoxville Results

Memphis Police Association concerns in opposition to a stronger citizen review  board may be overblown, based on experiences of police departments and citizen oversight boards in Atlanta and Knoxville.

Major Byron K. Martin
The Atlanta Citizen Review Board and the Knoxville Police Advisory and Review Committee both have the authority to issue subpoenas, and both those boards allow citizens to bring complaints directly to the citizen boards – without first making a complaint about the police to the police Internal Affairs office.

The Memphis Police Association does not want a citizen board to be able to independently investigate a complaint of police misconduct, MPA attorney Deborah Godwin told a meeting of stakeholders Monday July 27 at City Hall.   The MPA wants the oversight board to function merely as an appeals body, using MPD’s Internal Affairs report to review the complaint of a citizen who is not satisfied with the way MPD’s investigation turned out.

A proposed amended ordinance before Memphis City Council would strengthen the effectiveness of the Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board and would make filing a complaint more user-friendly to the public. 

Ordinance sponsor Councilwoman Wanda Halbert has scheduled a meeting for 2 p.m. today at City Hall to include police and union representatives, the people’s coalition Memphis United and members of the Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board.  Although Halbert’s ordinance is on the brink of approval by the full Council, she has thrown open a discussion which may lead to changes in the ordinance. 

Atlanta Police Chief George Turner was asked about citizen oversight earlier this year, and he told radio station WABE:

Chief George Turner --photo by Mike Eloy WABE
“I think it is absolutely encouraging that we have a citizen review, that citizens have another opportunity to look at the work of the police department, that some outside entity is looking at the officers' actions as well." --Atlanta Police Chief George Turn

The Memphis police union’s primary, stated complaint for months has been that it does not want the citizen board to have subpoena-issuing authority.  However, a provision in the ordinance that the board would have subpoena powers was recently negotiated out of the proposal, thus eliminating the police union’s complaint about subpoena usage leading to privacy issues.

“We always get responses from officers,” said Charles Curry, outreach specialist at the Atlanta Citizen Review Board.  “Subpoena power is not extensively used.  The police chief is cooperative, but we have subpoena power in the law, because the next chief may not be cooperative.”


The ACRB did not initially have subpoena authority, but the city ordinance was amended in 2010 to give the board the power to compel testimony and documents. 

“ACRB investigators do not have to subpoena officers,” said Major Byron K. Martin, commander of the Atlanta Police Department’s Office of Professional Standards.  “If officers are contacted, they come and talk to the investigators. 

“The investigators present their findings to the board.  As for requiring officers to testify before the board, I don’t believe that has been occurring.  

“Officers are compelled to cooperate with the ACRB, and if not they can be sanctioned.  To date, I’m not aware of any that don’t cooperate,” Martin said. 

MPA representatives raise concerns about officers’ privacy, but in the case of Knoxville’s oversight board, no officers or citizens are named in summaries of complaints, which appear statistically on its website. 

The Atlanta board posts meeting minutes on its website, and cases are succinctly summarized.  The complainant and the officer are named, but no one’s address is posted, and there is no personal type information about the officer -- other than his or her history of misconduct. 


On the Knoxville Police Advisory Review Committee website, statistics for cases are broken down by categories and demographics, such as ethnicity and sex.  The Knoxville board also reports on such things as police adherence to video recording policies and racial profiling cases. 

Although citizens may make complaints directly to PARC, the committee also exercises oversight of cases which originated with Knoxville Police Department Internal Affairs. 

Discussions in Memphis about the citizen board have played out in a context of local and national instances of police shootings of unarmed citizens, including the July 17 fatal police shooting of 19-year-old, University of Memphis-bound Darrius Stewart.  Memphis United presented its report and amended ordinance to City Council committees on the morning of April 7.  That night, millions of Americans watched as network news led with images of Walter Scott being fatally shot in the back by a policeman in South Carolina.

The outcome of Memphis’ citizen board further has become clouded by politics as city elections loom, but in Atlanta, Martin says, “We have to work together and make sure we are on the same page.  Having a citizen board is a great thing, and we keep working to make it better.

“The vision and purpose of the ACRB is the same as ours.  Our purpose is to get the truth, not to convict or exonerate anyone, but to find out what the facts are and do it as impartially as possible, then to administer discipline, and put forth the training, or whatever needs to be done,” he said. 

“Sometimes incidents expose a gap in policy that needs to be changed.  Our purpose is to make sure we are the most professional police department in the country.  Their purpose is to make sure we are able to do what we need to do properly. “

Asked about some police departments’ inclinations to be defensive and self-protective, Martin said, “Is your goal to get better or feel good about where you are?  We should always aim to be better, not just to be comfortable where we are and survive another year.”

“We have access to the video from in-car cameras, access to the officers, and we have subpoena power,” Knoxville PARC executive director Avice Evans Reid said in an interview with WATE-TV. “We want to make sure citizens understand why officers do the things that they do, and by the same token we want the officers to understand we want them to do their job, but we want them to do it and respect citizens at the same time.”

In one case, PARC’s review led to KPD adding more training for officers on the use of knives, particularly when it comes to cutting car crash victims out of seat belts and when medical attention is needed.

KPD Chief David Rausch told WATE that although he was skeptical of PARC as a young officer when it was first created, he now believes the group has benefited both the department and the community.

“Since the creation of PARC, clearly there has been more engagement with our community, and we have seen an increase in trust,” Rausch said.

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