Citizen's review of police debated at city hearing
Nearly two years ago, the Gainesville Police - Community Committee issued a final report after meeting 21 times to discuss police - community relations. At the time, Gainesville Police Chief Norman Botsford, who had come on board only weeks before, told the Gainesville Sun, "The report in and of itself only points out things we need to worry about. The only thing that will really make a difference is what the police department does in reaction to it."
But in the eyes of many citizens, the police department hasn't done enough in reaction to the report. Many of these citizens packed a meeting of the Gainesville City Commission's Public Safety Committee on July 17, the majority supporting the formation of a Citizen's Police Review Board. In fact, the room was filled to capacity, with overflow crowds in the lobby and in a downstairs meeting room watching on monitors. The issue has come to the fore once again due to the efforts of a newly formed Political Action Committee (PAC) called Citizens for Police Review (CPR). Many of those involved in the creation of CPR have long been proponents of some formal method of reviewing police actions.
Along with supporters were opponents in nearly equal numbers. A count of speakers showed 27 people speaking in support of a police review board and 22 speaking against the idea. All but two of the opponents were police officers, current and former, local and non-local. Prior to the start of the meeting, those who wished to speak were asked to complete cards and, as is usually the case, it was announced that each speaker would have three minutes to speak.
GPD forces were well organized and had even recruited officers or former officers from across the state to speak against the creation of a review board. In fact, the first speaker was the president of the Florida State Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), Philip Cameron. Cameron told the committee that the issue was all about a special interest group, and that there was no one qualified to review police matters except the police. Cameron likened the idea to that of an "untrained special interest group trying to second-guess the performance of a physician." But most review boards, police or otherwise, are not made up entirely of experts in the field. This in fact, is what is not desired--a review board made up of those with the expertise of a person trained for or qualified to engage in police work would essentially be no different than the internal reviews currently undertaken by the police.
Cameron's own FOP claims to be "committed to improving the working conditions of law enforcement officers and the safety of those we serve through education, legislation, information, community involvement, and employee representation." Cameron, however, must interpret the FOP statement a bit differently than review board supporters. Supporters view such a board as representation for the citizens, much like the FOP represents police officers.
Fitz Koehler spoke of being very fearful of what would happen should a review board be created. "I very much fear that this review committee will be made up of people who are disgruntled by getting tickets or, you know, whatever they got caught doing," she said. "There is nothing positive to come from this. In my job, if I had someone overseeing everything I did, and picking me apart, I would just stop doing it. I'd say, you know what, I'd throw my hands up, too bad. And if I was a police officer and I had a group of citizens with poor intentions, looking over my shoulders, eager to point out every mistake I made, you know what, I'd say take care of it yourself. I'm not coming to save the day, you know, you get in a car accident, I'm not going to come and help you and I'm going to take a longer time on my lunch break. There is nothing positive to come of this." Koehler's scenario, as well as that painted by other opponents, has police simply refusing to do their jobs if they have to be subject to independent review.
Ernesto Longa, who along with Scott Camil has worked tirelessly for months in establishing the Citizens for Police Review PAC, detailed his experience with GPD in just trying to get information that is public record. After much run-around, Longa says, "I informed the officer that I was dealing with that I familiarized myself with the public records law and that his noncompliance constituted a first degree misdemeanor." Longa said that "it took the threat of outside intervention, i.e., a letter to the commissioners, the city manager and the chief of police before the officer I was dealing with would comply with the public records law... Four days later, I got a call informing me that my records were all available."
Officer and Fraternal Order of Police Chair Jeff McAdams told the committee that "what you have is a small group of vocal citizens with an agenda that is politically motivated. Are you willing to jeopardize the spirit of partnership and cooperation that we have developed through community policing?" But at the hearing it sounded as though GPD's refuses to consider the possibility that a review board would only strengthen such a spirit of partnership.
As more GPD supporters' names were called to speak, a trend began to emerge. One after another would call out, "I yield my time to Jeff McAdams." McAdams spoke a second time. When he was about to speak a third time, protests from the audience led Committee Chair Chuck Chestnut to put an end to GPD's machinations, which greatly speeded up the process, since many of those people simply passed when given their opportunity to speak. Later in the meeting, officer Ray Barber said, " Every time one of our members say we would like to defer, we had agreed to defer our time to one spokesperson so that 16 different people didn't come up and say the same thing." That's fine, but the way to do that is to appoint your spokesperson and put that person on the agenda, not by attempting to circumvent committee rules that limit each speaker to three minutes.
The refrain heard over and over from GPD supporters was that no oversight is required because a review system is already in place and working well. For example, many of those opposed to a review board point out that a grand jury acts as a review of police actions. But as Scott Camil points out on the CPR website (http://home.att.net/~gnvcopwatch), "any attorney will tell you that the grand jury will do whatever the prosecutor wants it to do, as the prosecutor is the one who decides what testimony and evidence will be presented to the grand jury." The prosecutor also decides whether to take a matter to a grand jury in the first place.
Any discussion regarding the proposed police review board is not complete without mention of Corey Rice. Rice was shot and killed in January by GPD Officer Jimmy Hecksel after Hecksel stopped Rice for "erratic driving." A police video of the shooting was released to the public after the case went to the grand jury. The grand jury indicted Hecksel for manslaughter. GPD supporters claim that the push for a citizens review board is the result of hard feelings about Rice's death at the hands of a police officer, but many who knew Corey Rice and have spoken out have said that this incident was simply the last straw in a chain of incidents that have not been properly handled. These include criticism of bias against Gainesville's African American community, including assaults, police dogs being much more likely to be set on black people, and a disproportionate number of 'special operations' conducted on the east side of town. At the July 17 hearing, Ruth Brown of the Alachua County Branch of the NAACP stated her organization's support of a Citizen Review Board. Germaine Ferguson stated: "A lot of people have been having a lot of problems. The people that are discriminated against the most by not having a Citizens Police Review or by not having a good check are the ones that don't have much voice. Those people have violence against them every night. Then law enforcement says it was violence on a law enforcement officer."
And Ruthie Hale, a citizen of Gainesville for 41 years said, "I'm in favor of the citizens' review board, I think it is much needed in Gainesville. I grew up on the east side community, and I've seen first-hand some of the things that have happened within the Gainesville police department. Not all police officers are bad but there are some corrupt officers in the department and we might as well face it. I think it would help if we had this board. And as far as African-Americans in the department, you know first-hand that there is corruption within the department, and something has to be done about it. [We need to] step up and get a board to oversee these officers, but also oversee internal affairs that is approving and allowing some of these officers to get away with a lot of this stuff."
Hale continued: "It seems as though every time there is a routine traffic stop made by GPD on certain members of this community, GPD will always ask if they can search the person's vehicle. If the person exercises his or her right and hesitates or refuses their request, they are always met with the same response, 'what's the matter, what do you have to hide? If you don't have anything to hide, then let us look.' Let's ask the police the same question now that a call has come forward to create a citizens' review board. If the police that are protesting such a review board, I say what's the matter, GPD, what do you have to hide? If you don't have anything to hide, then let us look."
Off and on for a number of years there have been calls for the creation of a police review committee, and these calls have resulted in temporary panels and half-measures such as the Police-Community Committee (which was chaired by the sitting prosecutor, Rod Smith.) Many will recall that back in 1996, when Tom Miller was running for District 2 City Commissioner, he suggested to the City Commission the establishment of a police review board. Miller hoped that such a board would provide citizens and police a less confrontational venue for resolving differences and deal with issues such as the GPD actions to shut down a homecoming block party in November 1994 which resulted in what some called a 'police riot'. "[The party] wasn't a riot until police showed up in riot gear. There wasn't even a fight at that party. They definitely went overboard" recalled Shawn McKee at the time. McKee was arrested for disorderly conduct while he was videotaping the situation. Miller's suggestion was ignored.
An independent review process is not a new concept, be it in police matters or other matters. Hardly a day goes by that we don't hear about an "independent auditor's report" of some company, or an "independent review" of some governmental unit. Even retail establishments employ the use of independent, third party companies to perform inventories of their goods in order to ensure objectivity.
And who hasn't heard of an independent prosecutor? James Madison, one of the founders of the Constitution, said that "if men were angels, we wouldn't need government or checks and balances, but we're not angels." Madison supported certain discrete types of institutions that carry out the concept of keeping government honest. Samuel Dash, former Chief Counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee, says, "the concept of an independent counsel became necessary when it became clear that a president like Richard Nixon, being investigated by a special prosecutor, had the power to fire that special prosecutor, not on any cause or merit, but because that special prosecutor was getting close to home in proving the president's guilt."
It is past time for the formation of a citizens police review board in the City of Gainesville. If police are serious about community relations and sincerely concerned about the level of trust from citizens, then they should welcome the opportunity to participate in an objective review of their operations. As Longa says, "our proposed Citizen Police Review Board would ensure the public that incidents involving force would be investigated fairly and equitably." Assertions that such a board would be made up of disgruntled citizens or persons with an axe to grind against police are simply unfounded, and are an affront to City Commissioners, who will make the appointments to the board. Such an appointment process would hardly be taken lightly by commissioners. For trust, accountability, and confidence in our police department, a citizens review panel makes a lot of sense.
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