By Ronal C. Madnick
The Public Safety Committee of the Worcester City Council will take up, at a date to be announced, a proposal by the Worcester County Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts to establish a civilian review board (CRB) to investigate complaints against Worcester police officers. If not approved there are areas in the proposal which might be adopted by the Worcester Human Rights Commission or by the Worcester Police Department.
It is important that when the meeting takes place that people who believe there should be a change in the way complaints against police officer are handled attend to show community support for changing the present system for investigating complaints against police officers.
In order to be effective the CRB must investigate complaints and report to its board members within 60 days of having received a signed complaint. Within 120 days of having received the complaint, a hearing should be held (usually before three board members), a decision on the complaint is rendered, sanctions are determined and both the complainant and respondent are informed as to the disposition of the complaint. Due to special circumstances, the entire process can be permitted to extend to 180 days.
A professional investigator is an integral part of the CRB. The professional investigator chosen by the board members will conduct the initial fact-finding in a complaint investigation and submit a report to the Board. The CRB board would consist of three to five members who are representatives of community organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) or the League of Women voters (LWV) and serve two years appointments. The CRB would be empowered to vote to remove a board member, appoint new members through a simple majority vote when a vacancy occurs and petition the city manager to remove the executive director. The composition of the CRB should reflect the diversity of the city in terms of race, ethnicity and gender.
The position of executive director is full-time, while the board members are volunteers. All board members ,including the executive director, should undergo a training regimen before participating in the complaint process.
It is important that the investigator is not a sworn officer or former officer. The investigator can be made a full-time employee or simply be hired when needed.
The CRB has subpoena power to require that witnesses testify, and documents are produced within a timely manner. It also has the power to sanction police officers for misconduct. All board meetings and hearings are open to the public and are announced and advertised to the public at least a week in advance, along with an agenda.
During the course of the hearing, each of the parties would be allowed the opportunity to cross-examine the witnesses.
If a criminal investigation or proceedings have been initiated, the CRB will defer taking any action during the course of such proceedings or investigation.
The CRB would investigate and hear all complaints that concern the use of force, including shootings; deaths in custody; harassment; abuse of authority; and improper searches or detention. The CRB would have the authority to broaden its reach to decide other types of complaints as well.
For discourtesy complaints (including offensive language, derogatory remarks, and slurs) and procedural complaints (when the citizen cannot understand why the officer took a particular action), it is recommended that mediation be used. Such complaints are notoriously hard to prove and have an effect of resulting in a backlog of more serious complaints.
Ronal Madnick is the director of the Worcester County Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.