On Oct. 14, 27-year-old Freda Gibson was punitively arrested by the Charleston Police Department. According to her family, not only does she have special needs, but they are planning to sue over the incident.
According to police, the officers didn’t violate their use-of-force policies. The mayor is deciding, or perhaps has decided, on whether to open a special investigation into the apprehension. This episode, however settled, raises the question: Does Charleston need more citizens’ review of police? Here are my findings.
The CPD has a quasi-review board now. The group RESET is an organization of Charleston clergy and community advocates who serve as a liaison between the Charleston Police Department and the community-at-large. They have reviewed this arrest.
So, some could say Charleston has civilian review already. Others might say we don’t, as the group has no apparent enforcement powers.
Often our position on such an issue is formed by our predilections. If we can see ourselves as victims of ruthless treatment by police, then we’re likely in support of a strong citizen review. If we see ourselves more likely as victims of crime, we often want the police unfettered in protecting us. Those are feelings. We must step beyond them, however, to make a reasoned judgement.
What are the facts about citizens’ review boards?
They’re not as powerful as one might think.
Communities have been trying to get citizen review boards right for well over a hundred years. The Lenox Commission was first formed in 1894 in New York City to combat police corruption. And other commissions were formed during the progressive movement of the early 1900s.
These largely failed, as political types with little expertise in policing infiltrated them. Later still, larger cities tried again. These failed because they were under-resourced and became little more than complaint departments for misconduct against police officers. Ultimately, police resistance and that lack of resources doomed them.
Our modern version was resurrected in the 1960s as a result of Civil Rights conflicts. These boards had more resources, while typically using other agencies for investigation. They had staying power, but it was the 1991 video taping of Rodney King’s beating that rapidly increased their numbers.
From fewer than 40 civilian oversight agencies in 1990, they grew to over 100 by 2001. As of 2016, 144 groups operated at the local level.
However, that’s not a lot, considering there are 17,985 police agencies in the United States, including state police and federal agencies. And those review commissions that do exist are not the same.
Some cities have full-time, investigation-focused models which can move fast. The downside is the humongous cost. Only the country’s largest cities can afford them, for the most part. A newer model is an auditor/monitor-focused concept that can tackle systemic issues. Still, the high cost also limits these to larger cities.
Most common is a review-focused model, which evaluates the quality of internal investigations. These are often entirely voluntary, providing community input. They take in complaints, review the police investigations, make recommendations, listen to community appeals and obtain and analyze community input. The downside is that they tend to have limited authority and, usually, are more dependent on police for their information.
There’s also the natural resistance between the committee and police and their unions. Forty-five percent of oversight agencies aren’t backed by legislation requiring cooperation from law enforcement. And 69 percent of those who do require cooperation, don’t require it as a condition of employment. That results in the ability of police departments to routinely ignore recommendations.
In fact, only 6 percent of such agencies can impose discipline. That lack of authority results in 54 percent of all agencies reporting that their recommendations were frequently ignored.
Citizen oversight for Charleston police? Charleston does a good job of balancing oversight and costs as it is. To add oversight with appropriate authority to discipline would add significantly to costs without a guarantee of better performance.