-----------KEEP FREE MEDIA FREE-----------

by Lynne Wilson
"I had been in internal affairs investigations a couple of times, and they were very easy to breeze through. I answered a few questions. I lied through every answer, and I went back to patrol."

-- Former New York City police officer Michael Dowd

On August 21, 1994, Moises De Jesus was arrested by police officers patroling Philadelphia's largely Latino 25th District. Handcuffed in the back of a patrol car, the 30-year-old suspect had a mental fit or seizure, said Gerard McCabe, an attorney for Philadelphia's newly formed Police Advisory Commission [PAC], and started kicking out the windows to get air. He was then allegedly beaten in the head by the officers, lapsed into a coma, and died three days later. After the district attorney refused to press charges against the officers, Latino community leaders demanded an inquiry. DeJesus' death in police custody became the first major case for the recently formed Philadelphia PAC and sparked the citizen oversight commission's first public hearing. The investigation also set off an all out war on the Philadelphia PAC by the local Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) Lodge No. 5.

The FOP attacked on three fronts. First, when PAC investigators began questioning officers about the DeJesus incident, FOP President Rich Costello simply declared that members of his organization would not cooperate or respond to subpoenas or interview requests. Second, the FOP filed suit in Pennsylvania state court to shut down the advisory commission for lack of legal authority. Third, the FOP succeeded in having two bills presented in the state legislature: one (the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights ) would undermine PACs by prohibiting citizen questioning of officers; another would dismantle all of the state's PACs entirely.

The family of 15 year-old Cory Horton, Killed by police.
Witnesses' refutations of police claims that he was shot
struggling for a gun were supported by preliminary
autopsy. New Orleans, 1991.


Strong antagonism by police toward citizen oversight boards is not new. Even though the boards have only advisory and limited investigatory authority, and can never undertake disciplinary action, most police and the organizations representing them resent outside interference. Law enforcement agencies, they insist, can and should police their own through existing internal affairs procedures. In almost every state, police agencies are legally required to have a mechanism for the receipt and investigation of citizen complaints, particularly those involving improper use of force.

These mechanisms have often served more to protect the police code of silence than the public interest. In the 1960s, public outrage over widespread police misconduct against the Black Panthers and anti-war demonstrators in the San Francisco Bay area sparked a movement to institute citizen review oversight. The powers of these commissions, which sprang up around the country, ranged from the authority to launch independent citizen investigations with full subpoena power, to a mandate limited to the review of investigations completed by sworn officers.

By late 1994, 66 external complaint review bodies had been established, a 400 percent increase over the 13 that existed in 1980. Sixty percent of major urban areas were included.7 This growth pa rallels the emergence of organized police accountability groups such as the National Coalition on Police Accountability (which had its first meeting in 1984) and the International Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement. Another factor has been the increasing clout of the National Black Police Association, which endorses citizen review (see p. 9). In addition, as police theorists and managers promote community policing to get a handle on crime, citizen review has gained support among key politicians. Many mayors and city council members see it as integral to returning officers to the beat.

Finally, as major urban areas fall under clouds of police corruption and racism, citizens are demanding, and getting, more oversight. Last year in New York City, for example, the Civilian Complaint Review Board (created in 1993 by the City Council) reported an alarming increase in brutality complaints, with 450 cases a month. Police brutality suits have cost the city $87 million in the last five years and payments are rising sharply. The board is investigating a major police corruption scandal directly related to drug trafficking in which scores of officers in the Bronx and Harlem have recently been convicted and discharged. The District of Columbia also created a Civilian Complaint Review Board which had independent investigative resources, the power to subpoena records, and authority to hold public hearings. It was disbanded last summer, ostensibly because of lack of funds. A new proposal is in the works.

Similarly, 13 years ago, New Orleans city officials created an Office of Municipal Investigations (OMI), a citizen-run agency with explicit subpoena and investigative powers. According to OMI Director Peter Munster, serious criminal charges against New Orleans police officers have increased in the last few years with more than 50 officers arrested, indicted, or convicted on charges including rape, aggravated battery, drug trafficking, and murder. One officer, who continues to work at a desk job, is the prime suspect in a series of prostitute murders, said Munster. Another officer was recently convicted of gunning down her former partner during an armed robbery, committed off-duty. She now faces the death penalty. *11 Although some of these charges stemmed from investigations by the OMI, its role in exposing the extent of corruption and stemming its spread was limited.


Even when the boards are relatively ineffective, concerned citizens see the existence of a review mechanism as an essential step in curbing the widespread racism, brutality, and impunity which characterize many law enforcement agencies. Most police unions, on the other hand, oppose them on principle as a threat to their civil and labor rights.

The issue of labor rights and use of the term union to describe police groups is problematic. Technically, an organization of police officers formed to negotiate with management for the wages, benefits and working conditions of its members is a labor union. Police unions, however, are unique in three fundamental ways: First, the right of police officers alone among workers to use physical, and sometimes even deadly force, requires public accountability to ensure that this power is not abused. Furthermore, because they are responsible for public safety and cannot lawfully strike, police unions have won unique concessions from management, including heightened due process protections. *12 And finally, unlike members of any other labor union, police act as the tools of management against other unions. Recently, for example, scores of officers in full riot gear escorted scab workers to the strike- bound Detroit Newspaper Agency (DNA) print shop and used clubs, batons, and pepper spray on picketing strikers. The DNA paid $500,000 to the Detroit suburb of Sterling Heights for police overtime and expenses.

Nonetheless, because of their status as private labor groups, police unions operate under a veil of secrecy, totally outside the realm of democratic controls such as public decision-making or public disclosure laws. It is this secrecy, combined with their members' para military discipline and skills, that makes police organizations so powerful, so dangerous, and so difficult for those working toward police accountability to oppose.

But even though elected or appointed police chiefs and sheriffs always have the final word on whether or not a particular officer is disciplined regardless of who does the investigating civilian boards can exert strong pressures.14 Especially with respect to use of excessive force allegations, community oversight agencies not only receive far more allegations than do internal mechanisms, but they sustain them more often.

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