Civilian review boards fail to stop the bleeding in their communities thanks to their institutional toothlessness. Their lack the authority to subpoena police or investigate police abuse leaves them at the mercy of police to self-investigate.
INDIANAPOLIS — The rector at Christ Church Cathedral here, Steve Carlsen, was crestfallen when a special prosecutor in November declined to indict either of the two police officers who fatally shot a church volunteer in late July of last year. Forty-five-year-old Aaron Bailey was unarmed when he crashed his car into a tree in the wee morning hours while fleeing police, who said they only opened fire after Bailey ignored their commands to show his hands and instead reached into the car’s center console.
And while it would’ve been of little comfort, it would have helped console Carlsen and his parishioners if the city’s Civilian Police Merit Board fired the officers, Michal P. Dinnsen and Carlton J. Howard, as Bryan Roach, the chief of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, had recommended.
Roach’s Deputy Chief, Chris Bailey, who is no relation to Aaron, told the appointees on the seven-member panel that people reach into center consoles all the time during traffic stops to grab a wallet, smash a joint or hide alcohol. Said Bailey, who chaired the firearms review board that unanimously concluded that Dinnsen, who is white, and Howard, who is biracial, did not follow department training and policy.
I find it unreasonable, in my view, that 11 rounds were fired into the back of the car.”
But when the Civilian Police Merit Board ruled last Thursday that neither of the officers violated department policy, and chose to effectively reinstate the discredited patrolmen, it only deepened Carlsen’s disillusionment in a law-enforcement system that is irrevocably broken. Said Carlsen:
When will this city say that the life of Aaron Bailey matters? When is this city finally going to put the voices of African-American men front and center? When will we acknowledge that unarmed black men cannot be simply shot in the back and no one held accountable?”
A good idea gone bad
Of the myriad contradictions brought to light in this killing season is the abysmal record of civilian review boards. Such bodies were all the rage a generation ago, as the proliferation of crack cocaine across America’s inner cities multiplied the interactions between the local gendarme and the African-American and Latino civilians, resulting in scandals like the 1991 videotaped police beating of African-American motorist Rodney King in Los Angeles. According to the National Association of Civilian Oversight of Law-Enforcement, the number of citizen-complaint boards today is more than 200; and, while that represents only a fraction of the nearly 18,000 law-enforcement agencies in the country, the panels tend to be concentrated in America’s biggest cities, where police and civilians are most often in close contact. The structure and even the names of these civilian panels vary widely but their mandate is the same: improve the quality of policing in their jurisdiction.
Yet, if anything, the civilian regulators have worsened the problem by putting bad officers back on the street, and widening the already deep reservoir of mistrust between the police and the community.
Samuel Walker, emeritus professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha told MintPress:
I don’t think you can find a single city where civilian complaint review boards have made a difference in improving the quality of policing.”
Walker said the most common reason for the failure of civilian review boards to stop the bleeding — quite literally – in their communities is their institutional toothlessness. Most panels do not have the authority to subpoena officers or the staff to investigate complaints of police abuse, and are therefore at the mercy of police departments’ internal review processes or state investigators who are often biased, and as a result produce findings that typically favor law-enforcement personnel.
Almost as vexing however is when civilian oversight panels are vested with the authority to enforce their decisions, as is the case here in Indianapolis.
Four-year appointments to the Indianapolis board are made by politicians that include the mayor, the city-county council, and the fiercely protective labor union, the Fraternal Order of Police or FOP. As a result, the Indianapolis civilian review board tends to favor sworn officers in their decisions, ruling five to two to reinstate the officers responsible for Aaron Bailey’s fatal shooting.
Walker notes that some civilian review panels allow the appointment of former police officers while others, staffed only with civilians, defer to law-enforcement because of their lack of familiarity with police procedures.
But the most notorious civilian oversight agencies are in New York and the Bay Area.
One of the earliest initiatives, San Francisco’s Office of Citizen Complaints, or OCC, was created by a 1982 ballot referendum in response to a series of allegations of police brutality.
But a 2007 audit by the city controller’s office found that in more than half of all cases filed between 2003 and 2006, the OCC failed to complete investigations within nine months — jeopardizing criminal prosecutions, since under state law, prosecutors are required to file charges within a year of learning of officer misconduct.
Barbara Attard, who worked at the OCC in the ’80s, told PBS reporters in 2016 that the agency was sabotaged at birth:
There was a lack of political will to support the agency. Weak or police-connected directors were hired. In the early days, the agency was vastly underfunded, also due to politics.”
And by the time that New York Police Department Officer Daniel Pantaleo wrestled Eric Garner to the ground outside a Staten Island beauty supply shop in 2014, the city’s independent Civilian Complaint Review Board had substantiated four allegations of abuse against him stemming from two separate incidents over an eight-year period, according to leaked disciplinary records published by ThinkProgress last year.
That alone should have resulted in Pantaleo’s reassignment to desk duty, if nothing else. As of May 1, just 8 percent of the city’s 36,000 police officers had ever had a single complaint against them upheld by the review board. Only 550 officers — or 2 percent of the force — had had two substantiated complaints. Officer Pantaleo was disciplined just once, lightly, when supervisors docked him two days of vacation pay for an abusive frisk in 2012.
What has shown signs of improving local policing, Walker said, are autonomous auditors and inspectors general who have more expansive powers than do oversight panels, and/or greater access to the department’s administration.
Racism at the root
At its root, however, the failure of civilian oversight boards to address the policing problems is steeped in racism, say both Walker and Carlsen. America’s cities and its institutions are simply unwilling to address the needs of their African-American population, Walker said. Compare, for instance, the response to police violence targeting Irish, Italian, German and Jewish radicals and labor organizers in the 1930s and 40s to the indifference to police abuse of blacks that was as true in 1968 as they are today, half-a-century later.
The Indianapolis civilian board has the authority to hire, promote, discipline and fire police officers.
“It has all the power it needs,” Reverend Stephen J. Clay told the Indianapolis Recorder. “What it doesn’t have is the will. The power is there; the will is absent. It can very well be viewed as a rubber stamp.”
Bailey’s criminal history included battery, robbery and two incidents of resisting law enforcement officers, and on the day of his traffic stop a warrant for his arrest had been issued for him for violating the terms of his release on a pending theft charge. Carlsen said that while Bailey never officially joined his downtown Indianapolis church, he worshipped with the congregation, attended the community breakfasts on Sunday and did yeoman’s work as a volunteer at the annual Strawberry festival, helping parishioners serve 20,000 strawberry shortcakes:
He took four shots, all in the back, and they still succeeded in convincing the merit board that they were in fear of their lives. It’s like they made their own racism the justification for the shooting. We lost but it was important for us as a community to tell a better story of who Aaron was and not let law enforcement define him as just a common criminal.
He wasn’t; he was a beloved child of God’s.”
Top Photo | Erica Bailey, daughter of Aaron Bailey, wipes a tear during a news conference announcing that the Indianapolis police officers who shot her father in the back 15 times, killing him, won’t face criminal charges. Oct. 31, 2017. AP | Darron Cummings
Jon Jeter is a published book author and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist with more than 20 years of journalistic experience. He is a former Washington Post bureau chief and award-winning foreign correspondent on two continents, as well as a former radio and television producer for Chicago Public Media’s “This American Life.”