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On the Real and Present Need For a Citizens Public Safety Review Board
Citizen Oversight of Law Enforcement a Must
I have recently begun to read the very excellent treatise by local journalist John Malkin on the need for citizen oversight of law enforcement. But that work was completed in the early 1990s and the more I read John's observations about law enforcement, public safety and the role that citizens can play in both, the more I wondered what relationship that template and those observations had to present day Santa Cruz and to our common interest in the protection of individual rights, efficient community policing and the pursuit of public safety.
In my time as city resident and candidate for public office, I have seen a growing concern for public safety coupled with an expanding public mandate for law enforcement to use whatever means and methods they thought best to insure the safety of our community. Indeed, one does not need to be a social scientist to understand that the dynamic balance between protections of individual liberties and the need for public safety has shifted dramatically over the past few years. Particularly in light of the horrific incidents of violence that visited our city in the recent past, I have watched our elected officials support a marked and noteworthy increase in the number of sworn officers serving in the police department while seeming little concerned about the chilling effect heightened police presence inevitably brings. But it is not the expansion of the police department or the overarching presence of law enforcement in our community that concerns me most. It is the almost complete lack of citizen participation in the development of these policies and the complete absence of civilian oversight of this ever-expanding aspect of our community that occupies my thoughts and prompts these observations.
In his treatise, John rightfully observes that police officer training is almost entirely devoted to intelligence gathering, weapons proficiency and police procedure. They are only tangentially trained in nonviolent conflict resolution and community relations. And here I will say that this is not their fault. The officer on the street is only as good as the training he or she receives and clearly they are not receiving the kind of training and input that would create not only an enlightened police force mindful of individual liberties, but a more efficient one as well.
Every incoming police administration in recent times has called for a policy of community partnership to bridge the perceived divide between law enforcement and the citizenry it is sworn to serve. In point of fact, if this chasm were not real and existing, there would be no need to call attention to it as a matter of departmental policy. But what the department has failed to recognize is that our community also knows a few things about public safety. It knows that law enforcement alone cannot make the community safe. It knows that true public safety can only be developed and sustained in an atmosphere of trust and accountability. It knows that individual liberties are a bedrock value that must be honored and preserved. And it knows that community engagement is the foundation of wise and forward thinking public safety policy. So the question becomes: If we accept these statements as true, how are we to actualize them in ways that best benefit our community? And this brings us full circle to my original question: Do we have a present need for a Citizens Public Safety Review Board?
My answer is “Yes”.
I respectfully suggest the creation of a civilian review board tasked with oversight of our police department. Understand that when I say “oversight” I do not mean control. Such a board would be committed to ensuring that the City of Santa Cruz has a police department that acts with integrity and administers justice fairly and evenhandedly. However, to insure the independence of such a body, the board would directly consult with and advise the police department and would pass along advisory opinions to council for informational purposes only. That is the only way to “depoliticize” the process while creating a clear line of accountability between the community and the police department. This is a bold notion and one that requires the full measure of trust, accountability and community partnership that I have previously alluded to.
As so what form will this new, modern Citizens Public Safety Review Board take? If, as we say, the board is to be composed of citizen representatives charged with the review of police policies and procedures, it cannot, for example, be restricted to consideration of already completed internal police investigations into allegations of police misconduct. A truly reformist board must be given the power to conduct parallel investigations to supplement and inform those conducted by Internal Affairs. Although ultimate decisions would continue to be the province of the department and its chain of command, a civilian review board with independent investigative authority would have the power to make recommendations to the Chief concerning disposition and discipline.
On issues of operational policy and commitment of resources, any such board would need to have direct input to achieve any degree of real effectiveness. The obvious benefit of this input would be that resource allocation and priorities would more accurately reflect the community’s concern about how best to police and make safe our city. For example, if the board felt that public safety would best be served by spending more money on gang suppression and less on petty theft investigations, resources could be allocated accordingly. If the board recommended more money be devoted to the investigation of sexual assaults and less to enforcement of downtown behavior ordinances then that too could drive fundamental reallocation of resources. These are matters upon which reasonable minds will surely differ and will ultimately be the product on a long and comprehensive public input and review process. But it is a conversation we must have if a truly effective oversight process is ever to become a functional part of protecting individual liberties while making the community safe as a whole.
Finally, I will say this. I have always found some considerable fault with the idea that “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it”. And I say this just as the past specter of "Code Blue" may once again be rearing its hateful head. With due respect to Mr. Malkin, what I have observed from his work and the labors of others has certainly informed this process, but cannot in these modern times guide it. I believe we must make our own history and take from it the lessons we learn along the way. It is in that spirit that I offer the concept of a Civilian Public Safety Review Board for the consideration of the community.