(This story is part of a special series titled “Focus on Force” that explores the use of force by police and the relationship between law enforcement and the public.)
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Strained relations between police and the public in cities and towns across the country have put a spotlight on independent civilian oversight groups, many of which experts and even some of the groups' members say are far from effective.
“I think in many communities, the relationship with police is somewhere between tense and a ticking time bomb,” said Kisha A. Brown, who as director of Baltimore’s Office of Civil Rights and Wage Enforcement oversees the city’s Civilian Review Board.
Brown was appointed by then Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake in February, two months before Freddie Gray’s death while in police custody triggered unrest on the streets of the city.
“Police conduct, for many people in certain communities, has proven detrimental to the health and the safety and the welfare of the community,” Brown insists. “And if people don’t believe the police are there to protect and serve them, who then do you call?”
The answer in many communities is you call the local civilian oversight group. Its mission: Look into allegations of police misconduct.
But oversight groups that work with an independent investigator and have more than advisory power are hard to find. Scripps News reached out to the more than 200 civilian oversight organizations across the nation, and found that nearly two-thirds of those that responded don’t have their own investigators. They rely on police department internal affairs officers to determine if a fellow officer went too far.
And that’s troublesome, some experts say.
“They may not have asked the appropriate follow-up questions or investigated contradictions in what the officer has said,” said Samuel Walker, an expert in police oversight and professor emeritus of Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska Omaha.
“Some (boards) do have the power to reject what internal affairs does and send it back for further investigation,” Walker said. “That’s good, but you still have to take on faith that they’ve reinvestigated, asked the questions and have got it right this time. But I think taking it on faith isn’t good enough.”
Also, by local law, many oversight boards’ findings are merely advisory – even if board members conclude an officer engaged in misconduct. In those jurisdictions it’s ultimately the head of the police department who determines whether an officer crossed the line and if there’s a need for discipline.
And there is often disagreement between boards and the police departments.
In Denver, where an appointed Independent Monitor oversees the police department, two high-profile disputes serve as a reminder of the monitor's limited powers.
Last year, while investigating a disturbance at the city’s 16th Street Mall, officers arrested a suspect with an outstanding warrant. After a struggle, the man was subdued by officers, with one placing his knee on the back of the suspect’s neck while he lay face down.
Independent Monitor Nicholas Mitchell reviewed the video and said the officer’s actions amounted to inappropriate force that could have led to positional asphyxia. He pushed for “significant discipline,” which could include termination.
Despite the monitor’s recommendation, Stephanie O’Malley, Denver’s executive director of safety, handed down the lightest punishment allowed: a 4-day suspension.
Mitchell also pushed last year for discipline against an officer seen on surveillance video arresting an intoxicated woman for disorderly conduct.
While under the officer’s control, Mitchell said, the video shows the woman’s head was slammed into the wall while she waited for an elevator. She sustained multiple lacerations and required stitches.
Mitchell urged that the officer be disciplined. The head of the police department disagreed and the officer received no discipline for the incident.
Board members in Baltimore, where there also is an independent investigator, have openly questioned that group’s effectiveness, noting that its findings are often ignored by top brass in the police department. Some have resigned out of frustration before their terms even finished.
“We can give them our opinions,” said chairwoman Charlene Bourne, “but do they really have to follow what we say?”
In some of the nation’s largest police departments, only a fraction of misconduct allegations are ultimately affirmed.
In San Francisco, where more than 1,100 allegations of improper force were made between 2010 and June of this year, only 16 have been sustained.
In Indianapolis, 268 allegations of improper force were made from 2010 through last month, but only eight have been sustained. Baltimore reports an average of five findings of excessive force a year.
“Those numbers are, unfortunately, I think very low,” Brown said.
In Cleveland, the Department of Justice concluded last December that officers there engaged in a “pattern or practice of unreasonable force.” And yet, the DOJ concluded that a “finding of excessive force by CDP…is exceedingly rare.”
In San Diego, the civilian review board sustained only two cases of excessive force between 2013 and 2014 after 176 were alleged.
But the low numbers don’t mean watchdogs aren’t doing their job, Sharmaine Moseley, executive director of the San Diego Citizens' Review Board, said. There’s often no independent evidence to prove — or disprove — an allegation, she said.
But that might be changing, Moseley said. Body cameras are beginning to make a difference. They take “away the he said, she said kinds of complaints,” Moseley said. “Video tells it all.”
Today, Walker and other experts advocate for another form of police oversight – one that reacts to complaints of misconduct and proactively audits officers’ investigations, collects arrest data and reviews department policies.
This is already happening in some cities. In Washington, D.C., for example, the Office of Police Complaints noticed an uptick in the amount of black male teens being ticketed for riding unlicensed bicycles.
The office compiled the complaints, studied them and ultimately took action by recommending that the little-known ordinance be repealed.
“Here was a tool that police were using to discriminate,” Walker said, “and they took the tool away from them.”
The ordinance is no longer in effect.
Weeks after the inspector’s report was made public, Commissioner William Bratton announced the rollout of a new policy to change that.
By addressing systemic flaws, Walker says, oversight can improve policing in more ways than simply investigating individual cases of misconduct.
“Are you talking about rotten apples or rotten barrels?” Walker asked. “I think the best thinking in policing is to focus on the organization.”
“Let’s fix the barrel.”
If you have a tip about civilian review boards, email Ross Jones at Ross.Jones@scripps.com.
Angela M. Hill (@AngelaMHill), Scripps National Investigative Producer, contributed to this report.