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Review Boards in Many US Cities Handle Complaints Against Police

The use of deadly force by law enforcement officers in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere in the United States in recent months has focused new attention on the procedures available to citizens to file concerns and complaints against the police. In Indiana, efforts are being made by the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department to give citizens a voice in the effort to police the police.

Justin Henry is one of about 1500 police officers patrolling zones in and around the city of Indianapolis, where about one million people either live or work.

Henry’s job puts him in contact with some of these citizens every day.

For a policeman, each encounter is different, often uncertain and sometimes dangerous.

Police Chief Richard “Rick” Hite said his officers work to deal with that uncertainty by being proactive about knowing the people they police.

“Meet some of the residents before an issue occurs, so that you are no stranger when something happens in the community when you show up. Your job is to go out there and be a problem solver,” said Hite.

But when a citizen has a compliant with an Indianapolis police officer, Chief Hite will know about it, thanks to the Citizens Police Complaint Office.

“We offer that citizen an avenue to say your voice is valuable, and you do have a voice in this process, and that police can’t come in and treat people however they want,” said Laura White, head of the Citizens’ Police Complaint Office.

White’s complaint board is made up of nine appointed civilians. It also includes three law enforcement officers, but they don’t vote on cases under review.

“We are an independent agency of the police department, but we are there as an avenue for the citizens of Indianapolis to articulate complaints that they may have had in a law enforcement engagement with a police officer,” said White.

The complaint process in Indianapolis was established in 1989 by city ordinance to ensure independent accountability.

“They review the case, the complaint, the investigation, and then they render a decision on the findings, whether they sustain the finding, or they don’t sustain it, there’s not enough proof one way or the other to say this complaint is valid,” White explained.

But the results of a 2012 audit, conducted by a consulting firm contracted by the city, found that there were serious restrictions on how the complaints were filed.

White, who took over the office after the audit, said she believes recent figures for 2014 indicate the process is working.

“We had [a] total [of] 110 officers that had complains filed against them, and out of that we had 45 disciplines that came out of that, so almost half resulted in discipline,” she said.

Camern McEllhiney, a former member of the Indianapolis Citizens Complaint Board, and now serves as the Director of Training for the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, or NACOLE, cited the importance of an outsider’s perspective.

“When you add the element of civilians to the process, they are able to look at it with an outsider's perspective, and make sure that the investigation is done fairly, and consistently over time,” said McEllhiney. “I think what Ferguson and other national cases have done for oversight is made not just law enforcement agencies but city leaders and members of the community understand is that this isn’t something that should be done after something has happened, that maybe it's time to start doing oversight ahead of time so that bad things don’t happen in communities."

Though the complaint and review process can be intrusive and disruptive for the officer or department involved, Chief Hite welcomes the scrutiny.

“We have to have checks and balances. It’s important to recognize they are quality compliance,” said Hite.

A 2013 study by California State University Fullerton shows that more than 100 police departments, many in large cities, have civilian oversight boards. While New York City has such oversight, the Ferguson, Missouri city council only voted last September to set up a civilian review board.

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    Kane Farabaugh

    Kane Farabaugh is the Midwest Correspondent for Voice of America, where since 2008 he has established Voice of America's presence in the heartland of America.