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Complaints About Police May Get Citizen Review

February 28, 1987|GLENN F. BUNTING | Times Staff Writer

Responding to public pressure, San Diego Police Chief Bill Kolender and City Manager John Lockwood plan to propose a permanent police review board that would allow citizens to participate in disciplinary hearings for police officers.

Lockwood, who discussed specific proposals with Kolender last week, said he hopes to have a police-citizen review system in place within 60 days.

Police administrators, who have long resisted any citizen involvement in investigating police misconduct cases, now are conceding the need for a police review board because many citizens, particularly minorities, have little confidence in the San Diego Police Department's ability to investigate its own officers, Assistant Chief Bob Burgreen said.

"We think we are tough on ourselves, we thoroughly investigate complaints, we take tough action," Burgreen said. "However, it is obvious to us that the public perception does not coincide with our view of reality. . . . We have a real closed system. I admit we do. As long as it is completely closed, I think we will be facing this question forever. The question is, 'How far do you open it up?' "

The debate over how to involve citizens in the police review process will be "one of the hottest topics around here for the next couple of months," Burgreen added.

The Citizens' Advisory Board on Police-Community Relations, a 13-member panel created by the City Council in 1985 to review police policies and defuse tension between police and residents, has been studying police review boards for several months.

One panel member said Friday that police officials are moving quickly to propose a review board with minimal community input--before the citizen panel can recommend a stronger model.

Kolender, who has criticized traditional police review boards as "kangaroo courts," was unavailable Friday for comment.

Currently, citizen complaints lodged against officers are investigated by detectives in the department's internal affairs unit. If the investigation determines that an officer was at fault, the case is submitted to a captain, who recommends disciplinary action. The recommendation is then passed through the chain of command up to the police chief for approval. All cases involving suspensions of more than five days must be approved by the city manager.

Lockwood said the police recommendation to adopt a review board was not prompted by the recent series of allegations of police brutality against minorities. Rather, Lockwood said, the idea to involve citizens in the review process was first brought up late last year during a brainstorming session among top police officials.

The Police Department is studying a review board similar to the one adopted in Phoenix two years ago. San Diego police officials will travel to Phoenix and other cities to evaluate their programs, Burgreen said.

Phoenix Police Chief Ruben Ortega said he added one citizen appointed by the city manager and one officer to an internal police review board consisting of three command officers. The changes were made in response to community criticism after several highly publicized shootings by police, Ortega said.

"It's turned out to be excellent for us in more ways than we anticipated," Ortega said. "We think we hit upon a process that is fair to everybody. The community is satisfied, particularly the minority community. They now have good feedback from citizens on the board."

Ortega said a recent survey of 196 cases found that the new board recommended the same disciplinary action as the old, internal board in similar cases.

"We found that citizens were very adaptable to understanding our internal workings," Ortega said. "They have made excellent recommendations."

Any discussion of a police review board in San Diego has been fiercely opposed by the Police Officers Assn., whose members feel the Police Department is too harsh when it comes to meting out discipline. A recent survey found that 83% of San Diego police officers felt that citizen complaint procedures favor citizens, not officers. Many officers say the department should refrain from investiging anonymous complaints, Burgreen said.

POA attorney Patrick J. Thistle said that any change in the way the city evaluates police performance will have to be negotiated with the union.

"Police review boards are a very difficult thing to bring successfully into the life of a Police Department," Thistle said. "When you take the expertise out of the review of how somebody performed police work and put it in the hands of the inexperienced and uneducated, you have problems."

Burgreen said the police administration also opposes the concept of a review board consisting solely of citizens. He said that forming such a panel under the City Charter would require voter approval.

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