On the eve of only their second orientation meeting, members of a new citizens panel to review police practices are concerned that San Diego Police Chief Bill Kolender may have undermined their importance in a speech he delivered recently to a national organization.
George Walker Smith, chairman of the Civilian Advisory Panel on Police Practices, has threatened to resign over the chief's remarks, and other members of the panel want Kolender to answer questions at their meeting this afternoon.
"I stand by my word," Smith said Monday about the possibility of his stepping down. "What I said, I said. And I stand by that."
Howard Carey, another member of the month-old group, said he had "some questions about the appropriateness" of Kolender's remarks about the effectiveness of civilian review.
'Trying to Get Off Ground'
"What is of particular concern is that this group is trying to get off the ground and those kinds of remarks certainly don't help it any," Carey said.
Margarita Carmona added: "I hope we can be very effective. But if not, as sure as everybody else, I will probably leave. If we have a strong feeling that we are not being heard or taken seriously, I think that's when people would make up their mind to resign or to stay on. I know I would."
Kolender maintained Monday that his speech Thursday to the International Assn. for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, meeting in Evanston, Ill., has been taken out of context.
"I'm sorry that things got screwed up over the interpretation of the speech," he said. "So I'm going to give them a copy and let them read it for themselves."
Aiming for Balance
He said his speech simply was meant to balance the pros and cons of civilian review panels. According to a copy of the text provided by Kolender, the chief began his remarks by saying he favors civilian review groups.
"Traditionally, when the police 'police' the police, there is a perception that we will cover up for each other," the text said. "The idea seems to make sense and leads to the thought that policing the police should be carried out by an outside agency. Often those perceptions become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and oversight panels are formed."
The text went on to say, however, that he does not support a civilian review panel that supplants a police internal affairs unit or attempts to usurp power from the chief's office.
"What are the actual consequences of the implementation of an oversight panel?" the text said. "The most dangerous is that they create a feeling on the part of the officer that he will be judged by a Kangaroo Court."
'Rule by Committee'
The text added that, when investigations of police officers are taken away from the chief of police, "his ability to lead and his authority to take action are seriously hindered. Strong personal leadership gives way to rule by committee."
At the closed meeting today, Kolender plans to give the local group copies of the speech, explain his reasoning for making the remarks and answer their concerns.
"I'm supportive of them," he said. "I welcome this group. I think it's a positive thing. I'm proud of what we do. I want their input and I welcome any suggestions and recommendations they might make."
The group, which was named last month, was charged with reviewing police investigations and making recommendations to the police internal affairs unit.
To Review Complaints
As structured, the group will review citizen complaints of serious police misconduct, by studying police reports and tape-recorded interviews. The San Diego Police Department internal affairs unit would issue a finding after getting a recommendation from the panel.
The group plans to hold all of its meetings behind closed doors, but to make public quarterly reports evaluating the Police Department's overall performance in investigating complaints.
At the group's first meeting last week, the members met with Kolender and other department heads to familiarize themselves with how the department works.
Some members, while voicing concern Monday about Kolender's Illinois speech, still said they feel that he backs their organization.
Sees Nothing Wrong
"I don't think there's anything wrong with the chief expressing his opinion," Denise Lavell said. "In a way it's good to have those feelings out in the open, if that's the way Bill feels."
Kay North said it was much too early for the group to be reading discontent into Kolender's remarks. "As far as I'm concerned," she said, "there's nothing to be dissatisfied about yet."
Carmona put it this way: "Kolender does a lot of things. He says a lot of things. He seems to voice his opinion. He's outspoken, yet he also does a lot of things that are good, too. Maybe he reacts to a situation without giving it a lot of thought as to how it will affect everybody."