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Long Beach Officials Cool to Idea of Police Review Board

December 31, 1987|ROXANA KOPETMAN | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — A city-appointed commission that recommended its powers be expanded to allow it to sit as a civilian police review board received a triple blow this week.

To begin with, the City Council on Tuesday made it clear that it dislikes the idea of a civilian board checking into alleged police misconduct.

And furthermore, the city attorney said, the Public Safety Advisory Commission has overstepped its powers in other actions it has taken in the past.

Councilman Edd Tuttle took the matter a step further and raised the idea of abolishing the commission.

Councilman Clarence Smith, who unsuccessfully sought to have the police review board recommendation referred to a council committee, rebuffed Tuttle's suggestion.

"It's inappropriate to talk about disbanding a group because they submitted something we disagree with," Smith said.

Mayor Ernie Kell asked the city manager and the attorney to review the commission's past actions and return in a month with a report. The report will also address whether the commission should be given the power to investigate police misconduct where there is loss of life, great bodily harm or special circumstances, such as racial harassment.

After months of hearings, the commission recommended on Dec. 10 that the council expand the 13-member group's power beyond its advisory role in overseeing police issues.

NAACP Wants Board

The National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, whose representatives allege that blacks in Long Beach are subjected to racial slurs and harassment from police, proposed the review board after an unusually high number of in-custody deaths this year. The police have said that the five deaths are unrelated and have already been investigated by the appropriate agencies, including the district attorney's office.

Police officials have adamantly opposed the idea of a civilian review board with subpoena powers and the authority to conduct investigations and public hearings into police matters.

On Tuesday, council members and City Manager James C. Hankla congratulated Police Chief Lawrence Binkley and police officers for doing a good job.

Public Safety Advisory Commission member Ernest McBride, who sat in on the meeting Tuesday, said afterward: "We're not satisfied with five people being killed here and they're saying the police is doing a good job."

McBride also questioned why there is a problem with the commission making recommendations to police and the council.

"If recommending to the City Council is overstepping our powers, then we don't need a committee," McBride said.

The problem, the City Atty. John Calhoun said, is that the commission--instead of acting in an advisory role to the City Council--has taken its recommendations directly to the police and then "demanded" that police either implement the recommendations or explain why not.

Minutes of Meeting

Calhoun pointed to the minutes of a commission meeting, in which commission Chairman Allan E. Tebbetts told commission member Marshall Blesofsky: "We've all chafed, Marshall, from the first day under the lack of authority that we have had, and we have managed to balloon that authority in our jurisdiction and in our inquiries far beyond what was contemplated."

In response, the mayor said: "Maybe they need a little pin pushed in (the balloon)."

Tebbetts was out of town and could not be reached for comment. Blesofsky said the chairman's remarks were "taken out of context."

If anything, Blesofsky said, the commission "has been very restrained" in its recommendations. "I don't think we ever demanded anything. I think we probably should demand these things," Blesofsky said.

Among the issues the commission has discussed is the procedure for the public to file a complaint against police. During recent hearings, several people complained there is no complaint form readily available. (Police have said that a citizen's complaint must be filled out by a police officer. And, because it involves personnel matters which are considered confidential, copies are not available to the person who made the complaint unless it is subpoenaed.)

Commission members have expressed frustration over what they said was a lack of progress in establishing a better complaint procedure, which the commission first addressed in 1983, Blesofsky said.

And when the commission takes an issue directly to the police--as it has with the complaint procedure--instead of the council, Blesofsky said, it is to avoid making the police "look bad."

"We thought that would be a slap in the teeth to the Police Department. And we thought it much more effective to approach them on it," Blesofsky said.

Calhoun said the recommendation to establish a police review board appears to require a change in the city's charter. He noted the board would also hire an executive director and a staff. Calhoun said there are other troublesome facets of the plan, including a recommendation to give the commission the power to subpoena witnesses and documents.

"Not even the City Council has the power to subpoena," Calhoun said.

Vice Mayor Warren Harwood said the commission had almost made the issue "a circus" when "this whole matter would best be put to bed here quickly."

Of the seven council members at the meeting Tuesday, none spoke in favor of any form of a civilian police review board.

Even Smith, who was alone in trying to refer the issue to a council committee, was noncommittal after the meeting when asked whether he supports such a police review board. "I support anything that is workable between the citizens and the Police Department," Smith said. But he added that he wants to ensure that residents have a process to air their grievances.

"Anytime a committee brings anything to the council, we need to give it thorough review," Smith said. "And they didn't do that today."

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