LONG BEACH — A ballot proposal to create a citizens commission to review public complaints of police conduct came precariously close to death this week as council members complained that the board would be too costly and would take too much power away from the city Administration.
Opposition to the review board surfaced to an unexpected degree Tuesday night, when the council, sitting as the Charter Amendment Committee, narrowly voted to keep the proposal alive.
Advocates of the police complaint commission, anticipating much more solid support, expressed surprise and in one case, dissatisfaction with the 5-4 vote.
"I'm frankly very disappointed with the excuses given by some of the people who voted against it," said Frank Berry, president of the local branch of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, one of a number of organizations that want the council to put the proposal on the ballot next year for a citywide vote.
Berry said the reasons council members gave for opposing the board discounted the black's community's longstanding problems with the Police Department. "I think it begins to border on racism," he complained.
Support Group Satisfied
"I thought it was going to pass unanimously," said Sid Solomon of Long Beach Area Citizens Involved. Despite the split vote, however, Solomon said his group was satisfied with the outcome. "We're going to start a coalition to get this thing passed."
The proposal, which would require a voter-approved change in the City Charter, would for the first time take authority to investigate allegations of police brutality and misconduct away from the police chief and put it in the hands of a citizen panel appointed by the mayor and the City Council.
The idea of a police review board has long been discussed in Long Beach. But it was unable to garner much political support until last winter, when a secretly videotaped sting of two white police officers arresting a black man was broadcast on national television, pushing embarrassing allegations of local police brutality into headlines around the country.
In the proposal's first hearing before the full council, it became apparent that a citizen commission still has its share of enemies.
"I'm not going to support this proposal. I don't think it's going to solve the problem," said Councilman Les Robbins, who predicted the board's annual costs would run higher than estimates of about $400,000 a year. Moreover, Robbins, a member of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, argued that a citizen board would duplicate the work of the Civil Service Commission, which hears personnel complaints. He also said he believed internal Police Department review of misconduct complaints would be more effective than citizen oversight.
"I don't support the concept," Councilwoman Jan Hall said. She also criticized the Long Beach Police Officers Assn., which has resisted Police Chief Lawrence L. Binkley's discipline policies. "I do think we have a problem with the Police Department. Unfortunately, I think the (police union) is part of that problem, if not all of it."
Union officials said previously they would support a citizen commission, but several council members pointed out that no union spokesman was at the meeting.
Hall, Robbins, Jeffrey A. Kellogg and Wallace Edgerton all voted against sending the wording of the proposed charter amendment to the city attorney, who will review it and then return it to the charter committee. The proposal must then be approved by the council before it can be placed on the ballot for a public vote.
Council members Evan Anderson Braude, Tom Clark, Ray Grabinski, Clarence Smith and Warren Harwood voted to send the proposal to the city attorney for review.
After the council vote, Mayor Ernie Kell said he endorsed the council's decision. "This is one issue that should be placed before the voters," he said.
The commission would have 11 citizen members and its own independent investigator, who would be hired by the city manager. If the commission concluded a police officer had acted improperly, the discipline would be left up to the police chief.
The charter committee made several changes in the proposal's wording, including one that would give the city manager power to fire the investigator. The change was advocated by Grabinski. The original proposal authorized the city manager to hire the investigator, but the commission would have had the power to fire the investigator.
Although representatives of groups lobbying for the citizen commission argued that the commission's activities should be open to the public, the city attorney said that would violate state requirements of confidentiality in personnel matters.