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Civilian Police Review Board Comes Under Scrutiny Itself : Law Enforcement: Critics say the group lacks independence, is secretive and does not do its job. Supporters say the commission's role has evolved, but it performs an important service in looking into allegations of misconduct.

July 04, 1993|ROXANA KOPETMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONG BEACH — A civilian review commission charged with investigating complaints of misconduct against Long Beach police looked into more than 200 allegations of unnecessary or excessive force last year.

It sustained one.

That statistic is one reason questions have arisen about how the commission operates.

Created in late 1990, the Citizen Police Complaint Commission was touted as the city's first public forum in which residents could air their grievances against police. Proponents pictured open hearings where complainants and officers would square off before a civilian commission that would conduct independent investigations and subpoena witnesses when necessary.

Instead, the commission operates in secret, depends on the Police Department to investigate most claims, almost always sides with the police officer, and has never used its subpoena power. Complainants can wait months for a decision, and even when the commission sustains a claim, it does not disclose how the officer is disciplined.

Clearly, the commission did not turn out the way it was envisioned.

In fact, the 11-member board has evolved into one of the weaker citizen review panels in California, said Eileen Luna, executive director of the Citizen Law Enforcement Review Board in San Diego and the former head of similar groups in Berkeley and San Francisco. Frank Berry, a regional director for the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People who worked to get the commission established, said, "I'm less than pleased with the way it's turned out. There's no way for the public to evaluate what's going on. Everything is hush-hush."

Barbara Shoag, the commission's first chairwoman and a key organizer, praised her group's work. But she also conceded that the commission has shifted from its original intent.

"It's turning out to be not so much an independent investigation but an independent review (board)," Shoag said. But, she added, "the commission is serving an extraordinarily valuable, although quiet and discreet, service to the Long Beach community."

Police Chief William C. Ellis also defended the group, which was created in the wake of allegations of racism in the force, as an independent outlet for "people who feel uncomfortable contacting the Police Department with complaints."

In addition, he said, the department has adopted some of the commission's recommendations. For example, in response to complaints, the department improved the way police document and process a prisoner's money and personal items.

Others, however, question the effectiveness of the group and point to a report released earlier this year that shows the commission sustained only a fraction of the allegations it reviewed.

In 1992, the Citizen Police Complaint Commission received 216 complaints containing 627 allegations of misconduct, including 264 allegations, or 42% of the total, for use of excessive force. After reviewing 80% of the cases, the commission sustained 17 allegations.

Those 17 include one for excessive use of force; one each for improper entry, improper search and discourtesy; two for harassment; three for profanity; and four for failing to take a report.

Discipline ranged from letters of reprimand to suspension, City Manager James C. Hankla said. Citing the officers' right to privacy, Hankla declined to say which allegation received which discipline.

"Of all those cases, look at how many they sustained. We can't say they did their job," said Ernest McBride, an NAACP leader who pushed to establish the review board.

Commissioners said the numbers might be higher if more complainants could provide independent witnesses or evidence to support their claims. When it's the word of an officer against that of a complainant, the commission cannot do much, they said.

Typically, witnesses are either police officers or friends or relatives of complainants. Either could be biased, commissioners said.

"Even if we have a hunch that something went wrong, without the corroborating evidence, we can't do anything," Commissioner Shoag said.

Joe Rouzan, the commission's executive director and a former police chief in Compton and Inglewood, said the number of cases sustained also may be low because, in his view, the city has few bad police officers.

"I've been a cop for 35 years, and I've seen some real bad police departments, most of them back East, and I don't find that kind of cop in Long Beach," said Rouzan, who plans to leave Long Beach this month to become executive director of the Los Angeles Police Commission.

As a youngster growing up in Los Angeles, Rouzan said, he was told that blacks and Latinos were not welcome in Long Beach. But, he continued, "I don't see that (now)."

Nevertheless, last year 37% of the residents who filed claims with the commission were black, although they make up only 13% of the city's population. In 1991, 47% of the complainants were black.

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