TESTIMONY ON CITIZEN COMPLAINT REVIEW BOARD
D.C. Council Committee on the Judiciary
FEBRUARY 24, 1998
Good afternoon. My name is Rick Rosendall. I am President of the Gay & Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington (GLAA), the nation’s oldest continuously active gay and lesbian civil rights organization. Craig Howell, our current Secretary and a longtime GLAA member, is with me today.
It is extremely gratifying that both pieces of legislation under consideration today Bill 12-360, the “Police Conduct Review Board Act of 1997,” and Bill 12-521, the “Citizen Complaint Review Act of 1998” are well-crafted bills that thoughtfully address a major public safety concern. (I would point out that Ms. Allen's bill is substantially the one that GLAA endorsed in the previous Council session.) Passage of either bill would represent a giant step forward compared with the weaknesses encountered under the old Civilian Complaint Review Board. Either bill would represent a marked improvement in light of the total absence for the past 3 years of any system of citizen review of allegations of police misconduct. We want to thank you, Mr. Evans, and Councilmember Allen for your efforts. I think we're much closer today to something all of us can support.
Our comments today will focus on Bill 12-521, which we believe has the better chance for both enactment and effective implementation.
First, we would associate ourselves with the testimony of Mark Thompson and with the very thorough section-by-section analysis by the ACLU, both of whom are our partners in the NAACP Task Force.
We are very pleased that the system to be established under Bill 12-521 would allow quicker resolution of most complaints by the public of police misconduct. One of the gravest weaknesses of the old CCRB was the requirement to investigate each and every complaint. This unrealistic and unnecessary requirement was among the chief causes of the enormous case backlog that plagued the old Board. Under Bill 12-521, the Executive Director of the Office of Citizen Complaint Review would be empowered to dismiss a complaint outright with the concurrence of at least 2 members of the Citizen Complaint Review Board. (Parenthetically, we are sympathetic to the suggestion that to minimize the chances for a backlog to develop, the Executive Director ought to be empowered to dismiss complaints without waiting for the concurrence of any Board members.) Even better, complaints would be routinely subject to mediation, which ought to produce speedy resolution more often than not.
As a result, investigative resources could be concentrated on the most troublesome cases, rather than dispersed among all complaints, as was the case with the old Board.
We are also pleased that investigations under the new system would be enhanced by effective subpoena powers. The absence of such powers was a serious stumbling block under the old system, where the police or other parties were often able to stonewall because the law did not grant the Board’s investigators proper authority.
But even the system envisioned under Bill 12-521 will not work properly if adequate funding is not forthcoming. Painfully, we must remind you of the vicious circle we’ve been countering for the last several years. Bill Lightfoot, former chairman of this committee, refused to allow passage of legislation establishing a new system of civilian review in 1996 because the Council had not authorized any budget for a new Board. Then last year, the Council refused to grant a budget earmarked for a new Board because no law setting up such a body had been passed. So which comes first: the budget or the law?
In this respect, we note the following language in Bill 12-360: “The appropriation of such funds as may be necessary to carry out the provisions of this act is hereby authorized.” No such provision appears in Bill 12-521; we are not sure that such language is required, but we do want to close any loopholes that might facilitate a continuation of that old vicious circle.
Since the FY 1999 budget is about to be submitted, we urge this committee to take steps to ensure a budget for the new system is either explicitly provided for or else implicitly allowed for, via re-programming. If anything can be done to authorize a budget for FY 1998, so we won’t have to wait until October 1 to get the new system in place, so much the better.
There are a number of other concerns or suggestions we would like to raise to improve Bill 12-521. Time limitations will limit what we can say today, but we expect to revise and extend our remarks before the record closes on March 13.
- Sunset clause. At last September’s hearings on this issue, Councilmember Schwartz suggested that a sunset clause be added to whatever legislation is ultimately passed, forcing the Council to address the new civilian complaint review system and any problems at a fixed date. You indicated your agreement, Mr. Evans; however, no such provision appears in your bill. We are not entirely convinced this is the way to go, because there is a real danger that the Council could duck its responsibilities and let this new system expire altogether. In any case, it is a matter that this committee should explicitly discuss and decide one way or the other.
- Police presence on the new Board. Bill 12-521 provides that one of the 5 members of the Citizen Complaint Review Board shall be a member of the Metropolitan Police Department. In 1996, we asked all candidates for the Council if they would oppose having any MPD members on a new CCRB. At that time, you replied, Mr. Evans: “I strongly support the non-inclusion of Police officials on this board which would, I believe, hinder any effective enforcement.” You have evidently changed your mind; we would like to hear your reasoning before deciding whether we should change our position as well. The Board's independence is key to its credibility, and it must be remembered that the Board would be in addition to not in place of the MPD's internal procedures.
- Time limits for filing complaints. Section 7(d) of Bill 12-521 provides that: “To be timely, a complaint must be received by the Office within 30 days from the date of the incident that is the subject of the complaint.” In light of the great stress if not trauma felt by persons who feel victimized by police misconduct, we suggest that this period should be lengthened to 180 days.
- Perjury. Section 7(f) provides that: “Complaint forms shall conclude with the following words: ‘I hereby certify that to the best of my knowledge, and under penalty of perjury, the statements made herein are true.’” We fear that the threat of perjury proceedings may intimidate victims from filing valid complaints in the first place. For example, we can well imagine the police union, as a standard tactic to defend its members, would bring pressure on the U.S. Attorney to initiate perjury proceedings against complainants. Such practices might tend to nullify Section 10(d)’s ban on police retaliation against complainants. We recommend that oaths and perjury penalties not be authorized until the formal investigative stage. (Curiously, it seems Bill 12-521 does not actually provide for perjury penalties for anyone under any circumstances.)
- How the Police Chief handles complaints. Bill 12-521 requires the Police Chief to follow very specific procedures when the Office of Citizen Complaint Review forwards him or her a file on a particular case. But ultimately, accountability for the decision to discipline or not discipline rests with the Chief, and nothing should facilitate the Chief’s hiding behind a detailed process not of his or her own making. It might be better if the law did not spell out the steps the Chief must follow. If one Chief wants to change those procedures, or a new Chief wants to handle matters in a different way, they should not have to wait for new legislation before implementing those changes. Flexibility can help the new system succeed.
In short, it's a very good bill, and with a few small changes it will be even better.
Thank you. We would be glad to answer any questions you may have.