Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States
Civilian Review Board
In response to many Atlantans' outrage over the Jackson shooting, Mayor Campbell called for the creation of a civilian review board, apparently without realizing one already existed (thus proving how marginal the pre-existing board hadbecome).9 Once the existence of the board was acknowledged, the mayor signed an administrative order to "continue" the Civilian Review Board (CRB).10
The CRB does not receive initial complaints of brutality from the public, has a minimal staff, does not have subpoena power, does not meet in public and does not necessarily make its findings or recommendations available to the public.11 The review board does "receive reports from the OPS and may receive requests for review from citizens who are dissatisfied with the result of the OPS review."12 After its "investigation" (without its own investigators), the board recommends to the mayor whether there is "probable cause for [administrative] charges to be brought by the City against the affected officer[s]...."13 If administrative charges have been proffered against the affected officer(s), the CRB chair alone reviews them to determine whether department policy changes should be recommended. There is no possibility for the CRB to review cases where victims or others protest the leniency of any administrative charges applied.
The CRB is also prohibited from completing its review while any "litigation arising from the complaint against the City, its officers, or employees" is pending.14 Since the CRB's mandate is limited to allegations of excessive force, serious bodilyinjury, and death, nearly all of the cases it is authorized to review will involve civil suits, and some will lead to criminal charges; such delay completely sidelines the CRB, since litigation in these cases may span several years. If the CRB is intended to ease public anxieties following cases like the Jackson shooting, it can have little effect in practice, since, according to its own mandate, it would not be permitted to review the Jackson case until the federal criminal civil rights investigation, now underway, is completed and any civil actions are concluded. Indeed, CRB staff told Human Rights Watch that the board was pulled off the Jackson case after Jackson's mother filed a civil lawsuit.15
In explaining why the CRB does not need subpoena power, which would require the Atlanta Police Department and Department of Corrections, over which the CRB has jurisdiction, to provide all relevant files or access to "at-risk" officer tracking systems, the mayor's Office of Community Affairs explained that such power was not necessary because internal affairs (OPS) has always been cooperative.16 A sergeant in the OPS told Human Rights Watch that he had little knowledge of the review board and stated he "never had any interest in the Civilian Review Board."17 A former member of the CRB told Human Rights Watch that, at some point, OPS stopped forwarding relevant cases to the board and that recommendations made by CRB members were often ignored by police management.18 When asked for her views about civilian review generally, Chief Harvard stated, "Civilian review boards can and have played a very useful role in theoverall picture of police accountability, integrity and community involvement in the disciplinary process."19 When asked specifically about Atlanta's Civilian Review Board and its impact on accountability, the chief referred to this general statement without commenting on the board.
The absence of any provision for public disclosure of information regarding complaints of abuse or any public access to the hearings that the CRB may hold undermines one of the central goals of civilian review - improving public confidence through enhanced information about police handling of abuse complaints. Despite the appointment of prominent and respected members of the community, this sort of secrecy and the board's staff and mandate limitations, as described above, will not enhance police-community relations in Atlanta. While some in the community derided the CRB as a "paper tiger" when it was "reactivated" in January 1996, that label would suggest that, on paper, the board has powers that it does not have in practice.20 In fact, its powers as described are hardly impressive; the CRB requires major revisions to live up to its name and stated goal.
As of mid-1997, a CRB staffperson reported that the board had only taken on two cases (the Jackson shooting and an undercover operation shooting) since it was "restructured" in 1995.21 As mentioned above, the Jackson investigation was halted once a civil lawsuit was filed by his mother. The CRB has published no report on its activities.22
Despite the CRB's obvious shortcomings, during 1997 the mayor continued to tout it as an external review option, as in an April 20, 1997 case that attracted a great deal of attention. A police sergeant and four other officers were caught on videotape repeatedly striking an African-American motorist.23 Mayor Campbell told reporters that the CRB would look at the case, even though the victim's lawyer had announced that he planned to file a civil lawsuit, an internal investigation was ongoing, and both of these circumstances meant - as the mayor knew - that the CRB would be sidelined in dealing with this case of alleged abuse.
As of August 1997, the CRB reportedly had still not become involved.24 The case did provoke action from the police leadership, however. According to the alleged victim's attorney, OPS investigated the incident and recommended that all of the officers involved be exonerated, but Chief Harvard disagreed and called for a thirty-day suspension without pay for one of the officers, and an official reprimand for another; the officers were reportedly appealing the disciplinary sanctions to the civil service board.25
9 Charmagne Helton and Lyda Longa, "Mayor appoints board to review killing by police," Atlanta Journal-Constitution, January 6, 1996; R. Robin McDonald and Charmagne Helton, "Confusion surrounds review board," Atlanta Journal-Constitution, January 25, 1996.
10 Administrative Order No. 96-1, "An Administrative Order to Continue the Civilian Review Board, Define its Composition and to Establish the Criteria and Scope of Review for this Board," January 5, 1996.
11 In discussing the CRB's shortcomings, a former CRB member told Human Rights Watch that it was his understanding that the mayor and police administrators are counting on community policing to address the problem of brutality. While community policing may improve relations with affected communities, there is no reason not to pursue both the CRB and community policing initiatives seriously.
12 Administrative Order No. 96-1. The administrative order does not delineate who may "appeal" an OPS finding.
14 Human Rights Watch interview with Mike Langford, director of the mayor's Office of Community Affairs, which is responsible for re-starting the CRB, Atlanta, March 4, 1996. See Administrative Order, Section 3(d).
15 Telephone interview with CRB staff member, May 14, 1997.
16 This is not a view shared by others interviewed by Human Rights Watch. When the Atlanta Journal-Constitution requested OPS's files on forty-four shooting cases, there were delays and the newspaper was not provided with all of the information it requested, as required by state law. Photographs, transcripts of 9-1-1 (emergency) calls, medical examiners' reports and other documents were missing from files. The newspaper was able to ascertain what was missing because OPS did not remove file indices listing the items that should have been in each file.
17 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Sgt. Dennis Mullen, OPS, Atlanta, November 1, 1995.
18 There was unanimous opinion among everyone interviewed by Human Rights Watch that the Civilian Review Board, as it currently operates, is not equipped to make a difference. This was the view of attorneys who represent alleged victims of police brutality, reporters who cover the police, public defenders whose clients have been abused by police, at least one former member of the CRB, and police officers themselves, most of whom did not know the CRB even existed.
19 Letter to Human Rights Watch from Chief Harvard, January 27, 1998.
20 Helton and Longa, "Mayor appoints board...," Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
21 Telephone interview with CRB staffperson, May 14, 1997.
23 Kevin Sack, "Police chief says officers violated policy in beating," The New York Times, May 13, 1997.
24 Telephone interview, attorney Albert Mitchell, August 18, 1997.
© June 1998
Human Rights Watch