Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Why the Pendleton Report Matters: Another Call for Citizen Oversight and Improved Complaint Procedures

Michael Pendleton’s report on the Bainbridge Island Police Department was released on August 7, giving the public yet another take on the agency and the problems that afflict it. There’s been a split in media reaction. Some publications have stressed its importance (“worth the money,” Bainbridge Review, “pulls no punches,” Bainbridge Notebook), while others, like Inside Bainbridge and the Kitsap Sun, have noted its similarities to previous studies. Most coverage has focused on the dysfunctional lieutenant/patrol officer relations noted in the Report, and the resentment some officers feel toward their supervisors. 

This aspect of the Pendleton Report is important, and we hope and expect that our new Chief will ameliorate strained personnel relations in the Department. But by emphasizing this part of the Report, the press neglects an opportunity to consider more important content. It doesn’t matter to most Bainbridge residents if lieutenants at the BIPD communicate poorly about scheduling. Nor does it matter, to most people, if patrol officers ignore instructions from their lieutenants. What matters to Bainbridge residents, and what matters to Islanders for Collaborative Policing, is what happens outside the four walls of the police department: the kind of interaction officers have with residents, how they respond to crime, how people are treated who are experiencing crisis. The Pendleton Report makes two recommendations that speak directly to police/community relations: the improvement of police complaint procedures, and the establishment of a citizen commission that would have a “formal role” in the complaint and discipline process.

Some history, here, is in order. Several years ago, police accountability expert Sam Pailca was hired, by the Bainbridge Island City Council, to assess police complaint policy and procedures. Her findings were unequivocal: the BIPD, she found, has inadequate mechanisms to accept complaints, has practices in place to deter complaints, and, once complaints are taken, have processes in place that deter fair resolution. “The complaint handling system itself,” she reports, “evidences an overall lack of maturity and sophistication.” Among her many recommendations: new and customer-service oriented methods for accepting complaints, better complaint classification and reporting procedures, and new ways of investigating complaints that reduce the chance of conflicting interests (i.e., don’t have members of the same guild investigate each other). 

The City’s reaction was to apply a few minor tweaks, such as creating an online complaint form, and to consider the matter resolved. According to former Interim Public Safety Director Larry Dickerson (in August of last year), “we have already implemented all suggestions recommended by the 2011 Pailca report” and “citizens have myriad options for lodging complaints.” (Memorandum to former Interim City Manager Morgan Smith about ICP recommendations.)

The Pendleton Report is important because it tells us, conclusively, that necessary changes have not been made. Dr. Pendleton’s interviews with Bainbridge residents, and particularly city councilmembers, show an alarming level of concern that officers have gotten away with bad behavior. He notes that “there are long-standing unresolved allegations of incidents of police misconduct and retaliation” and that these allegations have "significant impacts" on police perception. The way to address these concerns, and promote proper conduct in the future, is to improve complaint procedures. It’s worth noting (although Dr. Pendleton does not do so), that this is also the best way to exonerate officers subject to false accusations. A good complaint process equally protects both police and citizens.

Further, and equally important, the Pendleton Report recommends that a citizen police commission be established and authorized to play a formal role in the complaint/discipline process. We think this kind of citizen involvement is critical to building public trust in the BIPD, as it will create an outside check to what has historically been a purely internal process. The challenge, for city government, will be to get the form of this commission right: close enough to city government to meaningfully participate in the complaint process, but distant enough to maintain an independent perspective.  The participation of amateurs is important, but so is the involvement of people with professional experience in police investigations. We know, from the history of the city Civil Service Commission, how checks on government are weakened when amateurs are pressured by city officials. (The CSC, for example, repeatedly authorized the hiring of an officer without state certification, in violation of state law, because police leaders asked it to do so.)

Finally, we appreciate Dr. Pendleton’s suggestion that this citizen commission accept input about policing issues, not just complaints about particular officers. The commission should welcome all citizen concerns, and provide the BIPD, frequently, with community feedback. We are less impressed, however, with his recommendation that the commission assist the BIPD with a public outreach program. The credibility of this body depends on its neutrality and independence, which may be compromised if it helps with public relations.

ICP welcomes Dr. Pendleton’s report, and its emphasis on police accountability and citizen involvement. We urge the media, and city officials, to support his recommendations.