Sunday, August 3, 2014

Oversight Ordinance Introduced and Pulled: What Happened?

Since 2012, Islanders for Collaborative Policing has been urging the creation of a police oversight group on Bainbridge Island. Our belief is that an independent oversight group will promote community trust in the Bainbridge Island Police Department. The founding of an oversight group was among the principal recommendations of Police consultant, Michael Pendleton, in his 2013 city-commissioned report. Every candidate running for public office on Bainbridge in 2013 expressed support for this concept. Likewise, favorable comments for the idea have been voiced by our Chief of Police, the City Manger and the Police Guild.

A proposed ordinance to create a “Police Citizen Advisory Board” was introduced to City Council on Monday night. It then pulled, by the City Manager, partly in light of our objections. What happened?

The proposed ordinance has many problems, but here are the most significant.

All of the Board’s duties are defined as reactive, initiated by complaints about police actions or conduct. In other words, the Board would have no proactive role. Its members would not be authorized to ask their own questions about police policies or procedures, or conduct their own policy discussions.

The Board’s function would be to “investigate” such complaints, but it is not provided with its own professional staff to assist it. Nor would the Board enjoy any real independence in carrying out its investigative role. The investigation of police complaints is an activity requiring both skill and experience. If volunteer citizens are to be involved in the complaint process, we’d rather see them have an auditing role.

Lastly, the proposed ordinance creates a number of procedural obstacles that will hinder and discourage people who wish to lodge complaints. There is a short time limit to file a complaint. There are no provisions for anonymous or third party complaints. Complaints can not be filed by people who are taking civil action against the department, and/or who are subject to criminal charges.

During Monday’s discussion, several Councilmembers brought up their own concerns, including the lack of any requirement that the new Board report to City Council (or, we might add, to the public).

ICP supports a Citizen Advisory Board that has broad authority to consider police policies and practice. It should encourage community feedback, rather than making it difficult. If this Board has the authority to investigate or review complaints, it must have the resources to do so in a professional, independent way. 

ICP has always envisioned an oversight entity whose charter is to focus on the continuous improvement of our police services and proactively suggest solutions to identified problems. We hope a modified ordinance comes back to Council quickly. And we hope Council will continue to move things forward in the right direction.