SCHENECTADY — The spotlight is shining on the city’s little-known panel designed to investigate police misconduct.
Throughout a summer of intense discussion on racism and police issues, activists and critics frequently knocked the city’s Civilian Police Review Board (CPRB) for being ineffective and bound too tightly to the cops.
At the same time, City Councilwoman Marion Porterfield contends the nine-member panel is missing mandated components outlined in City Code, including an advisory committee, and has prodded lawmakers for months to be more aggressive in course-correcting those shortfalls.
Now City Council’s Public Safety Committee will question board members in a special meeting on Tuesday to probe possible reforms.
“What I want to see is how the board members see the board operating,” Porterfield said, “and if there’s anything we need to change that would make the board more effective, as well as strengthen it.”
The discussion will be in tandem with the state-mandated police reform process, which recently saw the conclusion of a series of nine moderated panel discussions last month.
While the feedback has been passed to analysts to crunch into policies that will eventually be presented to City Hall (and later, City Council), the steering committee guiding the process continues to meet, including last week when participants debated the panel.
Committee Chairman Richard Shave acknowledged the board takes heat for a perceived lack of independence and subpoena power.
But the panel typically does not review some of the more high-profile, headline-grabbing cases because once lawyers file a notice of claim, which is a predecessor to a lawsuit, their access is then stripped away.
And they don’t see internal complaints.
As such, the panel’s portfolio primarily consists of discourtesy cases and other minor complaints that don’t receive much attention, Shave said.
All documents and materials are provided by city police. They’re double-blind, which means the identities of both cops and complainants are shielded in an attempt to prevent bias.
If the board feels those materials are inadequate, and if the department doesn’t furnish them upon a second request, they would have to ask lawmakers to subpoena additional info.
Shave said the board hasn’t had to do so during his three-year tenure. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t think changes aren’t needed.
Each of the nine members are appointed by civic groups, a measure that has led to extended vacancies at times — and a process Shave believes doesn’t lead to smooth operation or interested participants.
“I think there’s better ways to recruit, train and get members onto the CPRB,” Shave said.
He also wants to overhaul the selection process, as well as broaden the portfolio of materials made available for review.
That includes a list of judgments, including costs and if the city’s insurance rates have gone up as a result.
The city has resolved several hefty payouts in recent months, including $225,000 to a suspect bitten by a police dog during his arrest and $250,000 to a woman who claims she was thrown into a wall by officers during a 2015 arrest.
And the city also paid $1.3 million to the widow of Andrew Kearse, who died of a heart condition in the back of a patrol car in 2017.
Shave also wants the complaint process to be better promoted in an effort to build up trust.
Updates to the complaint form and its inclusion on the city’s website in a more prominent space are forthcoming, he said.
The panel is also working with community organizations who may be able to act as conduits for those who need help filing complaints.
“We wish more people would complain because we would get more of a culture of politeness by the police,” Shave said.
The board has also come under criticism because complaints must be filtered through City Hall and city Police Department.
City Police Chief Eric Clifford said the department takes complaints seriously, and while he’s supportive of modifications in an ongoing attempt to restore a sense of trust that’s been eroded over time, the overall complaint process is under his purview and shouldn’t be placed within the realm of a wholly independent entity.
“CPRB is independent of the police department,” Clifford told the steering committee last week.
Clifford said he has accrued firsthand experience investigating complaints during his stint as a platoon commander under former Chief Mark Chaires and knows how stringent the process is.
“That’s where I learned how to thoroughly investigate an internal complaint,” Clifford said.
The department also actively seeks out complaints on social media.
“Anything that would appear to discredit the agency, we would look into it,” Clifford said. “In four years, we’ve disciplined over a dozen officers generated off of these types of complaints.”
The panel typically reviews 40 complaints annually, a number Clifford said is a reduction from previous years.
“I think that speaks volumes to officers interacting with the community in a procedurally just manner.”
It’s unclear what lawmakers will do with the feedback generated during next week’s meeting:
City Council President John Mootooveren didn’t return multiple calls seeking comment.