Schenectady’s Civilian Police Review Board has a problem with appointments. Some of the nonprofit agencies that are supposed to appoint a representative take a long time doing so, and as a result the board never has a full complement, sometimes not even a quorum. But that’s fairly easy to fix. The tougher nut is the board’s lack of power, a source of frustration to its members and the public alike.
Here’s the fix for the appointments problem: If the dilatory agency fails to act within three months, the City Council will appoint a member, and that agency will lose its power to appoint.
The best fix for the lack of power is for the board to have its own investigator to find witnesses and get evidence, so an independent assessment can be made as to whether a police officer acted appropriately after a complaint is lodged. A number of years ago the board hired such an investigator, but after the police wouldn’t cooperate and threatened to file a grievance because he was taking away union work, he resigned in frustration.
Without an independent investigator, we’re left with a police department that is investigating itself, and it’s hard to have faith that they’re looking hard for witnesses and evidence and otherwise doing a thorough job. The vast majority of complaints result in the officer either being cleared of wrongdoing, or police investigators saying it’s a “he said, she said” situation, and they couldn’t find enough evidence to prove wrongdoing.
All the review board can really do in those cases is read the police investigation report — minus the name of the officer or other identifying information, sometimes minus audio and video tapes that the police investigator has access to — and agree with the police department’s determination. Which is what it almost always does.
This is not to say there haven’t been encouraging signs of improvement in the police department in recent years. Two of them are a requirement that officers record and justify any use of force, and that they keep the audio and video equipment now in every patrol car running so any interaction with citizens can be recorded. This was a result of pressure from the U.S. Justice Department and a lawsuit from the New York Civil Liberties Union.
Also, former Mayor Brian Stratton and Public Safety Commissioner Wayne Bennett made the effort to go after more than a dozen errant officers, firing them or getting them to resign.
In addition, Bennett claimed the right to discipline officers and to hold those hearings in public, which the union continues to challenge. But last year the Appellate Division sided with him, while also saying that a state law which allows police disciplinary records to remain private only applies to “fishing expeditions” where a defendant in a trial is looking for “dirt” on a police officer, not when they apply to a specific case involving misconduct by an officer. Based on that, the review board should be able to know the name of the officer and what the discipline was.
Then there's the question of the review board’s role. Should it simply be to review police investigations? Or should it also be to try to improve police behavior, whether it’s the use of profanity or excessive force. What it should not be is an advocate for the police department, as Mayor Gary McCarthy suggested on Monday.
The City Council should keep the board in existence, change the appointment process, and look for ways to increase its power. One way would be to let it make recommendations — which it can do now to the police department, but which the department routinely ignores — directly to the council for consideration.