Spokane Police Abuses: Past to Present

The People of Spokane vs. Law Enforcement Abuse, Impunity, Corruption, and Cover-up

Archive for August 3rd, 2007

Terrorism in Spokane — 1990 to 1996

Posted by Arroyoribera on August 3, 2007

Per the their “Terrorism in the United States 1996” report, the Counterterrorism Threat Assessment and Warning Unit of the FBI’s National Security Division reported that there were seventeen acts of terrorism in the United States from 1990 to 1996.

Two of those 17 incidents occurred in Spokane, perpetrated by white supremecist/separatist racists from the Phineas Priesthoods, including the bombing of the Spokane Valley office of the Spokesman-Review newspaper and the offices of Planned Parenthood.

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Laying out the case…

Posted by Arroyoribera on August 3, 2007

(Posted originally on July 19th, 2007 and last updated on April 1st, 2010)

November 1909 — (quote) On November 2, 1909, the city government at Spokane, Washington, started to arrest the speakers of the I. W. W. (International Workers of the World) for holding street meetings. The locals at that point decided to fight the city and force it to allow the organization to hold street meetings. The fight lasted up to the first of March following, and resulted in compelling the city to pass a law allowing street speaking. Over 500 men and women went to jail during the free speech fight, including Elizabeth Gurley-Flynn, one of the founders of the American Civil Liberties Union. Two hundred went on a hunger strike that lasted from 11 to 13 days, and then went from 30 to 45 days on bread and water; two ounces of bread per day. Gurley-Flynn was tried and acquitted in Spokane. Four members lost their lives as a result of the treatment accorded them in this fight. (end quote) http://www.iww.org/cic/history/V_St_John.html

March 5, 1913 Officer Frederick E. Goddard was “accidentally shot” during a training exercise and died. He was the first black member of the Spokane Police Department to die in the “line of duty”. He had served in law enforcement for five years and was survived by his wife and four children. http://www.ntoa.org/2007TrainingDeathsReport.pdf

August 19, 1917 — (quote) On August 19, 1917, the Spokane office of the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies) is raided, leaders are arrested, and martial law is declared. (end quote) http://www.historylink.org/essays/output.cfm?file_id=7363

September 1935 — In the 1980s Pend Oreille County Sheriff Tony Bamonte detailed the involvement of a Spokane police detective involved in the 1935 cover-up of the shooting death of Newport, Washington marshal George Conniff.

February 12, 1939 — Officer John H. Miller was accidentally shot and killed while attending an FBI training school in Washington, DC. The accident occurred as a result of practicing “quick draws” with another attendee. The other officer forgot he had reloaded his weapon when Officer Miller requested to run through the exercise one last time before dinner. http://www.ntoa.org/2007TrainingDeathsReport.pdf

January 15, 1962 — Airman 3rd class Olaguibeet Angel Lopez-Pacheco Vera from the 84th Consolidated Maintanence Squadron at Geiger Field was killed by Spokane Police officers Dennis R. Apperson and Richard E. Luders.  Also present was Sgt. James D. Worsham of the Fairchild Air Force Base police liaison detail.  Both Lopez and his father, a prominent Puerto Rican veterinarian, were pro-Puerto Rico independence advocates.  Lopez father, Olaguibeet Angel Lopez-Pacheco, filed a civil rights complaint with the FBI on March 29, 1962.  As part of a Federal Tort Claim, he received 111 pages of information from the FBI in 1976 and another 98 pages in 1978.  The information indicated that the pro-independence organization to which Lopez’s father belonged was a target of FBI Cointelpro surveillance starting in at least 1958.

April 1969 — Spokane Police told Gonzaga University president John P. Leary he would be arrested in relation to charges of sexual abuse of minor boys unless he left town immediately. Thankful for the tip, Leary did obligingly leave town, beginning the long peregrinations so well known to predatory clergy.

February 1981 — In the midst of the infamous South Hill Rapist case, Spokane Police Captain Richard Olberding commented that Spokane women should “just lay back and enjoy it”.

1986 — (quote) The Spokane Police Department’s Gypsy File, a document half an inch thick, has determined that crime constitutes our very culture: “scams, theft and confrontations with law enforcement officials is a way of life with Gypsies” (dated 1986, on page 9). (end quote) http://www.radoc.net:8088/RADOC-31-PROFILING.htm

March 19, 1986 — [per Washington State Supreme Court records] (quote) On or about March 19, 1986, a party was held on the Spokane Police Guild Club premises. These were premises licensed by the Washington State Liquor Control Board (Liquor Board). The party has been variously referred to as a bachelor party, stag show and strip show. The party was, in any event, given for a prospective bridegroom by his brother. A dancer performed at the party in a manner which, as it was subsequently determined, violated Liquor Board regulations. Forty or more people were in attendance. Following an investigation by an investigator for the Liquor Board, the club’s liquor license was suspended for 21 days. A reporter for the Spokesman Review and Spokane Chronicle newspapers requested a copy of the Liquor Board’s investigative report. The Liquor Board ultimately determined that it would release its full report on the incident. This suit was thereupon commenced by the Spokane Police Guild to enjoin the release of the records. The publisher of the newspapers, Cowles Publishing Company, and the City of Spokane were permitted to intervene in the suits. (end quote) The Spokane County Superior Court, the Court of Appeals and, finally in 1989, the Washington State Supreme Court all ruled in favor of the public’s right to know and against the Spokane Police Guild’s attempt to keep the information secret. This decision is widely cited and is considered a primary source of case law on the matter of public access and records disclosure.

August 15, 1991 — In a shootout with a crime suspect, Spokane Police shot and killed Kelly A. Miller in her home. With her children watching, Ms. Miller was killed by one of 50 shots fired by Spokane Police officers at John Chavers who had holed up in the Miller house. In response to the killing of his wife, Rod Miller, sued the city of Spokane for $5 million.

February 27, 1993 — Elwood Rayvon Lee, age 34, was shot in the head by Spokane Police officer Benjamin Estes. The Spokane Police had arrived at the Lee home unannounced and were met at the door by Mr. Lee carrying a rifle. Police alleged that Lee refused their order to drop the rifle and pointed it at them. Joan Lee, who witnessed her husband’s killing by the police along with her two children, sued the city of Spokane.

August 6, 1993 — Spokane Police Officer Jeffrey Harvey shot and killed a man said by two witnesses to be unarmed. On two prior ocassions, Harvey had been subject to disciplinary action for unauthorized use of force.

December 21, 1993 — (quote) Spokane Police Officer William Gentry pled not guilty on December 21, 1993 to alleged sexual assaults of two women described as mentally disabled. These attacks are alleged to have taken place while Gentry was in charge of the police station. According to a spokesperson for the Spokane police, Gentry has been discharged, but news reports suggest that he is receiving disability pay for a stress-related condition. Details of the allegations remain unclear, but at least some of the incidents are alleged to have taken place in the police station and while the victim was restrained with handcuffs. (end quote) — from Dick Sobsey, Educational Psychology, 6-102 Education North, University of Alberta

August 28, 1994 — Sidney McDermott, married and father of 5 children, was shot to death by Spokane Police after an officer followed him home. His wife sued the city for $9 million in a wrongful death lawsuit.

December 17, 1994 – Alleging that she pointed a gun at them, Spokane Police fatally shot —– Borgman. Police had gone to the location in response to a domestic violence report.

January 1, 1995 — Spokane police refused to identify a man they killed nor explain the cause of his death prior to the results of an autopsy.

March 8, 1995 — Blaine Dalrymple, a 38 year old man described by Spokane Police as mentally ill, was shot and killed by three Spokane police officers who alleged that attacked them with a piece of glass.

September 3, 1995 — A 28-year-old man died within minutes of being restrained by five officers and held at the the Spokane County Jail.

October 29, 1995 — Alledging that he had threatened them with a pellet gun, Spokane Police shot dead _____ Bolton.

December 13, 1995 — Spokane County Sheriff’s deputies shot and killed ______ Stowell. Police alleged that Stowell may have shot himself.

December 28, 1995 — Police killed a man after a vehicle pursuit following a bank robbery.

January 22, 1996 — An unidentified woman was shot to death at her home by two Spokane County sheriff’s deputies after she allegedly shot a third deputy in the chest with a shotgun. The deputy was not seriously injured.

January 23, 1996 — Scott Waterhouse died after being arrested on a warrant after a traffic stop by Spokane police. Police say that they don’t know why he died. Mr. Waterhouse was from Fairfield, CT.

November 2, 1996 — Spokane County Sheriff’s Deputy Thomas DiBartolo shot and killed his wife Patti DiBartolo. He then shot himself and invented a story that two Black men had committed the crime. Despite a plea by his teenage son against releasing DiBartolo, DiBartolo was released. He was subsequently convicted of 1st degree murder and sentence to 25 years in prison.

April 15, 1997 — Joe R. Lawson was shot to death by Spokane Police Officer Patrick Dobrow after he allegedly charged at them with a knife during a domestic violence call at his home. The Spokane County prosecutor ruled that the shooting was justified.

June 13, 1997 — Authorities claim that the death of Nicholas Struckman was a suicide in custody. Mr. Struckman’s father has come forward to question the police version of events.

April 28, 1998 — While Spokane Police chased him for violating a traffic regulation, 35 year old Christopher Kraft crashed his motorcycle and died.

June 12, 1998 — ___ Lefebvre was shot by a Spokane County Sheriff’s Department SWAT Team after a six-hour standoff. There is videotape of this incident, which reportedly shows police shooting the suspect as he retreats. Mr. Lefebvre was in a Spokane hospital in critical condition. It is not clear if he survived. He was supposedly wanted for a robbery and a carjacking.

May 27, 1999 — Spokane Police Chief Alan Chertok’s resigned his short tenure with the SPD are he told a high school class that prior Spokane Police Chief Terry Mangan was a suspect in the deaths of several area prostitutes.

June 2000 — “If a higher percentage of minorities are stopped for nonhazardous violations, it would kind of make you wonder,” Bragdon said (Spokane Police Chief Roger Bragdon). According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Spokane County’s population was 1.6 percent black as of 1996. Bragdon said 900 tickets out of 29,000 – about 3 percent – were given to black drivers last year. If initial traffic numbers show signs of racial profiling, the probe could expand, he said. http://www.aclu.org/racialjustice/racialprofiling/15979prs20000622.html

August 11, 2000 — (quote) Assistant Police Chief Loses Pay Over Traffic Stop–Odenthal ‘Influenced’ Officers at Scene not to Arrest His Daughter: A top Spokane Police Department official will lose five days’ pay for intervening to prevent the arrest of his 24-year-old daughter the impoundment of the car she was driving. According to an internal investigation, Assistant Chief Al Odenthal’s actions amounted to preferential treatment and a breach of department policy. (end quote from August 24, 2000 Spokesman-Review) Odenthal was suspended for five days and lost $2000 in pay. In 2006, Odenthal was a candidate for the new police chief position and–after not getting the position–was subsequently fired.

September 22, 2003 — Spokane Police officers shot and severely injured 17-year-old Lewis and Clark High School Student Sean Fitzpatrick rather than wait him out or allow his father to intervene. http://www.spokesmanreview.com/news-story.asp?date=092303&ID=s1414769

August 6, 2001 — Tyrone Thomas, a 34-year-old African American student at Spokane Community College, was shot and killed by Spokane Police in a downtown office building. The police accused Thomas of shooting directly at them and that they shot back in self defense. However, the bullet entered Mr. Thomas’s back as he fled down a hallway and turned down a corridor. A local attorney walking through the building was able to see Thomas through a glass door but was unable to render assistance because the door was locked. The witness, not knowing that police officers shot the victim, reported seeing the injured Thomas and told the officers to get medical assistance immediately because he was still alive and was losing blood rapidly. Police officers would not allow emergency medical assistance for more than a half an hour. Even though the victim had been reported as incapacitated and severely injured, police officers claimed a need to have a SWAT team clear the area before they would allow emergency medical personnel into the building. Though the bullet did not hit any vital organs, Tyrone Thomas bled to death in the corridor. It was reported that if medical assistance had been provided immediately Mr. Thomas would more than likely have lived. Several months later, in the midst of controversy that has endured to this day, the Spokane Police Department awarded the two officers (Shane Oien and James Erickson) involved in shooting Tyrone Thomas in the back with its highest award, the Medal of Valor.

September 27, 2003 — (quote) Fifteen-year-old Couer d’Alene Tribe member Eagle Michael was shot dead by Spokane Police Officer Michelle Madsen. The Officer alleged that Eagle Michael pointed his BB gun at her. Per published reports, Eagle Michael attended the Idaho School for the Deaf & Blind and was wearing a hearing aid when he was shot. http://www.spokesmanreview.com/news-story.asp?date=092903&ID=s1417811

May 4, 2004 — Spokane Police officers investigating the assault on Iraq War protesters David Brookbank and Al Mangan told Brookbank, “You should have known something like this would happen.” The case was closed before the assigned SPD Detective Crystal Jolley interviewed the two primary witnesses of the assault. Subsequently, in a letter to U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell, the Seattle office of the FBI wrote that “Mr. Brookbank was assaulted after he assaulted the passing driver”. (see Spokesman Review article, May 6, 2004)

August 30, 2004 — Thirty-four year old Spirit Creager was tasered multiple times by a Spokane County Sheriff’s deputy. Creager had been stopped for driving with a suspended license and a non-working taillight. Deputy Chad Ruff claimed Creager resisted arrest. ( movementforchange.org/article )

November 2005 — The Washington State Patrol twice recorded a Spokane Police lieutenant doing over 100 mph on Interstate 90 in an unmarked department patrol car, both going to and returning from a training event in western Washington. To keep the State Patrol from stopping him, the Spokane Police lieutenant turned on his siren as the State Patrol approached. Rather than being charged and/or fired, the lieutenant–who had been in charge of Spokane Police traffic officers–was demoted to the rank of detective.

January 29, 2006 — A delusional Spokane County inmate, Benites Sichiro, died after being repeatedly tasered, beaten, and “donkey kicked” by jail staff. Sichiro was tied to a restraint chair prior to being taken to hospital where he died of internal injuries, including a lacerated liver. Three weeks later, jailer John Elam — who administered the donkey kick– was hired as a Spokane Police officer. Sichiro’s death was ruled a homicide by the Spokane County Coroner’s Office. On July 12, 2007, a civil rights lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court against Spokane County, the Spokane County Sheriff, and 12 jail personnel.

March 18, 2006 — Seven Spokane Police officers participated in killing a mentally disabled janitor, Otto Zehm. His death has been listed as a homicide — heart failure due to suffocation while being restrained. Zehm was tasered, beaten, hog-tied, and suffocated by seven Spokane Police officers with the assistance of paramedic personnel. http://www.spokesmanreview.com/sections/zehm/

Otto Zehm (Spokesman-Review photo)

May 24, 2006 — In April 2007, Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker termed as an “excusable homicide” the death at the hands of Spokane Police Officers of Roger D. Hanks, a truck driver from Texas. http://www.spokesmanreview.com/local/story.asp?ID=183069

August 29, 2006 – Spokane Police officer Jonathon Smith resigned as a result of allegedly purchasing and consuming marijuana cookies at a concert by the band Tool at the Gorge Amphitheater in Central Washington.

November 2006 — Spokane Police Officer David Freitag was fired after housing level 3 sex offender Thomas R. Herman in the basement of his house. Freitag was also storing 10 weapons for Herman who as a convicted felon is prohibited from owning firearms. Herman was subsequently sentenced to 10 years in prison for his role in an international child pornography network.

February 26, 2007 — Spokane Police officer James “Jay” Olsen shot Navaho Indian Shonto K. Pete in the head from behind. Olsen was been charged with first-degree assault and reckless endangerment. Olsen is on unpaid leave. At the time of the shooting Olsen was off-duty and had been drinking in a Spokane bar. He was legally drunk at the time he chased Pete down and shot him from behind. http://www.badcopnews.com/category/washington/

March 24, 2007 — Spokane Police Sgt. Daniel Torok shot and killed 33-year-old Jerome Alford, an African-American, during a confrontation near downtown Spokane. The killing of Alford by the Spokane Police is being investigated by the Spokane Sheriff’s Office and is pending a decision at the Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office. http://s-r.com/tools/story_pf.asp?ID=182954

March 30, 2007 — Spokane Police Special Investigations Officer Jay Mehring was arrested while on duty and laid off for felony harassment and domestic violence for allegedly threatening to kill his wife. http://behindthebluewall.blogspot.com/2007/05/wa-detective-mehrings-terroristic.html http://www.kxly.com/news/?sect_rank=1&section_id=559&story_id=9758

May 12, 2007 — After 12 days in a coma, thirty-seven year old Trent Yohe died May 12, 2007. His death was ruled a homicide by Dr. John Howard of Spokane County medical examiner’s office. Yohe was tasered and then bound hand and foot by Spokane County Sheriff’s deputies on May 1, 2007. His death came after 12 days in a comma. No one has been charged. (Per standard procedure in Spokane County, the Spokane Police are investigating the the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office in this case. Typically, when a Spokane Police officer kills a citizen, the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office handles the investigation. Spokane County Sheriff’s Deputies also provide police coverage for the City of Spokane Valley. )

Trent Yohe, age 37, on life support equipment the day before he died

June 27, 2007 — Two Spokane citizens were arrested for acts of civil disobedience, one brutally, during the visit of U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to Spokane. According to Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, the meeting involved the sharing of “top secret sensitive information” with Spokane Police, FBI, ATF, and other law enforcement agencies. The meeting allegedly dealt with what some want to characterize as a “serious gang problem in Spokane”. TV coverage shows officers choking, tripping and manhandling 59-year-old Dan Treecraft. The other protester arrested was Rebecca Lamb, a middle aged woman in a wheel chair.




July 4, 2007 — Independence Day was marred by a “near police riot” in Riverfront Park. Seventeen young Spokanites were arrested in a coordinated action by a Spokane Police Tactical Unit. The police were acting to protect the private property rights of Clear Channel, Inc. which had ‘purchased’ the public park –home of Expo ‘74– for the day.

July 9, 2007 — Some one hundred fifty demonstrators of all ages and backgrounds gather to protest Spokane’s rampant police brutality and misconduct scandal. After denouncing the lack of independent oversight, impunity, and civil liberties abuses, the protesters took to the street and peacefully marched to City Hall. At City Hall, several dozen protesters waited through a 4 hour long City Council meeting to be able to make one minute presentations about Spokane Police abuses.

July 27, 2007 — Following investigation by the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, the Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker determined that the shooting of an African-American man, Jerome Alford, in a Spokane alley on March 24, 2007 by Officer Daniel Torok was a “justifiable homicide”. Torok was also involved in the beating, tasering, hog-tying and suffocation of Otto Zehm in March 2006. Both Alford and Zehm suffered from disabling conditions.

July 27, 2007 — After a botched attempt by the Spokane Police Department to taser him into submission, a suicidal man jumped to his death from Spokane’s Monroe Street Bridge mid-afternoon yesterday. Josh Levy, a 28-year old mentally ill man whose father had recently brought him to Spokane after his discharge from a western Washington mental institution, was lured from the bridge by police promises and then attacked with a taser. When one taser prod did not penetrate his flesh, Levy leapt to his death. According to Levy’s father, Spokane Police had promised him they would not use violence against his son.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

(This post is under-construction…your comments, criticisms, and contributions are welcome at spokanepoliceabuses@gmail.com . Several police killings of citizens in the last couple years have yet to be added. Also missing is the Police/Fire Department evidence destruction incident.)

Posted in History of SPD Abuses | 1 Comment »

Guidance on How to Cook the Police Oversight Process

Posted by Arroyoribera on August 3, 2007

[If one were looking for someone to right a document on how to placate the citizens of a community and manipulate the development of a police oversight process, I would suggest that the Spokane Police Department in conjunction with the City of Spokane’s Police Advisory Committee and the Citizens Advisory Commission could produce a better document than the one following here. Certainly the Spokane Police Department is a law enforcement agency ripe and long overdue for independent civilian oversight.

Nevertheless, the organization theoretically tasked with doing so — Rev. Lonnie Mitchell’s Citizens Advisory Commission — failed even to meet during years of police abuses and crisis. And the Police Advisory Committee, composed as it is of police apologists and former FBI agents, is as committed to not rocking the boat as any community organization the police could ever design.]

The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin August, 2000

Getting Along with Citizen Oversight: Citizen involvement in investigating complaints against police

by Peter Finn

Two Rochester, New York, police officers arrested two young males allegedly for dealing drugs. One youth’s mother claimed that the young men were innocently walking along the street when the officers approached them. She further alleged that one officer grabbed her son and threw him through a store window. Some community members became enraged at what they perceived as police brutality. When the city’s citizen review board heard the case, however, it learned that the two males had drugs in their possession at the time of the arrest. Also, the store owner reported that the officers had remained polite and professional during the encounter and that the woman’s son had pushed the officer into the store window. The review board discovered the truth, exonerated the officers, and calmed the community members. [1]

While this example illustrates how citizen oversight helped defuse a potentially volatile situation, the relationship between law enforcement and citizen oversight often has proved strained, at best, or even adversarial, in some cases. However, the 1990s showed a considerable increase in citizen oversight of police in the United States. In light of this expansion, police administrators and citizen oversight members must consider how they can work together with a minimum of conflict and a maximum of collaboration. [2]


Communities rarely create identical oversight systems. However, most of these review processes fall into four main types.

1) Citizens investigate allegations of police misconduct and recommend a finding to the head of the agency.

2) Officers investigate allegations and develop findings. Then, citizens review and recommend that the head of the agency approve or reject the findings.

3) Complainants may appeal findings established by the agency to citizens who review them and make recommendations to the head of the agency.

4) An auditor investigates the process the agency uses to accept and investigate complaints and reports to the agency and the community the thoroughness and fairness of the process.

While some oversight procedures represent “pure” samples of these models, many exist as hybrids that merge features from two or more different varieties of citizen review into their own unique systems. For example, the Minneapolis, Minnesota, civilian police review operates in two stages. First, paid, professional investigators and an executive director examine most citizen complaints to determine whether there is probable cause to believe that police misconduct occurred. Then, volunteer board members conduct closed-door hearings to decide whether they should support the allegations in probable cause cases. However, in Orange County, Florida, nine volunteer citizen review board members hold hearings, open to the public and the media, on all cases involving the alleged use of excessive force and abuse of power after the sheriffs department has investigated them. A member of the department helps coordinate the review board’s activities. By comparison, 13 citizen advisors, appointed by the city council and neig hborhood coalitions in Portland, Oregon, hear appeals from citizens dissatisfied with police investigations of their complaints, review all closed cases involving allegations of the use of excessive force, and conduct random audits of internal affairs investigations. The city council also meets as an audit committee to hear appeals from citizens dissatisfied with the department’s investigation of their complaints. A professional examiner coordinates the work of the city council committee and the citizen advisors and conducts many of the audits. Although different in structure and content, these three oversight systems all function in similar ways by providing policy and training recommendations to their respective law enforcement agencies.


In many jurisdictions, law enforcement agencies have fought the initiation of citizen oversight. After communities have implemented such systems, agencies frequently have found them troublesome. Basically, most agencies have opposed citizen oversight because they feel that oversight procedures represent outside interference, oversight staff lack experience with and understanding of police work, and oversight processes are unfair.

Outside Interference

Most police administrators believe that their agencies should have the final say in matters of discipline, policies and procedures, and training. Because police administrators are in charge of their agencies, they are held accountable for their officers’ behavior. Accordingly, without final say over matters that directly affect their officers, administrators feel that this accountability becomes undermined. Therefore, most jurisdictions have used a variety of approaches in addressing concerns about outside involvement in police affairs. In many communities, local governments have established oversight bodies that solely advise; they can make only nonbinding recommendations to law enforcement agencies. Also, some review bodies can appeal the agency’s rejection of their recommendations to elected or appointed officials who can require the department to act. However, because these officials have this authority regardless of whether an oversight body exists, the oversight procedure itself does not further dimini sh the authority of agency administrators.

Even when citizen oversight systems have some authority over the police, they generally exercise it cautiously. For example, oversight bodies in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Flint, Michigan, have never used their subpoena power to compel officers to testify. Moreover, most oversight staff members agree that citizens should not have the power to discipline officers. They realize that giving citizens that authority could violate state laws, city charters, or collective bargaining agreements with police unions. Also, such authority would detract from holding the agency’s administrator accountable for ensuring proper standards of professional conduct.

Lack of Understanding

Because they lack experience as law enforcement officers, oversight members may have difficulty fairly determining whether officers have engaged in misconduct. Citizens generally are not familiar with pertinent case law governing officer behavior nor do they understand the nature of police discretion, the methods employed to train officers, or the totality of the circumstances of an incident that can influence officer behavior. Officers frequently observe that state medical boards, composed only of physicians, investigate doctors for malpractice, and only attorneys investigate lawyers for misconduct. Similarly, some police argue that only law enforcement officers have the knowledge to investigate and judge other sworn personnel.

However, many law enforcement administrators have worked with citizen review members to address these concerns and find ways of improving their relationships. For example, some agencies train oversight staff and volunteers. In Rochester, New York, candidates for the review board attend a condensed version of a police academy run by the police department. The 48-hour course involves 3 hours per evening for 2 weeks and 2 all-day Saturday sessions. The members use a shoot/don’t shoot simulator, practice handcuffing, and learn about department policies and procedures, including the use-of-force continuum. Other oversight systems require a department supervisor to attend hearings or be on call to answer questions about department policies and operations. Also, review systems that investigate citizen complaints often hire investigators with pertinent law enforcement expertise. Finally, many agencies have found that outsiders can sometimes do a more objective job than insiders in assessing the performance of member s of their own profession. Juries illustrate a frequent use of representatives of many different professions and life experiences to resolve allegations of police misconduct, physician and attorney malpractice, and other profession-specific cases in civil and criminal trials. [3]

Unfair Process

While many law enforcement administrators and officers feel that the oversight process is unfair because outside reviewers are unfamiliar with police work, they have other objections to citizen oversight. For example, unjust criticism and lengthy delays represent two concerns that many officers have about the oversight process.

Unjust Criticism

Many officers complain that oversight staff members hold them accountable for minor infractions, such as placing the wrong offense code on a citation or failing to record the end mileage on a vehicle transport. Also, some administrators feel that complainants take advantage of the complaint process to benefit a planned or ongoing civil suit against an officer or the community.

Through educating civilian review members about police work and informing officers of the benefits that review members can provide, administrators can reduce some of these concerns. In one case, when a citizen, whose complaint a review board did not sustain, filed a civil suit, the city attorney had the oversight investigator testify. This investigator’s testimony helped have the suit dismissed.

Lengthy Delays

Delays harm the credibility of the oversight process and cause officers considerable stress as they wait for their cases to be decided. [4] To reduce these delays, agencies first should avoid contributing to them by establishing their own time lines for each stage of the review process. Next, agencies should work with oversight bodies and local government officials to establish deadlines. For example, in Rochester, New York, the city council requires oversight members to review cases within 2 weeks after the police department has completed its investigation. To speed up the hearing process in Berkeley, California, the review board decided to allow the director to recommend that the board summarily dismiss cases without merit.


Faced with concerns about the oversight process, law enforcement administrators have discovered that they can take steps that may short-circuit future tension and lead to a successful relationship with oversight members. First, administrators can initiate citizen oversight systems. For example, the chief of the St. Paul, Minnesota, Police Department decided to implement an oversight system to gain citizens’ perspectives on the behavior of the department’s officers. The seven-member commission meets monthly to review cases investigated and decided by the department. The members, including two police officers, make their own findings and, in sustained cases, recommend discipline to the chief who makes the final decision.

In addition, when local officials begin talking about setting up a citizen oversight system, administrators can become involved in the planning process. This allows administrators to try to ensure that the oversight system has realistic and precisely specified objectives. Without well-defined objectives, an oversight system can cause the involved parties to have different expectations for how the process should operate and what it should accomplish. For example, specific objectives could–

* reassure the public that the agency appropriately disciplines officers who engage in misconduct;

* provide the public with a “window” on how the agency investigates allegations of officer misconduct;

* defuse hostility expressed by residents or specific groups of citizens;

* reduce the number of police shootings; and

* establish mechanisms through which citizens can make recommendations for improving police policies, procedures, and training.

Finally, law enforcement administrators should demonstrate their willingness to work cooperatively with oversight members. Police supervisors and oversight staff should meet regularly to discuss any specific misconceptions or conflicts and to share information. For example, when the Tucson, Arizona, citizen oversight board found some of the police department’s statistics difficult to understand, the chief and the board’s chair met with the department’s statistical personnel, who then developed a clearer presentation method.


Despite serious reservations about citizen oversight, many law enforcement administrators have identified several ways that such systems can benefit police agencies. These include bettering an agency’s image with the community, enhancing an agency’s ability to police itself, and, most important, improving an agency’s policies and procedures.

Police Image

The example at the beginning of this article illustrates how citizen oversight can improve a department’s relationship and image with the community it serves. Particularly among skeptical citizens, the oversight process can help establish and maintain an agency’s reputation for fairness and firmness in addressing allegations of police misconduct. Citizen oversight also can promote the goals of community policing by enhancing communication between police and citizens and obtaining the public’s views about law enforcement activities.

Internal Investigations

Oversight systems can improve the quality of a department’s internal investigations of alleged officer misconduct. [5] Some agencies report that officers perform more thorough investigations of such cases because they know that the oversight body–and, through it, the general public–will be examining how accurate and unbiased their reports are.

While no empirical evidence may show that oversight systems deter police misconduct, [6] citizen review may help in three ways to improve officer actions. First, by recommending additional training for errant officers, oversight bodies can encourage officers to learn how to avoid the behavior that led to citizen complaints. Next, oversight systems may discourage some officers from engaging in misconduct by reducing their chances for promotion. Finally, when law enforcement agencies adopt policy and procedure changes recommended by oversight bodies, officers gain a better understanding of how they should perform their duties.

Policies and Procedures

Many law enforcement administrators and oversight staff feel that providing suggestions for agency policy and procedure changes represents the greatest benefit of oversight systems. Policy recommendations, including suggestions for training improvements, can influence entire departments not just individual officers’ behavior.

While some police administrators believe that outsiders do not have the necessary understanding of police practices to make useful policy recommendations, others disagree. For example, some managers feel that this lack of expertise allows oversight members to ask questions that encourage officers to reevaluate long-standing practices and approach situations from a different perspective.

Citizen oversight bodies can provide two general types of recommendations for changing police operations. First, they can recommend changes in the way the department conducts its internal investigation into alleged misconduct. For example, because of investigative inconsistencies in Portland, Oregon, the oversight committee recommended that the police department’s internal affairs unit handle all use-of-force complaints rather than sending them to the precincts for investigation. The department agreed.

More often, oversight bodies offer recommendations intended to improve department policies governing officer behavior. For example, in the wake of riots in a local park that drew over 30 complaints from citizens alleging officer misconduct, the Berkeley, California, city council directed oversight members to prepare recommendations about crowd control at large demonstrations. As a result, the city’s oversight commission recommended 12 specific changes, including obtaining and using better-amplified sound devices to address crowds and monitoring the audibility of dispersal orders; providing clearer instructions about the location of the unlawful assembly site, the route that persons can use to leave the area, and the amount of time given to comply with the dispersal order; and training specific officers to serve as crowd liaisons at demonstrations. The department subsequently implemented all 12 of the oversight commission’s recommendations.

By comparison, oversight systems may recommend changes to policies and procedures that prove more favorable to officers. For example, the internal affairs unit of the Orange County, Florida, Sheriffs Office recommended firing a deputy for violating the agency’s pepper spray policy–excessive use of force. However, the citizen review board determined that the deputy, a recent hire from another department where deputies had carried ammonia capsules, had used the pepper spray only as a substitute to wake an unconscious suspect. The board concluded that the sheriffs office had a poor pepper spray policy because it required automatic termination for misuse regardless of mitigating circumstances. As a result, the department rewrote its policy so that misuse of pepper spray would not require automatic termination and suspended, but did not terminate, the deputy.


Law enforcement administrators often find citizen oversight a burdensome, even contentious, procedure. In many jurisdictions, perpetual conflict has reigned between agencies and oversight members. In fact, some tension between the two may prove inevitable if the oversight system is functioning conscientiously. However, constant friction does not have to exist.

Ultimately, a good, or at least tolerable, working relationship depends on the personalities and commitment to fairness displayed by the oversight director and the law enforcement administrator. Both of these individuals must communicate openly and with a willingness to listen to the other’s point of view. Indeed, if both sides make a sincere and sustained effort to work together, citizen oversight can help law enforcement administrators perform their jobs more effectively and with increased public support.

Mr. Finn is a senior research associate for a private firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and serves as a special officer with the Belmont, Massachusetts, Police Department.


(1.) Andrew Thomas, executive director of the Rochester Center for Dispute Settlement, which operates the city’s citizen review board, interview by author 1999.

(2.) The author based this article on information he collected as part of a report prepared for the U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice, Contract OJP-94-C-007.

(3.) Maxy Dunlap, director of the San Francisco, California, Office of Citizen Complaints, interview by author, 1999.

(4.) Jerry Sanders, former chief of the San Diego, California, Police Department, interview by author, 1999.

(5.) Charles Moose, former chief of the Portland, Oregon, Police Bureau, and Captain Melvin Sears of the Orange County, Florida, Sheriff’s Office and administrative coordinator of the Orange County Citizen Review Board, interview by author, 1999.

(6.) The oversight process may lack certain qualities thought necessary to deter misconduct: certainty, severity, and swiftness of punishment. Michele Sviridoff and Jerome E. McElroy, Processing Complaints Against Police: The [New York City] Civilian Complaint Review Board (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 1998), 35.

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