Compounding this problem is the basic weakness in the Ombudsman Model. On page 11 of the agenda item, city staff wrote: “Another downside to the contract police ombudsman function is that it is not structured to allow for much public outreach to the community.”
There are two separate but related problems that this raises. The first problem, dovetails from yesterday’s discussion and that is the lack of general communication between the police department and certain members of this community.
We can trace the foundation of this problem back to the initial response of former chief Jim Hyde to allegations coming from the Human Relations Commission. The HRC has in the past often worked very closely with the police department. Under previous chiefs and in the early part of Hyde’s tenure, the police and the HRC worked closely on hate crimes. There were liaisons and other contact between the police and the HRC. When the allegations began last summer, Hyde immediately cut off contact. His liaisons no longer attended meetings. He stopped meeting with the chair and other members. And as we’ve seen, he did more than that, he actually according to public records documents, waged a public relations campaign against the HRC.
The problem of communications goes beyond the conflict between the police and the HRC. The Chief would seek out only forums where the people attending would be supportive rather than critical of himself and the department. In much the same way that we see President Bush seek out only very supportive audiences for his speeches and announcements, the Chief operated in much the same way. The organizer of the May 23rd March Against Racial Profiling tried to get police representatives at an
Now the Ombudsman is going to be in a position to oversee the operations of the police department and yet there is no channel of communication set up in the current system to go from the members of the public who are aggrieved with the current process to the Ombudsman. To make matters worse, the HRC is now disbanded. They will likely reformulate the committee, but is it going to be a place where the public can air their concerns as it has in the past? The City Council has generally been unresponsive to public concern. The police department does not have a replacement chief. And the Ombudsman is part-time and will not be involved in any form of community outreach.
If there is one single area that could be fixed tomorrow and make a huge difference, it is in this respect.
The second problem, relates from the first. And that is the notion of transparency. There is a lot of talk about the word “transparency,” but what does it mean? As used in this situation, it implies openness, communication, and accountability. It is a metaphor from the sciences meaning a transparent object is one that can be seen through (source: Wikipedia). The article goes on to say: “Transparency cannot exist as a purely one-way communication though. If the media and the public knows everything which happens in all authorities and county administrations there will be a lot of questions, protests and suggestions coming from media and the public. People who are interested in a certain issue will try to influence the decisions. Transparency creates an everyday participation in the political processes by media and the public."
And that is the key. “Transparency cannot exist as a purely one-way communication…” The system set up at the moment is exactly that—one-way communication. There is a professional hired to oversee the operations of the police. The investigation process is a closed one. We are given the results of the investigation. The officer has a chance to have a hearing before an administrative law judge. The complainant gets no such luxury. The complainant’s only recourse is to sue the city if they do not like the process. The complainant has to under most conditions bare that cost themselves; whereas the officer is given a chance to appeal, funded by the taxpayers, and in most cases defended by taxpayer expense even in a civil trial.
There is no transparency in this system. We do not have any sort of public investigation of the facts or the findings. There is no part of this system open to public scrutiny. And they’ve even managed to create a system that closes down the lines of communication. So there is no public discourse.
Lack of communication leads to public distrust. Someone wrote me, that a person who files a complaint, has that complaint thoroughly and sincerely investigated, has the complaint found to be unfounded, will often still believe in the veracity of their charges. There is no way around that dilemma per se. However, compare two situations. One in which all investigations are conducted largely in secret and the rulings handed down with no public scrutiny. In the second situation, there is a public meeting discussing the allegations and charges. An investigation is conducted. They then present findings of the investigation (much as you would present an academic paper) in public, where the public can ask questions about the process and the findings. Which situation is the public more likely to have confidence in the overall findings—the secret one or the public one?
Everyone who opposes this forum of civilian oversight believes that those who support public oversight are against the police. I think this system would, if conducted properly, would benefit the police. The current system hides the process and the person who feels wronged is not going to be convinced that the police did their job when they are handed a letter explaining it to them. That leads to an inherent distrust of the police and the system. They are left to either expend vast amounts of money on a lawsuit (which will cost the taxpayers a lot of money as well) or they are left to accept it, often with a degree of bitterness. On the other hand, if you go through a formal process that is open and lose, but if you think the process was fair, you may not like losing, but you’ll at least accept it and have faith in the system. I think that strengthens the hands of the police and fosters rather than erodes public trust. I know a lot of people see this as an attack on the police, but it is really an attack on an ineffective system of oversight and unfortunately, the new system seems to be as lacking in this capacity as the old system.
Tomorrow, I shall discuss alternatives to the existing model in the final installment of this series.
---Doug Paul Davis reporting