When they have a concern about police, citizens have a new voice with the revival of the Citizen Review Board.
“It is important that our police force knows that this community cares about the way that they interact with us. We’re watching,” said Crystal Collete, chair of the newly created board. “I hope that the citizen review board will help to increase the community’s level of trust with the police because it in turn helps spur healthy interactions between the police and the community.”
Syracuse had its first Citizen Review Board starting in 1994. But it had a long history of problems that culminated in the firing of its administrator in February of 2011. The new board grew out of legislation crafted by Democrat Pam Hunter, who served for a year as a Common Councilor-at-Large.
The review board has the smallest departmental budget in the city at a little more than $100,000. The board’s purpose is to listen to and investigate citizens’ complaints about police misconduct. Right now, it is seeking a new administrator.
The board has the support of the police chief, Frank Fowler. But the police union criticizes the board as unnecessary.
The board “trying to decide if what we did was appropriate or not is similar to them making a decision on whether a doctor did a proper procedure or not,” Jeff Piedmonte, president of the Police Benevolent Association, said. “How are they going to make that determination, if they don’t know what our job is?”
Recalling the troubles of the earlier board, former Common Councilor Hunter described the failures as slow-building. “It was like this train, you see it derailing, and for a long period of time, no one did anything,” Hunter said.
As Hunter and news accounts painted it, some of the board’s problems included:
- Board members were there past their term.
- One member still listed on the board had actually died, said Hunter.
- Many backlogged cases were not investigate.
- Investigations had no deadline.
To create the new board, an ad hoc committee led by Hunter spent eight months rewriting the old legislation. “We went through literally every single word, every single sentence of the legislation,” Hunter said. “There was not one thing we didn’t review.”
The final vote approving the new review board was unanimous, 9 to 0.
Among the changes:
- Once a complaint is filed with the board, it has 24 hours to inform Syracuse police.
- Both the board and the police department will conduct simultaneous investigations.
- Then the board has 60 days to investigate the complaint.
- After 60 days, Police Chief Fowler decides what action to take based on findings from both the police internal affairs and the board’s findings.
- The board can choose to have a hearing in front of three board members.
- The board makes a suggestion for how to handle the complaint but Fowler has the final say.
- There is no statute of limitations for any citizen complaint.
The board also has the authority to subpoena police officers, said Hunter. The subpoena requires a police officer to appear in front of the board’s panel of three in a hearing. This does not force an officer to speak, it just demands that the officer be present, said Hunter.
The police union particularly objects to the subpeona power. The citizen review board does not have sufficient training to investigate a police officer who has multiple years under his or her belt, union president Piedmonte said. “Our training is 20 weeks’ worth of training. I don’t think any of them will do 20 hours’ worth of training,” Piedmonte added.
The new board has 11 members. The Common Council appointed eight members and Mayor Stephanie Miner selected three.
The key to a successful board is the cooperation from the Syracuse police, said new board chairperson Crystal Collette. So far the police, and especially Chief Fowler, have been collaborating well with the board, Collete said.
The pressure is mounting for the Syracuse citizen review board to perform up to its new standards, said former Councilor Hunter. “All eyes are on it right now because this is at the succeed or fail juncture,” she said. “This is a unique opportunity that the citizen review board has a second chance to make a first impression.”
(Jake Reiner is a junior majoring in broadcast journalism with a minor in European history.)