Officers and Gentlemen

County set to establish a citizens' law enforcement review board



The County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday took another listing step toward the formation of a Citizens' Law Enforcement Liaison Committee (CLELC), with three of the five supes working to fine-tune language outlining the group's makeup and responsibilities while the other two joined several skeptical members of the public in calling the proposed committee pointless and redundant. Advocates for the citizens' group, meanwhile, said it will help improve strained relations between law enforcement and the general public.

The CLELC, which was recommended by the county's Human Rights Commission following four Eureka Police Department-involved deaths in a period of less than a year and a half, would, as the name suggests, serve as a go-between for the public and the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office. City police departments would be invited to participate should they so choose. In the formation proposed Tuesday, the group would consist of seven volunteer members, including one chosen by each of the five supervisors and the others appointed by the Sheriff's Office, with members serving four-year staggered terms. Their authority would be limited to little more than an advisory role since the independent investigative functions of the Sheriff's Office are protected by state law.

Supervisor Cliff Clendenen theorized that 90 percent of the group's charge will be informing the public about law enforcement policies and procedures. Humboldt County Human Rights Commission Chair Neal Sanders said the remaining 10 percent of the committee's responsibilities would be to advise the Sheriff's Office of public feedback and, in cases of particular public or committee concern, employ an independent auditor to review law enforcement actions. It's that latter 10 percent -- the auditor position in particular -- that roused confusion and concern at Tuesday's meeting.

"Law enforcement agencies are responsible for acting within the law," said David Elsebusch of McKinleyville. "They don't need anyone else to be their apologist." He and other speakers pointed out that the Grand Jury and District Attorney's office already have authority to investigate allegations of police misconduct. On the other end of the police-sympathy spectrum, perennial anti-authoritarian and house-free advocate Tad Robinson said the committee would be "just another level of scapegoatism."

"Police abuse is a systemic problem," he said. "This does nothing ... It's pointless."

Reached by phone after Tuesday's meeting, Sheriff Gary Philp said that since his is an elected position, he's held accountable by the voters. "They're pretty much the judge and jury of how well I do," he said. He questioned the need for a new committee and the wisdom of spending money when the budget is so tight. Previous estimates by County Counsel put the annual cost of an auditor at roughly $65,000, to be financed through the county's general fund. Despite these reservations, Philp asserted his commitment to transparency (within the bounds of the law, of course) and said that if the CLELC is formed, his office will certainly work with it.

Human Rights Commissioners did not return phone calls by press time, but Commission Chair Neal Sanders said at Tuesday's meeting that the committee would serve an important function by diffusing the anger and confusion that sometimes follows an arrest or allegations of police brutality. "This whole process started off because of incidents that occurred when there were no forums to discuss these things," he said.

The controversial police-involved deaths of local residents Cheri Lyn Moore, Christopher Burgess, Jonni Honda and Zachary Cruz Cooke -- all involving the Eureka Police Department -- continue to fuel anger and animosity at anti-police community protests. Arcata resident Shaye Harty stepped to the podium and said the existing complaint processes can be intimidating and something needs to change. "I don't know if this [committee] is the best avenue, but it's an avenue," she said. "I'm for it."

Citizen review of law enforcement has become increasingly common in recent years, with more than three-quarters of all major U.S. cities having established some form of citizen review committee, according to the International Association of Chiefs of Police. In reviewing the proposal, county staff met with independent auditors in Santa Cruz and Davis. As suggested during Tuesday's supervisors' meeting, their greatest function has proved to be public relations. In a 2003 report for Police Chief Magazine, California Highway Patrol Deputy Commissioner Joe Farrow discussed the pros and cons of such committees, saying that "Even though research indicates that citizen review systems do not seem to deter law enforcement misconduct more than internal systems, citizen review systems are almost universally considered to have greater legitimacy in the communities they serve."

Supervisor Jill Duffy opposed the formation of the CLELC, citing cost concerns and the existence of established mechanisms for review. Board Chair Jimmy Smith expressed his appreciation for the work of the Human Rights Commission but said the CLELC program "isn't quite ready." But with support from Supervisors Bonnie Neely, Clif Clendenen and Mark Lovelace, the proposal gained the support it needed to move toward a final resolution. All indications point to ultimate approval along the same lines.

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