The recent officer-involved shooting in Olympia has renewed a call for an independent citizen review board to ensure more police accountability.
The concept has gained momentum in the weeks since Andre Thompson and Bryson Chaplin were shot May 21 in west Olympia after allegedly assaulting Officer Ryan Donald, who had responded to a shoplifting report. The incident has sparked multiple protests and criticism regarding the use of force by police.
Compounding the situation are the racial dynamics that mirror high-profile shootings in the United States: Thompson and Chaplin are black men who were shot by a white police officer.
The subsequent investigation of Donald has become another sticking point among those wanting more police accountability. The Thurston County Sheriff’s Office reports that the multi-jurisdictional investigation of Donald it led is finished, but a decision on criminal charges is still weeks away as they await lab results.
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However, some argue that an independent third party should handle the investigation instead of another local law enforcement agency. That sentiment is echoed by Gregory Gilbertson, a private investigator and former police officer who teaches criminal justice at Centralia College. He noted that Thurston County is a small community with law enforcement agencies that work together all the time.
“It shouldn’t be anybody from Thurston County,” he said. “If you want an objective investigation, you need to bring in somebody from outside the area.”
Gilbertson has been involved with multiple cases in several states as an expert witness in police misconduct. A perception of impartiality is critical when investigating a police shooting, he said, regardless of whether the officer’s use of force is declared justified. It’s in the police department’s best interest for the public to support the findings of any investigation.
For a citizen review board to have an impact, Gilbertson said board members would need substantial education about police standards.
“I don’t know if they really have a proactive effect on officers at all,” he said of the boards. “Quite honestly, it’s a training and leadership issue.”
An election issue
Regardless of its fate, the idea of a citizen review board will be an issue in this year’s Olympia elections. Three candidates are running in three city races under a progressive platform called Olympia For All, and one main campaign issue is the establishment of a citizen review board.
Olympia For All includes mayoral candidate Marco Rossi and city council candidates Ray Guerra and Rafael Ruiz. In urging more police accountability, the candidates also are advocating for body and dashboard cameras along with cultural competency training for the police department.
“It’s not OK that other police institutions are investigating a possible crime in our own department,” Guerra said at a June 3 candidates forum. “We need an independent third-party investigative committee.”
A handful of informal meetings on a citizen review board also have taken place among Olympia residents, including meetings hosted June 1 and June 8 at Media Island International, a nonprofit hub for political and social justice issues.
The discussions at Media Island have led to a list of desired principles for a civilian review board. The principles call for investigatory power, disciplinary power, the ability to make policy recommendations, mandatory police cooperation and more.
At this point, the board exists only as an idea. Olympia resident Terren Zander attended the Media Island meetings and also co-hosts a group called Cop Watch, which gathers at 4 p.m. Thursdays at Traditions Café. Zander, a longtime critic of the police department, said the board’s fate depends on whether the community takes action while the issue is hot.
Despite the prominent racial element that has influenced public opinion about the shootings, Zander said his support for a citizen review board originates from concerns about police brutality.
“It’s more the point of using force when it’s not necessary,” Zander told The Olympian. “The fact (the two suspects) were black adds fuel to the fire.”
Bruce Wilkinson helped lead discussions at Media Island, including the June 8 gathering at which more than a dozen people shared concerns — and vented their mistrust — about the Olympia police. Wilkinson hopes the current political climate can build pressure behind the movement and give the public a bigger voice in police matters.
“I don’t want to turn our police force into robots, and I think we live in a safe town,” he said, noting the rarity of local police shootings. “We’re creating a culture of trust between citizens and police, but that’s not a one-way street.”
Not a new idea
Olympia residents have pushed for a citizen review board and more police accountability as far back as 2000, according to The Olympian’s archives. At that time, a consultant found flaws in the Olympia Police Department’s system for internal investigations. The consultant also found that 25 percent of residents surveyed did not feel comfortable reporting complaints about police.
Instead of forming a citizen review board, which was cited as too expensive, the city eventually hired a police auditor in 2003. Rather than investigating police conduct, the police auditor’s primary duty was to “provide council with independent, professional opinion about the integrity and legitimacy of the police internal investigations process.”
The city had budgeted $22,500 a year for the auditor. However, the position was eliminated at the end of 2009 due to a lack of funding. Reports show the auditor had billed by the hour and ended up costing the city between $6,000 and $8,000 a year.
Olympia Police Chief Ronnie Roberts told The Olympian’s editorial board last week that the challenge in forming a citizen review board is determining the board’s scope of authority and expectations.
A position such as an auditor can make recommendations on training and policy, said Roberts, adding that it “is not a bad system.” Roberts had previously worked with an auditor in the Eugene (Oregon) Police Department.
It would be difficult to assemble a citizen advisory board in Olympia that is objective, open to different kinds of information, and able to reach a reasonable conclusion, he said.
“The challenge is, we all come to the table with an agenda,” Roberts said.
At the same editorial board meeting, Tumwater Police Chief John Stines and Lacey Police Chief Dusty Pierpoint said they both have heard anecdotes that citizen review boards are usually “easier” on police officers than internal review boards. Stines said citizens who are trained on the realities and legalities of the use of force will inevitably adopt a different view of a police incident than the average citizen.
Learning from existing boards
Some U.S. cities have had an oversight committee for decades, including Berkeley, California. In 1973, voters there created the independent Police Review Commission, which consists of nine volunteer residents appointed by the city council and mayor. The commission investigates complaints about police misconduct and makes policy recommendations on hiring, training, use of force and budget development, according to the city’s website. At this time, the commission is reviewing the Berkeley police response to a December “Black Lives Matter” protest, reports The Daily Californian.
In the Puget Sound region, Seattle established a Community Police Commission as part of a 2012 settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice to reform the city’s police practices, including the use of force. The CPC was established by a city ordinance and began work in March 2013 with 15 commissioners. The mayor appoints 13 commissioners, while two represent Seattle police unions.
The commission’s responsibilities include community outreach, creating progress reports, reviewing practices, recommending policy revisions and providing input on training. In one example, the Seattle Police Department adopted a bias-free policing policy that was proposed by the commission and contained data collection requirements. The Seattle Times reported that the commission and Seattle Mayor Ed Murray have butted heads in recent months over a new police-accountability package that would make the commission permanent and expand its power over police policy.
There is no one-size-fits-all blueprint for creating an oversight committee for police. For starters, a smaller city like Olympia would need to determine the committee’s level of authority and financial support, said Liana Perez, operations director for the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement.
“The most effective ones are created by thoughtful input by all stakeholders,” said Perez, a former police auditor in Tucson, Arizona. “It really comes down to what the community is really wanting.”
Perez noted that most oversight entities lack authority in criminal investigation of police but instead focus on the administrative side. For example, an officer can be cleared criminally, but administratively, the officer can still be found in violation of internal policies and face termination.
A citizen board should foster a sense of transparency that bridges the gaps between the public and police while encouraging critical conversations, Perez said.
“It’s a good thing to have these structures already in place,” she said, “when you have a high-profile incident.”