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OpEd: The Case for a Civilian Review Board


OpEd: The Case for a Civilian Review Board

By Will Shonbrun

Since 2000 there have been 56 individuals who have died in police-involved incidents in Sonoma County, including the fatal shooting by police of 13-year-old Andy Lopez. According to a published Project Censored report, nationally there have been in excess of 600 deaths annually in the last 15 years involving law enforcement agencies. Estimates of fatal police shootings range from 400 to 600 annually, but there are no official records kept by the FBI or any government agency, hence the variation in total figures.

Last year in Great Britain, in total, British police officers actually fired their weapons three times. The number of people fatally shot was zero.

We need a civilian review board in Sonoma County. Civilian review boards have been around for decades and have been used in cities throughout the U.S. when there have been circumstances involving law enforcement agencies that warrant independent investigation. There was a U.S. Civil Rights Commission that investigated police killings in Sonoma County since 1998 and one of their findings was a need for the establishment of such a board.

A county civilian review board is only one step needed in addressing the critical problem of police shootings. Recently a police officer shot and killed a 12-year-old in Cleveland who was playing with a toy gun in a park. A video of the incident showed that the cop shot the boy, Tamir Rice, within two seconds of arriving on the scene. Police have other means of subduing suspects, armed or not, but to shoot first before apprising the danger in the situation is a recipe for disaster. The recent spate of police killings coupled with the history of fatal police shootings in the nation show there is a dire need for additional training for the use of lethal force.

The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, as overseen by the Board of Supervisors, needs to take a new approach to “community policing” — one in which the community feels respected and protected by law enforcement, not harassed and threatened. I join the ACLU in calling for a countywide Civilian Review Board. It’s time for a thorough reassessment of the use of deadly force by law enforcement agencies across Sonoma County, focusing on policies, training of officers and evaluation of their conduct. While officer safety is important, the emphasis should be on protecting the public.

11 principles of a Civilian Review Board

The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California has outlined a case for a county Civilian Review Board and listed 11 principles for its effective establishment. 

1. Independence: The power to conduct hearings, subpoena witnesses who testify under oath and report findings and recommendations to the public.

2. Investigative power: The authority to independently investigate incidents and issue findings on complaints.

3. Mandatory police cooperation: Complete access to police witnesses and documents through legal mandate or subpoena power.

4. Adequate funding: Should not be a lower budget priority than police internal affairs.

5. Hearings: Essential for solving credibility questions and enhancing public confidence in process.

6. Reflect community diversity: Board & staff should be broadly representative of the community it serves.

7. Policy recommendations: Citizen oversight can spot problem policies and provide a forum for developing reform.

8. Statistical analysis: Public statistical reports can detail trends in allegations, and early warning systems can identify officers who are subjects of unusually numerous complaints.

9. Separate offices: Should be housed away from police headquarters to maintain independence and credibility with public.

10. Disciplinary role: Board findings should be considered in determining appropriate disciplinary action.

11. Adequate training and expertise: To ensure that Board members are knowledgeable about proper police practices, conduct meaningful investigations and can make informed recommendations

This article first appeared in the Sonoma Valley Sun.