The City Council’s Human Services Committee Tuesday discussed improving oversight of complaints about Evanston police conduct by getting citizens involved earlier in the review process and making sure that all complaints are publicly tracked.
Currently a panel of citizen volunteers reviews reports prepared by police staff who investigate complaints, but only after the internal review is completed.
Judith Treadway of the Evanston NAACP said, “We want that citizen review at the front end, not after everything’s decided.”
But she said she doesn’t believe local residents want to move toward the system in place in Berkeley, Calif., and some other cities, where a citizen panel has an independent investigative staff and subpoena power to demand testimony.
“We’re not trying to challenge your authority to impose sanctions on officers,” Ms. Treadway told Police Chief Richard Eddington, “We’re only trying to make the process more open up front.”
The chief raised concerns about the cost of an independent review panel, noting a National Institute of Justice study that claims Berkeley, Calif., spent over $277,000 annually on its police review commission a decade ago.
He also said that state law and union contracts give him the ultimate responsibility to discipline officers for any rules violations.
Civil Service Commissioner William Smith also called for involving citizens earlier in the complaint review process and suggested that they should have access to tapes of interviews of officers conducted by the department’s Office of Professional Standards.
Alderman Steve Bernstein, 4th Ward, said he was encouraged to hear that the residents don’t want the citizen review board to have the power to sanction police officers, that in the past he’d understood that was part of the demands.
Alderman Elizabeth Tisdahl, 7th Ward, said she is concerned that residents often believe they’ve filed a formal complaint about an officer’s conduct but the department treats it as an informal complaint.
Chief Eddington said informal complaints are handled internally by the department’s command staff and no reports about them are presented to the citizen review board or the council’s Human Services Committee.
Bennett Johnson, publisher of the Evanston Sentinel, said, “Every complaint should be a matter of record, even if somebody’s nuts. We really need to know what’s going on.”
The chief said that when citizens fill out the formal complaint form, “on grey paper with blue highlights,” the department always treats the matter as a formal complaint.
But he added that verbal complaints reported in person or over the phone, or complaints sent by letter or e-mail are generally handled informally, although “if someone sends an e-mail about a serous matter we would escalate it to a formal complaint on our own.”
The chief said one step he plans to take to address that concern is to always specify in his initial response to the citizen whether the matter is being handled as a formal or informal complaint.
Then, he added, “if they say, ‘Wait a sec, that’s not what I meant,’ we can circle back.”
Ald. Bernstein said, “I think we should get the citizens involved as early as we can. Complaints, verbal or written, should have different weights, but should be recorded in some way.”