The Case for a Citizen Review Board for Policing in Erie
How would it work to hold law enforcement accountable?
I've never felt more like a witness to history than I have this summer.
The sustained anxieties of COVID-19 have added to this feeling, as have the chaotic cruelties of the Trump administration. But it's the movement for Black Lives, and the degree to which it has reshaped public attitudes and political possibilities, that makes me feel like something genuinely life-altering is happening all around us.
As concerned citizens react to the murders of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, and Ahmaud Arbery in southern Georgia, a sincere reckoning with institutional racism, police abuse, and constitutional rights finally feels possible. The Black Lives Matter protests that began in late May are still ongoing, both in Erie and across the globe. Monuments to the Confederate South are being dismantled as I write this. Authors like Ibram X. Kendi and Ta-Nehisi Coates are topping bestseller lists. And ideas that once seemed radical are attracting serious consideration in our political system.
One such idea with a long history in Erie is the demand for a citizen review board for policing. Frankly, I think we need to establish such a board in Erie. And I'm not sure there's ever been a more appropriate time to push for one.
A 17-year history
Demands for citizen review of our police have come and gone many times without execution. When looking back on these efforts, a parallel timeline of controversies surrounding police practices emerges.
Take 2003, for example. Mayor Rick Filippi was confronted with a federal civil rights lawsuit after a local man claimed that two police officers broke his nose and elbow during an unlawful arrest. The conflict also revealed complications within our city's citizen complaint process. Filippi suggested civilian oversight as a potential solution, but found no majority on City Council.
Fast forward to 2009 and a less-ambiguous crisis led to Councilwoman Rubye Jenkins-Husband calling for a citizen review board. A secret recording of police officer James Cousins II emerged, in which he drunkenly mocked an African-American murder victim in a local bar. The video, which is still visible on YouTube at press time, drew national condemnation. For example, the president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) called for the officer's arrest and demanded a Department of Justice investigation into our police force. Jenkins-Husband was able to secure a majority on City Council to establish the board, but Mayor Joe Sinnott decided not to move forward with the effort.
In 2017, Council President Sonya Arrington renewed the call for a board in the wake of accusations of police brutality toward Montrice Bolden, whose violent arrest was caught on camera outside a bar on Erie's east side. Bolden ultimately sued the six officers who arrested him, resulting in a $125,000 settlement in early 2019. Arrington later withdrew her demand after receiving assurances from police chief Dan Spizarny that body cameras would soon be implemented for our officers, an effort that is still being finalized.
In 2020, there's more momentum than ever. After the downtown protests on May 30 turned violent, a video quickly emerged of an officer kicking a peaceful, seated protester named Hannah Silbaugh in the head. The officer, who has still not been named, received three days of unpaid suspension. Then, in mid-June, Sgt. Jeff Annunziata, the city's chief traffic investigator and a 34-year veteran of the police force, sent an extremely ill-advised email to Mayor Joe Schember and several local reporters. The letter purports to offer concern for a "peaceful resolution," but instead indulges a number of racist and antisemitic stereotypes about black people who "cannot take care of their own" and a "deep state" controlled by George Soros. Annunziata was fired shortly after. Finally, on July 6, a video was made public following a court hearing of a violent confrontation behind a tavern on Erie's west side, in which Patrolman Nicholas Strauch can be seen punching a suspect seven times in the head.
In the midst of all this turmoil, four of City Council's seven members (Liz Allen, David Brennan, Michael Keys, and Kathy Schaaf) have voiced support for a review board and Mayor Schember has expressed willingness to discuss it.
The community weighs in
"I have voiced support for a citizen review board since it would provide an opportunity for open communication, transparency, and accountability," says Councilman David Brennan. "The board would help to curb overt aggression and bad behavior, and in the end, build community trust." Brennan also notes that "in the past few months, the city has launched three internal investigations to address behavior by Erie police officers which has heightened the need to move forward."
Councilwoman Kathy Schaaf sees it as a way "to build a stronger sense of community relations," while noting that the mayor and community liaison Michael Outlaw have been doing strong work to improve communication between the police and the community. "There are programs in place that are stepping stones in the right direction," according to Schaaf, but she sees a citizen review board as an important way to maintain transparency.
Local activist groups have also signaled support. Elspeth Koehle, an organizer with the activist group Erie County United (ECU), claims that "the formation of a board to investigate wrongdoing, independent of police affiliation, is the most fair, objective, and equitable way to keep all members of the community safe and accountable." Andrey Rosado, of the newly-formed protest group Erie Equal, agrees: "A lot of us don't believe that the police are capable of policing themselves, just because there's such a strong conflict of interest." Rosado, who co-founded Erie Equal less than two months ago but has already seen his group's membership exceed 3,000 people, is calling for immediate action: "We want to have a board established — not necessarily people in their seats, but a framework for it built — by the end of the fiscal year. And that's something we've proposed to the mayor himself."
Establishing the board
There are approximately 140 oversight boards in operation in the U.S., and there's tremendous diversity regarding their duties, powers, funding, and effectiveness. Even the terminology is complex — a "citizen review board" can include current members of law enforcement or government, while a "civilian review board" typically does not. In some cases, boards are established through traditional ballot measures, but more often mayors, city council members, and police chiefs appoint the boards.
Brennan and Schaaf are quick to stress that City Council is still in the early stages of discussion, but both have ideas about how a board might be established. "Board members should be residents of the city and should reflect the cultural and racial diversity of our community," according to Brennan. "In reviewing other boards, typically the mayor, city council, and the police select the members." Schaaf agrees with this selection process but also suggests including the mayor's recently-established Strengthening Police and Community Partnership Council, since the group "could help in their alignment of priorities."
ECU's Koehle stresses a need for "civilians with diverse backgrounds, including law, social work, and other relevant professions, but also folks who would usually be overlooked; civilians who are often the target of police who lack accountability." Erie Equal's Rosado makes a similar point: "If you go exclusively based off of who's qualified, it's going to be based off of college degrees — which a lot of minorities and people who live in our community do not have."
Making it work
Once a citizen review board is established, additional urgent questions emerge. How independent will it be? Will it be able to summon people to court? Will it have disciplinary power? How will its work differ from that of an internal affairs unit within the police force? What will its budget look like and where will the money come from?
To answer these questions, City Council and Mayor Schember have initiated a series of study sessions. The first, which is visible in full on the City of Erie's Facebook page, includes a half-hour discussion with Nicci Page, an attorney with the firm Melaragno, Placidi, and Parini. As a defense attorney in Erie, Page is familiar with cases alleging police abuse in our city. Perhaps more importantly, she also served as a senior prosecutor for New York City's Civilian Complaint Review Board, where she successfully prosecuted officers facing misconduct charges.
In the video, Page explains the basic layout of New York's review board. There are 13 members who serve three-year terms — five appointed by the mayor, five appointed by city council, and three appointed by the police. Most board members have expertise regarding the law, public health, or constitutional rights. The board has the power to conduct independent investigations, to demand police participation, and to prosecute officers in some circumstances. Surprisingly, Page claims that most of the cases she investigated were about misconduct and courtesy, rather than use of force.
The advice Page offers for setting up civilian oversight is quite clear. She stresses the need to ensure that data is compiled rigorously regarding police encounters — and shared openly with the review board. She recommends embedding the board into the city charter so that its work doesn't end alongside a particular administration. She says it's crucial that you have buy-in from the police department so that investigations can run smoothly. She cautions against models that don't have any authority beyond submitting reports, and stresses that independence is the most important element a board can have.
Erie County United is championing a powers-auditor/monitor model for citizen review. Koehle explains the approach by stressing the need "to promote broad organizational change by conducting systematic reviews of police policies, practices or training, and to make recommendations for improvement. We need a board with subpoena power, authority to recommend discipline, the ability to hear testimony from all parties, and enforcement power. Community input and involvement is crucial." Earlier this month, the local chapter of the NAACP made a similar call for an independent review board in a letter to the mayor outlining proposed changes to combat racism in our community.
The academic data I've read encourages me to take these recommendations seriously. For example, in a widely-cited article for the Seton Hall Law Review, Udi Ofer (deputy national political director of the American Civil Liberties Union) offers eight key features for effective civilian review, which I've paraphrased below:
A board majority should be nominated by civic organizations with "an interest in the safety of the city and in the civil rights of community members."
The board must be granted broad scope to review complaints.
Independent investigatory authority, including "the ability to subpoena witnesses and documents."
Ensure that disciplinary measures stick by limiting a police commissioner's ability to reject the board's findings.
The board's budget "should be tied to a fixed percentage of the police department's non-capital budget."
Due process protections must be granted to police officers
Residents should be able to file complaints easily and public access should be as transparent as possible.
Ofer's list is an admittedly tall order. It's unlikely that a board that mirrors his model exactly will be up-and-running in Erie any time soon. And there are important conversations to be had to ensure that the board is more than just a costly, bureaucratic public-relations exercise without the power to bring about real change.
I wouldn't say I'm optimistic about the odds of a strong review board emerging, but I'm certainly less pessimistic about the potential for social change than I've been in recent memory. Erie Equal has been leading near-daily, non-violent protests for well over a month, attracting a growing coalition of young people with the energy to bring about change. Governor Wolf has also begun executing criminal justice reforms, such as his recent executive order to create the Pennsylvania State Law Enforcement Citizen Advisory Commission, and his decision to create a mandatory, state-wide database of police misconduct. There's a desire for change in Erie, as well as a growing coalition of highly motivated citizens ready to implement it.
It's a unique and uncertain moment that we're living in. Let's hope we can capitalize on it to make our city more equitable.
Dan Schank can be reached at email@example.com