Madison officials and activists aiming for greater oversight of police have found a model to strive for in Denver.
Denver’s Office of the Independent Monitor has enjoyed support from that city’s public as well as positive reviews from criminal justice experts — even if there’s little evidence such monitors help reduce police shootings and use of force at a time when both are under the microscope nationally and in Madison.
The Madison City Council this month accepted recommendations from a citizens committee that more than four years ago was charged with doing a “thorough review of the Madison Police Department’s policies, procedures, culture and training.”
The Madison police Policy and Procedure Review Ad Hoc Committee sees the creation of the Independent Monitor and associated Civilian Oversight Board as the “linchpin” of its work, according to committee co-chairman Keith Findley.
And “probably the closest analogy or comparison” to that effort, he said, is Denver’s independent monitor, which reports to a seven-member Citizen Oversight Board and was created in 2005.
Findley said Madison’s proposal is not intended to replace the systems now in place for taking complaints about police misconduct, investigating police shootings and use of force, or disciplining police officers, and Madison’s monitor would not have the power to force policy changes or make personnel decisions.
Rather, “it is an attempt to bring greater community input into those processes,” he said.
Under the proposal, a full-time monitor would be hired to, among other things, check the department’s compliance with its own policies, produce reports on trends in complaints and other police matters, and monitor internal affairs investigations.
Tasks for the Civilian Oversight Board would include overseeing the work of the monitor, conducting an annual review of the police chief’s job performance, and making policy recommendations.
No decisions have been made about what the two related entities would cost taxpayers, although Findley said they would initially likely mean the addition of one full-time staff position and redirecting existing staff or hiring more to help with administration.
Sam Walker, who studies civilian oversight of police at the University of Nebraska-Omaha and who spoke to the ad hoc committee in 2017, called the Madison proposal “very good” and lauded efforts to base it on the Denver system.
For such bodies to be effective, he said, a “full-time, paid staff is essential.”
However, he said officials should rethink having the monitor conduct its own investigations of alleged police misconduct, calling it “duplicative.”
He also said the plan to allow the monitor to appoint legal counsel for those making complaints before the city’s Police and Fire Commission could have “pretty significant cost implications.”
While local police-reform advocates have sometimes called for more direct community control of police, Findley said the groups his committee heard from have been positive about its proposal.
“These measures have the real potential to advance a partnership in transparency and accountability between the public and the police, which is so important,” Amelia Royko Maurer, a local activist and leader with the reform-minded Community Response Team, said in a statement.
“From what I’ve read, the chief seems to agree with this, which is a good thing,” she said.
Police and city attorney Mike May have both expressed their openness to instituting a Madison monitor’s office, but declined to comment on the current proposal, which the mayor’s office suggested could change.
“This type of office can be designed in a number of ways so I think that comment is premature until we work out the details,” said Mary Bottari, chief of staff to Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway.
Prompted by shootings
Pressure from local activists to study Madison police practices and make changes to its policy followed a series of fatal police shootings, including that of an unarmed, but intoxicated and combative black 19-year-old Tony Robinson on March 6, 2015.
In none of the seven shootings from 2012 to 2016 were police found to have violated the law or police policy, but a jury in 2017 did find the city violated the civil rights of one of the victims, Ashley DiPiazza, and awarded the family $7 million. The city’s insurer also settled, without the city admitting any guilt, with the families of Robinson and 2012 victim Paul Heenan, for a total of $5.65 million.
After the City Council created the ad hoc committee, the council commissioned a $372,000, 258-page consultant’s report, released in December 2017, that found the police department is “far from ‘a Department in crisis’” and said its use of force was “limited in volume and primarily minor in nature.” But the consultant also made 146 recommendations for improvement, including the creation of the independent monitor and civilian oversight group.
If created and funded as part of the 2020 city budget, those entities would join two other city committees that have a role in overseeing police — the Public Safety Review Committee and the Police and Fire Commission.
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Under city ordinance, the Public Safety Review Committee is already assigned some of the functions that would be assigned to the monitor and the oversight board — including acting as a liaison to the community on policing issues, reviewing police budgets and report data, and making policy recommendations.
Ald. Barbara Harrington-McKinney, 1st District, a member of the committee, has said it could fill, through an “intentional restructuring,” the role of the monitor’s civilian oversight board.
“I believe this body of citizens could be well-trained, effective and with the right staffing could produce the desired outcomes outlined within the recommendations,” she said.
The Police and Fire Commission is required under state law and is made up of five citizens appointed by the mayor, with the consent of the council. While it doesn’t conduct investigations, it does serve as a quasi-judicial body hearing complaints against police and meting out discipline.
Madison Professional Police Officers Association president Kelly Powers said it’s important for police officers to be accountable to the public but pointed to the commission’s existence as a main reason the union has “some reservations” about an independent monitor.
“The recently approved proposal for an independent monitor and governing committee to oversee the MPD will establish another bureaucratic layer to do what can already be accomplished through either the (City) Council or the PFC,” Powers said.
Findley called the PFC an “interesting and important community oversight mechanism” but one that’s “really quite limited,” noting that it doesn’t make policy recommendations.
There is no comparable body to the PFC in Denver that involves citizens in making binding, police-related personnel decisions. Those decisions fall to the Department of Public Safety, led by a civilian director who oversees Denver’s city and county law enforcement and fire department personnel.
Wisconsin in 2014 also enacted a law requiring outside investigations of deaths caused by police.
A growing trend
The National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, or NACOLE, estimated in 2016 that there were at least 144 civilian oversight systems in the United States, and Denver Independent Monitor Nicholas Mitchell estimated there could be more than 200 now.
Their structures vary widely and both Findley and Luis Yudice, the ad hoc committee’s only former police officer, acknowledge that most of them haven’t met expectations.
Some are good, but there are “many others that have not delivered on what communities believed these bodies would be able to do or achieve,” Yudice said.
In its proposal, the ad hoc committee said it tried to incorporate aspects that have been shown to make civilian oversight effective — including independence and adequate jurisdiction and funding. But there’s little evidence to show, for example, that cities with independent oversight see a reduction in the use of force or police shootings, or even what would constitute success for an oversight agency.
“There is currently no consensus on how to measure organizational performance in the field of civilian oversight,” NACOLE said in a 2016 report.
Mitchell points to successful ordinance amendments to increase the Denver monitor’s power as evidence that elected officials and residents support the office’s mission. Residents in 2016 also overwhelmingly voted to include the office in the city’s charter.
Roshan Bliss, co-founder and co-chairman of the Denver police-reform group Denver Justice Project, said residents view the Denver monitor’s office as a “good thing” but that it could be made stronger by, among other things, having the ability to retain its own legal counsel and greater oversight of operations at the county jail.
Mitchell pointed to an April Denver Post analysis that found that over a five-year period, suburbs around Denver that did not have a civilian oversight agency saw an increase in police shootings, while in Denver they remained flat or declined — even as the city continued to grow and violent crime increased. It also quoted Walker, the University of Nebraska-Omaha professor, as saying some of that difference could be due to Denver having robust civilian oversight.
Still, annual reports from the office show no discernible trend in the number of police shootings since the office was created. They dipped to as low as three in 2009 but were back up to 12 in 2016 — tied with 2006 for the most.
Walker told the Wisconsin State Journal that there’s an “astonishing lack of research” on the question of how civilian oversight might affect the incidence of police shootings and other use of force, but “those are very complicated, difficult issues.”
Katina Banks, chairwoman of Denver’s Citizen Oversight Board, acknowledged that data to track police use of force has been hard to come by in Denver, but that in response to community and the citizen board’s requests, Denver’s police chief has agreed to start providing it.
“Every time an office like this is created, it’s a great opportunity to innovate and move the ball forward on police accountability,” Bliss said.