Predictably, a question of fairness has been raised concerning the Lima Police Department’s internal investigation that cleared two of its officers of claims they used excessive force in the arrest of a pregnant woman.
From that has come talk of forming a citizen review panel that will hear complaints and even investigate the actions of police officers.
It’s a road that has been traveled twice before in Lima, first in the early 1990s and then again in 2010. In both cases, high hopes were raised for the citizen review group, only to see it rarely called upon and eventually fade away.
The push for another group came about during last week’s City Council meeting when NAACP local chapter President Ron Fails disputed the police department’s findings.
The concerns by Fails are easy to understand. How can local police officers investigate each other when they are members of the same team? They know the risks and pressures that fellow officers face on a daily basis. By the very nature of their jobs, they need to have a close working relationship. Thus to avoid any appearance of conflict, it is best to seek an outside agency such as the Ohio Attorney General’s office to lead the investigation.
The Lima Police Department didn’t do that, even though this incident certainly warranted it.
As for the formation of another citizen review board, the details of the body will begin to be worked out during Monday’s 6 p.m. meeting of the city service safety committee.
It is important for those putting together the group to understand it cannot be a replacement for the court system. It has no legal authority to issue suspensions or other penalties.
Instead, the ultimate goal of this group should be to raise the level of trust between the community and law enforcement. Taking the time to craft by-laws will be especially important. These bylaws will need to strike a careful balance between the role of monitoring complaints and working with law enforcement for resolutions.
A process will need to be established on how someone files a complaint with the citizens review board. It should be required that complaints first be made with the police agency involved, and then if not satisfied, the person takes the matter to the citizens group.
It would be wise for the group to consult with Allen County Judge Jeffery Reed as well as Michael Hayden, who were instrumental in developing the panel in 2010. They worked for two years in putting together the concept, seeking input from many sources. At one point they brought in the leadership of a citizen review panel in Cincinnati. They also allowed local law enforcement an opportunity to air their concerns and make suggestions. Various other groups in the community were also heard.
The key for success will be to have both police and community members feel the program offers each a fair chance.