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State College Taking Steps Toward Creation of Community Police Oversight Board

by on July 07, 2020 3:11 PM

While State College Borough Council took no formal action on the matter Monday night, it set in motion the first steps for the creation of a community oversight board for the police department.

Council voted to postpone until next week's meeting a motion to establish an ad hoc creation committee tasked with researching and developing recommendations for the scope, authority and membership of the oversight board, which could have a range of possible functions from investigating or reviewing officer misconduct cases to serving more of a monitor/auditor role.

Unsettled on Monday was who would comprise the ad hoc creation committee. Borough staff recommended a five-member group consisting of the three State College Civil Service Commission members, one former borough council member and Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, the director of Penn State Law's Center for Immigrants' Rights Clinic.

Council members, however, said they felt five people was insufficient and more are needed to represent a broader cross-section of the community in developing recommendations for the community oversight board.

"The purpose of this group that we’re appointing appears to be to research and design a board for further council action. That seems to me like it’s not a sufficient number of people to research and design the civilian review board possibilities," Councilwoman Theresa Lafer said.

"I understand the larger the group, the more time it takes, but I also think it needs to be more diverse than these five people. That’s what concerns me because this really is important and if we get it right it will last a very long time and be extremely useful for everybody. If we get it wrong because we’re in a little bit of a hurry or we didn’t have a sufficient number of people pulling it together in the first place, then we’re going to have to live with a real problem for a long time and we’re going to make things worse instead of better."

Councilman Dan Murphy said he wanted more time to consider the ad hoc committee's composition and receive input from community members.

Councilman Peter Marshall proposed seven members and Councilman Evan Myers said he thinks it should be nine. Council President Jesse Barlow would be charged with appointing the additional committee members, taking into consideration suggestions from the rest of council.

"I’d be reluctant to make the committee much bigger because committees that are too big can’t move quickly," Barlow said.

All council members were in agreement that the ad hoc committee should be in place before the end of July and issue its final recommendations to council by Oct. 1, with at least one interim report in between. The staff proposal presented by Borough Manager Tom Fountaine said that the committee would hold at least one public meeting for community input, research other oversight boards, review past discipline practices in the borough police department, and consider initial and ongoing costs in developing its recommendations.

Police Chief John Gardner expressed support for a community oversight board during last week's council meeting.

The community oversight board is one of several police reform measures to which borough council committed in a resolution passed last month. The resolution came in response to demands from community members, including the 3/20 Coalition, the advocacy group formed following the police shooting death of Osaze Osagie last year in State College.

The idea for implementing such a board in State College dates back to the 2016 report from the Task Force on Policing and Communities of Color. That report recommended that the board would focus on "accountability standards for community policing, collaborating on educational and communication issues, reviewing related policies and procedures, providing a safe venue for anonymous complaints and reviewing incidents that ended in racial conflict," Fountaine said.

Community oversight boards, or civilian review boards as they are often called, have been around for decades but are not especially common, said Assistant Borough Manager Tom King, who was the borough's police chief for 23 years before retiring from the department in 2016.

Of about 18,000 police agencies in the United States, 166 have civilian oversight boards, King said.

Marshall added that of those, only nine communities with a population of 50,000 or fewer have civilian oversight boards.

King and Fountaine have been researching oversight boards in recent weeks — including through a webinar by the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE) and a virtual meeting with the executive director of Pittsburgh's 23-year-old Civilian Police Review Board — and presented an overview to council on Monday night.

King said the common goals review boards have are to improve public trust, ensure an accessible complaint process, promote thorough and fair investigations, increase transparency and deter police misconduct.

Boards "vary significantly" across the country in how they are organized and what kind of authority they have, King said.

They fall into three general categories: investigation-focused, review-focused and auditor/monitor.

But many are hybrid models that incorporate different characteristics of each, King said.

All receive complaints, while most review police complaint investigations and have a board of community members. But they vary in deciding how complaints are handled, and whether they perform independent fact-finding investigations and data driven policy evaluations, recommend findings on investigations and discipline, attend disciplinary hearings, hear appeals, have paid professional staff, or if their decisions are recommendations or binding.

The investigation model is the most expensive for staffing and operational costs and the review model is the least expensive, King said.

There isn't a "best practice" for review boards, King said, but rather it's about the best fit.

"Each community and police department has a culture," King said. "There are some police departments that have some very bad cultures — a lack of discipline, a lack of accountability, no internal policing of each other and holding people accountable. There’s other departments that have very strong accountability. Each community and each department has social issues, cultural issues and political issues."

He found that in starting an oversight board, communities should think about what the "least restrictive" board is to be successful in meeting the needs for their department.

"[NACOLE's] suggestion is to start with the least intrusive model and if that’s not effective you work toward a more aggressive form of oversight if necessary," King said.

Borough staff are also scheduled to meet virtually on Wednesday with representatives from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, which offers technical assistance for forming community oversight boards and police reform.

Council's resolution initially called for an oversight board to be in place by Aug. 1, but members have acknowledged some more time would be needed, something King echoed on Monday night.

"This isn’t something you do quickly," King said. "It takes time planning and collaboration to work with all stakeholders."

Geoff Rushton is managing editor for Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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