Published on September 8th, 2016 |0
Atlanta has unusual Citizen Review Board for complaints against police
Citizen Review Board, to write this piece about the function of the oversight authority.)
By Bill Bozarth
Atlanta is the only city or county in the region that has an officially sanctioned civilian oversight authority, the Atlanta Citizen Review Board (ACRB), which is empowered to receive and investigate citizen complaints against Atlanta police and corrections officers (sworn officers of APD and ADC).
Atlanta’s Citizen Review Board was reconstituted after the scandal coming out of the police shooting death of 92-year old Kathryn Johnston in late 2006.
The ACRB has subpoena power and access to all police records when it investigates a citizen complaint. The ARCB staff investigators are responsible for writing and submitting investigative reports with recommendations to the board.
Once the investigation has been completed, a civilian panel reviews the case at a monthly public meeting, and votes to either sustain the complaint or not. History has shown that in the majority of cases, the complaint is not sustained or the officer is exonerated.
In cases where the board sustains the complaint, it also renders its recommended disciplinary measure. The board does not have the authority to carry out disciplinary actions against the officer. The results of every case adjudicated by ACRB are sent to Chief Turner, who can either agree or disagree with the board’s findings.
Beyond the board’s mission of offering the citizens of Atlanta credible, fair, and independent investigations and recommendations on officer misconduct complaints, the board also works to define opportunities for department leaders to consider policy changes as a way of heading off improper officer behavior before it happens.
The organization’s aim is to lessen the possibility of urban unrest and promote public confidence in the Atlanta police and corrections departments.
The City Council passed legislation in 2016 that expanded ACRB’s authority over a broader range of complaint categories, as well as expanding the number of members of the Board.
The ACRB may now investigate complaints that fall into the following categories: abusive language, false arrest, false imprisonment, harassment, use of excessive force, serious bodily injury or death at the hands of a sworn employee of APD or ADC, discrimination or discriminatory references, abuse of authority, not taking required appropriate action, retaliation, failure to provide identification, and violation of Standard Operating Procedures.
Each of the 13 appointed board members must be a resident of Atlanta. They are appointed to three-year terms. Board members are responsible for conducting complaint hearings and reviews, making determinations, making policy recommendations to the APD/ACD and participating in community outreach.
The ACRB board appointments come from a variety of sources. Some are appointed by elected officials, but most are appointed by community-based organizations. Four ACRB seats represent Atlanta’s Neighborhood Planning Units. Bill Bozarth, who served a number of years on the NPU-B board is now in his fifth year on ACRB, representing NPUs A through F.
In addition to the appointed members of the board, ACRB is supported by a staff of city employees. That staff currently consists of an executive
director, investigations manager, project manager, two investigators, community outreach specialist, and two administrative assistants. The staff’s primary responsibility is receiving and investigating complaints, conducting community outreach and managing the day-to-day operation of the agency.
Over the past two years, the ACRB has been actively engaged in ensuring that the use of body-worn cameras by Atlanta police officers provide the intended benefits that citizens are seeking and the privacy protections that are needed.
The ACRB encouraged APD to make their pursuit of body-worn cameras transparent throughout the planning, implementation, and review stages. Including citizens in the development of policies and reviews of the program would support the goal of improving community and police relations.
By the far, the biggest challenge to the ACRB has been the lack of discipline applied when ACRB sustains a complaint. The ACRB finds itself in a peculiar situation whereby the success of the agency is determined by the actions or inaction taken by Chief George Turner when a complaint is sustained.
The ACRB feels that the chief’s failure to discipline on ACRB complaints creates the perception that the ACRB is ineffective, which in turn makes citizens question whether they should file complaints.
This may be changing. In the recent ordinance changes, the chief is now required to provide a more detailed explanation for his denial of discipline, eliminating the blanket no discipline response.
Mayor Kasim Reed spoke before ACRB at its August meeting and agreed to be more involved in monitoring sustained complaints in the future.
For more information, see http://acrbgov.org/
(Bill Bozarth is a former executive director of Common Cause in Georgia and has served several terms on the board of Neighborhood Planning Unit-B. He is a resident of Buckhead’s Garden Hills neighborhood.)