Earlier this month, three D.C. Councilmembers—-Mendelson, Cheh, and Bowser—- introduced legislation that would significantly beef up the oversight powers of the Office of Police Complaints. The bill would expand the authority of the Police Complaints Board to monitor complaints filed with D.C. Police and Housing Authority cops. The bill would remedy the on-going problem of the D.C. cops investigating their own without much if any kind of outside oversight. The OPC was so elated with this bill, the agency wrote a press release.
This is big news. The D.C. Police have always shielded its investigations into misconduct from FOIA laws, claiming these investigations as work product. I addressed the issue years ago in a piece about four Sixth District cops with a stack of citizen complaints. This bill may finally shine some daylight on police-led investigations of excessive force.
The bill states that the board “shall have unfettered access to all information and supporting documentation of the covered law enforcement agencies…”
Seems like the bill has teeth. Expect a huge fight over the unfettered access line.
OPC Executive Director Philip Eure sees the bill as necessary. “The upshot is we are trying to update the authority of our agency to be able to provide even more effective oversight of police complaints,” he says. “We want to promote greater police accountability….We need to know how MPD deals with citizen complaints.”
Eure’s sentiments are shared by Wire-creator and former Sun Journalist David Simon. In the piece I wrote in 2000 on those Sixth District cops, then-Executive Assistant Chief Terrance Gainer agreed that these citizen complaints should be made public. Here’s what I wrote back then:
“Gainer says he believes police misconduct investigations should be open to public scrutiny, but claims that the department is bound by union contracts to keep the information private. MPD officers claim that the PD-99s, as the complaints are called, are exempt from disclosure even though they represent the citizens’ only avenue for redress for police misconduct.
‘While I respect the contractual and legal right of the officers to have those shielded [from] the press, I believe there ought to be a little more daylight shed on how we all behave,’ Gainer says. ‘Given that we are public servants, the public has a fundamental right to know what I’m doing and how I’m doing….If we’re talking about administrative matters for which I’m being disciplined, it strikes me as being in the public domain. If I had it within my power, I would share that information.'”
Police union chief Kristopher Baumann agrees in principal to more openness but would like this openness to include high-ranking officials and not just the rank and file. But he says the OPC is a failed model. “What I think we should have here is a body, a board that reviews any complaint about the police,” he says.