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Oversight, stalled

Citizen Review Board hasn't been assembled, despite police stats that show it's needed

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Although it's been more than two months since Atlanta's City Council created an independent board with subpoena power to investigate allegations of police misconduct, the councilman who spearheads the board says the city has yet to name members to the board, and that Mayor Shirley Franklin did not include funds for the board in her 2008 budget proposal.

Councilman H. Lamar Willis, the lead sponsor of the ordinance to assemble the Citizen Review Board, says it's up to Franklin's administration to push the ordinance forward, and he's frustrated by the lack of progress. "We can essentially pass all the legislation we want, but if they don't choose to implement it, you still have a problem," Willis says.

According to the ordinance, the 11-member board – which will be appointed by city officials, neighborhood planning units, and business and legal groups – is supposed to be confirmed within 90 days after the law was passed.

More than 60 days have passed since Franklin signed the legislation and no appointments have been made. "I thought it would take 30 or 45 days to appoint members," Willis says. "I put 90 in there just to be safe."

However, Joe Morris – the city's deputy chief of staff – says progress has been made. He says the mayor's office is working to identify funds for the board, and that they have narrowed down their nomination to sit on it. "Here's the problem," Morris says. "The council formed the board, the mayor signed the legislation, but there has been some back and forth about who actually has ownership."

The lack of headway on the Citizen Review Board is especially troubling to Willis in light of recent news surrounding the department. U.S. Attorney David Nahmias has said his office is probing "just how wide the culture of misconduct extends" in the Atlanta Police Department. And last week, a woman who alleged that an Atlanta police officer raped her told the media she reported the incident to the department's internal affairs division. She said she was told they couldn't do much because it was her word against the officer's.

"The administration continues to defend or deflect these types of issues instead of addressing them," Willis says. "A review board could do something about these allegations."

According to police records obtained by WSB-TV, the Atlanta Police Department's Office of Professional Standards has sided with officers 97 percent of the time in its investigations of excessive-force or maltreatment complaints over the past four years. Only about 3 percent of the complaints have been sustained, while the national average hovers between 12 and 15 percent.

In 2003, Pennington said the rates were "inappropriately low" in an interview with WSB-TV's Dale Cardwell. "Police cultures always seem to protect their own," Pennington told Cardwell. "We have a tendency to give the edge to the officer as opposed to giving it to the witness or the citizens."

But the numbers haven't improved since then – they've actually dropped. The latest numbers in 2006, through the end of November, show only three out of 109 complaints were sustained. Those numbers equate to a 2.75 percent rate in 2006. Pennington wouldn't grant Cardwell a follow-up interview last December.

The chief didn't respond to CL's request for an interview.

The civilian review board is intended to put police complaints before an independent body to remove any possibility of police "protecting their own."

Willis said the board, which was unanimously approved by the council, is especially needed in today's climate. "Without a review board the only place people can report brutality or corruption is to the police department itself," Willis says. "It creates a very difficult environment to have police policing themselves."

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