As Atlantic City leaders finally move on filling a civilian board to review police complaints, how it will work is still a question.
"We need to move on (the board) in the correct way," City Councilman Steve Moore said during a news conference in which the local chapter of the National Action Network called for immediate implementation of the board, which was first passed in 2012.
Accusations of excessive force went national late last year, after a lawsuit made public a video allegedly showing a suspect being beaten and attacked by a police dog.
Such boards are good for helping strained police-community relations, said Brian Buchner, president of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, or NACOLE.
"Civilian oversight has proven to be a bridge builder between the public and the police by helping to foster the public's trust and notion of police legitimacy," Buchner said.
But how that bridge will work in Atlantic City has not been determined.
City Council tabled the second reading of the revised ordinance Jan. 15, after the police union voiced concerns about some of the wording.
That stems from references to public hearings, because there could be issues with the contract and how the department handles disciplinary hearings and interviews, PBA President Paul Barbere explained.
Buchner said it's important to know the specific laws governing internal police misconduct investigations and disciplinary matters.
"It just has to be drafted properly," Barbere said of the ordinance.
"We would hope that, instead of reinventing the wheel, let's model this after something that's already been in place," he said.
The PBA has reached out to New York City, where its Civilian Complaint Review Board marked 20 years in July. Moore said the council may visit Hartford, Conn., to talk to its Civilian Police Review Board.
Currently, the board would have two tiers.
The first would have 11 members: one nominee from each of the nine council members and two from the mayor. If that board finds in favor of a hearing, that would go to the second tier, comprising City Council members. It does not specify the number of council members.
The first three nominations for the main board were made Jan. 15: Texas Avenue School Principal Rosetta Johnson, retired Philadelphia police Sgt. Michael Mander and Jacqueline Sharpe, who has served on several boards in the city.
"We're not saying the Police Department is all bad," said Councilman Sporty Randolph, who nominated Sharpe. "We just want to be able to nip things in the bud if there's a problem that can be solved."
Once brought to the second tier, witnesses may be subpoenaed, under the current ordinance.
Many civilian entities have that power through statute, Buchner said.
"Some can issue subpoenas directly, while others can issue them through their local city attorney or city council/commission," he explained.
At his swearing-in last month, police Chief Henry White said he welcomed the transparency the board would bring, confident that it would reveal the city's department is a good one.
"There's nothing we want more than to show the community that we're doing exactly what we're supposed to be doing and how difficult our job is," Barbere said. "It just needs to be set up in a way where it produces the best result."
But who would make up the board is also of concern.
"You can't have someone with preconceived notions looking to exact some type of revenge," Barbere said.
In San Diego, board members attend training classes on all aspects of law enforcement and go on ride-alongs, while officers are given training on the board's role and its relationship with the city's Police Department.
San Diego began its board after a police-involved shooting in the mid-1980s. It was to last just a year, but the success caused it to become permanent, according to the board's website. In 1988, residents voted in favor of a city charter for a board under the authority of the city manager.
Last year, residents of New Haven, Conn., voted on a similar charter for their board. Until then, the 12-year-old board was running only by mayoral executive order.
Buchner said what they have come to see is that what may be more important than a degree or a law background is knowledge and understanding of the principles and good practices of civilian oversight.
"Oversight is a bit of a niche field, which really depends on interaction and learning from agency to agency and municipality to municipality," he said. "Gaining exposure to those ideas, practices and other professionals in the field through national conferences and training opportunities, like those put on by NACOLE, can make a difference in how prepared someone is to work and be effective in oversight."
Mayor Don Guardian has said he wants to make sure the concerns over excessive force allegations against the Police Department are looked into and addressed fairly while allowing police to do their jobs and keep residents and visitors safe.
"There are a lot of other cities that have had these issues before, and I think we need to learn how they progressed," he has said. "It might be cameras; it might be policy and procedures change; it may be a better matching of experienced officers with young officers; it may be the body cams or cameras in the cars, (or) a civilian review board. All of these are issues we want to deal with, and it's tough."
Civilian oversight can help, Buchner said: "Ultimately, strong and independent oversight can be a critical link between the police and the community and make policing more effective in the process."
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