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Sitting at her desk in her ninth floor office at City Hall Tower, CRB Executive Director Cristina Beamud speaks enthusiastically about the board and its work. But, being the engine behind a machine that's been spinning its wheels for years and getting nowhere has obviously exhausted her.
Policing the police is an age-old conundrum. What's to be done — and who's to do it — when the people charged with enforcing the law break it? Civilian oversight has existed as a method of keeping an eye on the cops for decades, but has always been plagued with problems. A New York Times article about civilian oversight that was published in 1992 describes the mechanism's inherent issues — and they're stunningly similar to those Atlanta grapples with two decades later, including an "inability to make their recommendations stick."
The article says, "Even if those problems are solved, [experts in criminal law and police relations] add, a review board can only point out a police department's mistakes; it cannot bring real change."
Beamud has an impressive background that combines both law enforcement and legal experience. A police officer in Rochester, N.Y., for 12 years, Beamud left the force to attend law school and spent several years as a prosecutor, then as a legal advisor to the Cambridge Police Department. Most recently, she oversaw the Eugene, Ore., Citizen Review Board. "I've been doing complaint oversight for a long time," Beaumud says. "Sometimes the complainant just isn't right. What you want to do is make intelligent and constructive recommendations."
The current board represents Atlanta's third go at civilian oversight. In 1987, Mayor Andrew Young established a 27-member board that essentially evaporated once Young was out of office. Less than a decade later, in 1996, Mayor Bill Campbell created a similar body after the police-involved shooting death of an unarmed man named Jerry Jackson. The effort was disorganized at best — no meeting minutes were kept, and members reportedly didn't know who their chairperson or other members were — and they were only permitted to review cases that had been vetted in advance by the APD's Office of Professional Standards.
When Beamud arrived in 2008 to head the newly re-established CRB, her tenure got off to a rocky start, thanks in no small part to then-APD Chief Richard Pennington. Citing state law, Pennington consistently refused to provide the board with the documents they requested, even though the ordinance that established the CRB makes clear that they're entitled to the information. And he didn't require officers to participate in the board's investigations. Most of the time, the officers would show up to their hearings with a union representative, but simply refuse to testify. Beamud says of Pennington, "He let them do whatever they wanted, and didn't discipline them."
She admits that Pennington's refusal to cooperate forced the board to make recommendations based on investigations that were basically incomplete. "There were a group of cases that were just sitting there, waiting for officers to be compelled to give us statements," she says. "Some of them we just went forward with an adverse inference against the officer, but I don't think that's a good way to go about it, to let the complainant win by default. We only had half the story."
When Pennington's reign as chief ended, he was replaced — first temporarily, then permanently — by APD veteran Turner. At first, officers continued refusing to testify, and without consequence. But the game changed in May 2010 when City Council granted the board power to subpoena officer testimony. Finally, officers were required to participate in the CRB's investigations, but problems persisted when Turner consistently failed to respond to the board's findings within the 30 days the ordinance provides for. (Turner met with the board in December and ensured he'd do his best to comply with the ordinance in the future.)
For the most part, Beamud says, Turner has already been more cooperative than his predecessor. Of course, Turner, like Pennington before him, has always rejected the board's findings when it's ruled against an officer.
"I've generally been pleased" with Chief Turner, Beamud says. "Not necessarily with the results, but with a more open attitude on civilian oversight. The results have not changed, but sometimes change like this is a process."
At least one person is happy with the way the board is currently operating. Councilman C.T. Martin, who along with Ivory Lee Young and H. Lamar Willis introduced the legislation that created the board, told CL, "It's doing what we want it to do. It gives the citizens an opportunity to have a voice and input. They don't always get what they want, but [their complaints are] investigated.
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