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Second Opinion

Council considers power boost for independent police review board.



At a recent meeting of the city's civilian law enforcement review board, a man told members that he was beaten by one of 12 officers at the scene of a crime. The man couldn't remember which officer was responsible, and none of the officers at the scene confessed during the Memphis Police Department's (MPD) internal investigation.

"It turned into a he said/she said situation," said City Council member Shea Flinn, who also serves on the independent review board.

At a council committee meeting earlier this month, Flinn told council members that the board, which offers an independent review of citizens' complaints about Memphis police officers, needs "more teeth."

"The board sees all this injustice, and they have no authority to do anything about it," said council member Barbara Swearengen Ware, who has served on the board in the past. "I'm in favor of seeing what we can do to make the board more credible. Right now, it gives false hope. We need to either fix it or disband it."

When a citizen experiences a problem with a police officer — whether it's rude treatment or police brutality — they can file a complaint with the MPD's internal affairs division. If the MPD disagrees with the complaint, the citizen can ask the civilian law enforcement review board for a second opinion.

If the board agrees with that citizen's complaint, the board asks the police department to review the case again. But whether or not that happens is up to the MPD.

"We don't have any authority to change [MPD] internal affairs decisions nor do we have the authority to recommend any discipline for the officer involved," said Ken Moody, who oversees the board as director of neighborhoods and public services.

Mayor Willie Herenton implemented the citizen review board in 1994 in response to a high number of police brutality cases. The board's 10 members are appointed by the mayor.

Currently, police are invited to attend meetings to tell their side of a story but are not required to be there. Flinn said he'd like the board to have some subpoena power to require officers to show up and testify.

"It would be helpful to talk to officers and get their side of the story," Flinn said. "You always have to be wary when you're only hearing one side of the story."

Council member Harold Collins served on the board as an at-large citizen from 1998 to 2000. He said the board most often heard complaints of officers intimidating people or treating them with disrespect. In many cases, Collins said they heard complaints about particular officers over and over.

"We do hear common names," Moody said. "But Director Godwin has told me that whether or not he agrees with the civilian law enforcement review board, he'll monitor an officer whose name has come up in a complaint."

The council has asked Moody to make a list of changes he would like to see on the board.

"It needs to be more of an independent review of police officers when complaints are filed," Collins said. "It's difficult for us as individual citizens to believe that police officers will be impartial when they're investigating police officers."

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