Police accountability

11/17/2017, 8:44 p.m.

We applaud the latest efforts by a coalition of justice groups to push for creation of a police citizen review panel in Richmond.

We have called for the establishment of such panels in this space in the past. We believe law enforcement agencies not solely in Richmond but throughout the metro area should establish independent citizen review panels to help ensure transparency and accountability from those who are sworn to protect and serve us.

We are surprised and puzzled by Richmond Police Chief Alfred Durham’s negative reaction when asked at a community forum Tuesday night if he supports Richmond having such a panel. His succinct rejection without further elaboration or explanation seems uncharacteristic of the way he publicly handles his police business.

We want Chief Durham to understand that the creation of an independent citizen board to review and address citizens’ complaints about police misconduct is neither an indictment of him or the 700-plus officers in the Richmond Police Department.

Instead, it is another way for law enforcement to build community trust, which is critically important during a time nationally of growing public concern about racial profiling, excessive use of force, unfair and disparate police practices and, yes, corruption.

To say that Richmond doesn’t need a citizen review board for the police because fewer than 40 complaints have been received this year is to say that Richmond doesn’t need a rape or sexual assault hotline because only a few such incidents have been reported. The lack of reporting doesn’t mean that problems are non-existent.

When people feel they have a safe and impartial agency or organization with trained people ready to handle their complaints, they may feel more empowered to come forward.

Richmond, Chesterfield, Henrico and the surrounding jurisdictions all need independent, impartial citizen boards to address any police complaints, problems and administrative failures. We believe it is foolish to think the police can impartially police themselves. 

We also have heard the expression, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” To apply it in this situation would be unenlightened.

Richmond doesn’t need to wait until we have an explosive situation like Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., or Freddie Gray in Baltimore, or Tamir Rice in Cleveland, or Sandra Bland in Texas, to set up an independent panel.

As early as 1997, about 100 citizen review boards were empaneled in communities across the United States. Each is different, with some only having the power to make recommendations to the police chief and others granted full investigative and subpoena powers. 

While we don’t have the latest numbers, officials say the number of panels has grown in the last decade. So has support for such panels from civil rights and justice groups such as the national NAACP and Black Lives Matter.

We know that citizen review panels are not a cure-all. But in a city with leaders — including a police chief — espousing the need for more transparency, accountability and bridge-building with the community, establishing an independent citizen review panel to address complaints about the police would be an important step in the right direction.