Special Reports

Civilian oversight of police: Would it help Tacoma?

In Boise, a series of police-involved shootings raised public ire.

In Portland, the mayor asked for changes after a downtown riot where citizens claimed law enforcement was heavy-handed.

In Seattle, there were allegations that a homicide detective had taken money from a crime scene.

In each city, public and political concern about police conduct led to the creation of a civilian-driven police oversight system. The three systems are drastically different, but they have at least one element in common: Civilians review how the police handle investigations of their own officers.

In Tacoma, there's no such oversight. No civilians are involved in the handling of complaints against officers. Although the entire police department recently was audited, no independent auditor performs regular checks and analyses of how such complaints are handled.

In light of the David Brame scandal, members of the Crystal Clear Committee are learning about the Boise, Portland and Seattle civilian oversight systems at a meeting today.

"Chief (Don) Ramsdell wants us to have the best policy and most unbiased policy for victims and for officers," said Tacoma police Lt. Tom Strickland, a member of the Crystal Clear Committee. "We're going to look at everything."

Tacoma Police Chief David Brame shot and killed his wife, Crystal, and himself on April 26. After the shootings, a past rape allegation against Brame became public, as did Crystal Brame's allegations that her husband had systematically threatened and abused her.

Whether oversight systems like the ones in Portland, Seattle and Boise would have made a difference for Crystal Brame is impossible to tell. But they're worth investigating, Strickland said.

The Crystal Clear Committee is a group of community members and local politicians researching changes the city, the police department and the community can make in the wake of the Brame shootings. Strickland said Ramsdell ultimately will set any new department policy, but that the research and ideas generated by the Crystal Clear Committee have been invaluable.

The oversight systems in the three cities studied are different. Boise has a true ombudsman, who recently released a scathing report about the city's chief of police. Portland has an independent police oversight department in the elected auditor's office. Seattle has a civilian head of the police Internal Affairs department, plus an independent auditor and civilian review board.

In interviews with representatives from all three oversight departments this week, several points became clear:

•Oversight departments should be created with the intention of being fair not only to people who complain about police, but also to the officers themselves. Only an unbiased system can be truly effective.

•Civilian oversight boards, on their own, are not as powerful or knowledgeable as a professional staff. Seattle's auditor is Kate Pflaumer, a former U.S. attorney, and the department head is a lawyer experienced with employee misconduct law. Portland's director is a former Los Angeles County prosecutor who led a famous police scandal investigation.

•Oversight agencies were initially created to check how the police did things, but a key role for any such group now is making policy recommendations. Portland may take that mission the most seriously, with a full-time analyst crunching police data to search for trends.

For example, Portland's Independent Police Review Division soon will release reports on officer-involved shootings and on creating an early warning system for tracking potentially problematic officers. Seattle's Office of Professional Accountability has released reports on racial profiling and the use of lethal force. A key part of each report is recommendations for changing the way things are done in the department.

Boise's system is the most streamlined: Ombudsman Pierce Murphy's small office checks every closed Internal Affairs case file each week, and fields complaints and compliments about the police from the public. Murphy, whose office is in City Hall, has been the ombudsman for five years.

Murphy can interview employees, read police reports, and listen to tape recordings of police interactions. He rules each case unfounded, exonerated, sustained or not sustained. Not sustained means it's impossible to tell whether the officer involved behaved wrongly or not. In addition, some cases are withdrawn, he said. Officers' superiors decide how to handle discipline, if necessary.

His recent report on a trip Boise Police Chief Don Pierce took to New York contained several "sustained" findings accusing the chief of wrongdoing. The chief has contested almost every finding in the report. It's up to the City Council to decide what to do with the report - but members will hear from their constituents, because the most of the ombudsman's report was made public.

In Portland, the police department had a civilian review board for decades, but board members were dissatisfied with their lack of power, said Lauri Stewart, community relations coordinator for the city's Independent Police Review Division.

After the 2000 May Day riots, the Portland mayor created a panel to research new options for police oversight that would make both police and the public happy. In the new system, the Independent Police Review Division - part of the city auditor's office - handles all complaints about the police, doing a preliminary investigation of allegations and dismissing those that seem irrelevant.

"It's approaching 20 percent of all the people who complain about the police have obvious mental health issues," Stewart said. Those people complain, for example, that officers have planted bad dreams in their heads. Or drug dealers call to complain that officers are harassing them out of business, she said. Others don't understand that police sometimes have the right to do searches without a warrant.

While dealing with complaints is a large part of the job, the Portland office would prefer to be "preventive rather than punitive," she said. So a full-time analyst and other researchers are working to investigate how police misconduct happens and how it can be prevented, whether with better hiring and training practices or other means, she said.

Like Portland, Seattle's system grew in part out of dissatisfaction with a purely civilian review board. Attorney Sam Pailca - a graduate of Bethel High School - heads the department's Office of Professional Accountability, which operates as an Internal Affairs division.

Police sergeants take complaints against police officers and investigate them. Unlike a traditional Internal Affairs unit, Pailca reviews all cases. She also makes reports and recommendations to the chief, the City Council and the mayor.

And the department's work is reviewed by Pflaumer, the auditor, and by a civilian review board.

"There's no sure panacea for the ongoing issue of police accountability," Pailca said, "but I think there are steady steps that have proven success in holding officers accountable and improving public trust."

Lisa Kremer: 253-597-8658


Boise, Portland, Seattle rely on civilian oversight of police

While many police departments have civilian oversight systems, they can be drastically different. Tacoma's Crystal Clear Committee will learn about these three systems in a meeting today.


A civilian ombudsman reviews decisions made by the police department and its Internal Affairs unit.

Complaints: Are handled by the police department's Internal Affairs unit. The ombudsman reviews closed case files every week.

Policies: Can make policy recommendations

Staff: Three

Budget: $253,629

Size of police department: 265 sworn officers

Annual complaints: 233 in 2002


A department in the city auditor's office oversees all internal police investigations and looks for trends in policing. Focus is on recommending policy changes.

Complaints: Are taken by the independent agency, but any with substance are forwarded to Internal Affairs. Work also is overseen by a civilian oversight board.

Policies: Makes recommendations for system changes; staff includes a full-time analyst.

Staff: Seven

Budget: About $500,000

Size of police department: 960 officers

Annual complaints: 500 in 2002, but usually about 700


A civilian heads the Office of Professional Accountability, which once was Internal Affairs. Police-run internal investigations are overseen by the civilian director, an independent auditor and a three-member civilian review board.

Complaints: Are received and investigated by police investigators.

Policies: Issues reports and policy recommendations to the police chief, which usually are adopted.

Staff: Three in OPA director's office, one civilian auditor, three in civilian review board, plus entire OPA investigative staff

Budget: Civilians: $360,400. OPA investigative staff: $1,073,000.

Size of police department: 1,240 sworn officers

Annual complaints: About 900