Tuesday, July 17, 2001

Police review panel wants city lawyers to butt out




By Robert Anglen
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Members of Cincinnati's civilian police oversight board say city officials are trying to control what is told to federal investigators. And they questioned Monday why lawyers for a Washington, D.C., law firm hired by the city are trying to insinuate themselves into Department of Justice interviews with the panel.

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        “To whom do these gentlemen owe their loyalty?” said Paul DeMarco, acting chairman of the Citizens Police Review Panel. “Do these gentleman represent those who impede the panel, or the panel?”

        Mr. DeMarco, who is a lawyer, and other panel members say city officials — including the city manager and police administrators — have for years blocked their efforts to conduct thorough reviews of police misconduct cases.

        They said the city has denied them resources to do a proper job, and recently learned the city has withheld hundreds of citizens' complaints about police officers.

        Now panel members say officials are attempting to set up private meetings that might violate the Ohio Open Meetings Law in an attempt to influence what is told to federal investigators.

        Lawyers working for Washington, D.C., lawyer Billy Martin refused to speak publicly about why they wanted to meet with the panel or why they wanted to sit in on a meeting Wednesday between the panel and the Department of Justice.

        But after the panel's meeting Monday night, Patrick Munroe Woodward, a lawyer with Mr. Martin's firm, said his intent is to help, not hinder.

        “We're not trying to control what panel members tell the Department of Justice,” said Mr. Woodward, who is a former federal prosecutor. “Our firm is hired to facilitate the review process with the DOJ. We're not trying to keep any information out of the public eye.”

        A flurry of e-mails from city officials in the past week asked the panel to meet privately with lawyers before Monday's meeting. And during the meeting city lawyers argued that any discussions concerning their motivations should be kept private.

        “Issues such as this are better handled confidentially, as an issue of attorney-client privilege,” said city lawyer James Johnson.

        Mr. DeMarco argued that any such closed meeting would be a violation of state law, as would the panel's proposed meeting with federal investigators on Wednesday. State law allows a public agency to meet privately with attorneys to discuss “pending or imminent” lawsuits.

        “We don't need to be lectured to,” city lawyer Mike Harmon replied. “We're not here to be confrontational.”

        The Department of Justice — which opened an investigation into the patterns and practices of the police division following the April riots — could sue the city to force reforms if it finds civil rights violations. But city officials have stressed repeatedly that they are working cooperatively with federal investigators and that they don't anticipate a federal suit.

        The panel was formed in an agreement with federal mediators after the 1997 death of Lorenzo Collins, an escaped mental patient who was shot and killed by police when he confronted officers with a brick.

        The panel is supposed to review investigations of police misconduct completed by the city's Office of Municipal Investigations and the police Internal Investigations Section.

        It also is supposed to receive a copy of all citizen complaints about police officers. But an Enquirer investigation recently revealed that hundreds of complaints were being filed every year by police officials without any outside review.

        “I think we should ask to receive — and I shudder at the thought — all of these investigation reports going back to the creation of (the panel),” said panel member Paula Jackson.

        Panel members were primed to question police officials about these complaints, but no officers showed up at Monday's meeting. Instead, they said Col. Richard Janke will be asked to respond when the panel next meets Aug. 6.

        They will also ask him to deliver 855 citizen complaints filed between 1997 and 2000 and the investigative summary for each case.

        The complaints — of minor police misconduct — are handled through a mediation process in which citizens meet with the police officer and the officer's supervisor.

        In 90 percent of the cases, the officer was exonerated without any review outside of the police station.

        Newly appointed OMI Director Glenda Smith-Johnston told the panel Monday there are several problems with the process.

        “It is a very good concept, because citizens get a chance to interact (with police),” she said. “But aspects of that are intimidating to citizens and need to be reviewed.”

        She said chief among those aspects is the need for an outside mediator to sit in meetings.

        “We do need to teach the police division how to effectively police themselves,” she said.

        County Commissioner and former City Councilman Todd Portune sent a letter to the panel Monday saying it has every right to review the files.

        “I am concerned that the council adopted policies on this topic (that) have not been implemented, or have been, for reasons unclear, ignored,” said Mr. Portune, who was on council when the review panel was constructed.

        He said the council wanted panel members to review all citizen complaints and that police officials wanted to limit that oversight when the panel was created.

        If that has been ignored by police officials, Mr. Portune said, it “would represent direct and institutional insubordination.”

       



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