The Star-News - July 19, 2002

CRBs? Now the voters can decide

Who polices the police? Of all municipalities in California with more than 100 sworn officers, only 14 percent have citizens' review boards to oversee police procedure. National City, with only 86 sworn police officers covering an eight-square-mile area, stands poised to share that distinction.

Its council shrewdly delegated the whole question of police oversight to an independent task force. The rhetoric has been shrill, and bitter accusations have flown freely. Who needs to get embroiled in an issue like this when there's an election coming up in November? National City is a city in transition.

Last Tuesday, after hearing the final report, the council went so far as to fully endorse, not only findings of the task force, but the points made against it by all the critics who showed up at the council meeting. The whole shopping list is on the table including subpoena powers for the Citizen's Review Board and more Spanish-speaking officers in the Police Department.

It now remains to put together the actual words for the ballot that will let voters finally decide whether they want a citizens' review board or not.

Although the ballot will only be an advisory measure, there is a strong likelihood the council will go ahead and implement it. Once the people have spoken, a new and blameless City Council can go ahead and implement the measure.

But National City is not a charter city, and there remains the question of whether it's even legal to set up a citizens' board to review police procedures. There are some things a general law city cannot delegate, and authority over the police department may be one of them. Presumably City Attorney George Eiser will be settling that question while he drafts the ballot proposition.

The first beneficiary of citizens' review will be the police department with an enhanced relationship with the public. What else will have changed? Probably not the number of disciplinary cases sustained against National City police officers. It is generally understood that CRBs sustain the same percentage of cases that internal investigations do roughly 10 percent. And CRBs tend to be more lenient than police departments when dispensing discipline.

A board of nine volunteers has been proposed, four of which must be National City residents (as if sufficient candidates can't be found within the eight square miles), but the likelihood is that at least one paid staff member will be needed to hold the thing together.

Cities such as Minneapolis furnish their CRB with paid civilian investigators but National City's budget may not stretch so far. Another funding priority may be the provision of inhouse courses for police officers to learn a second language.

When the dust settles on the whole CRB question in National City one of the police department's perennial problems will remain that of retaining senior officers on patrol when there are so many departments nearby offering more attractive opportunities with weekends off, a take-home car and other benefits. But at least National City residents will know how to file a complaint.