Investigating The Investigators | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Investigating The Investigators


Ward 6 Councilman says Jacksonians must be courageous enough to get their heads out of the sand and fix the city's problems.

Support is growing on Jackson City Council for establishing civilian review of the Jackson Police Department, but the form that review will take is still uncertain.

At a December meeting, the council's Planning Committee discussed the possibility of a citizen review board, long a pet agenda item of Ward 3 Councilman Kenneth Stokes. Many U.S. cities, such as New York City, Las Vegas and Memphis, have a board of civilians that audits or reviews citizen complaints against police officers.

At the Dec. 7 meeting, Jackson State University criminology professor Jimmy Bell told committee members that a more recent trend shows cities implementing a different model of civilian oversight, the creation of a police auditor. Cities like Tucson, Ariz., and Fresno, Calif., have created a salaried civilian position within the police department to audit internal affairs investigations for fairness and objectivity.

Citizen review boards, which have their roots in 1960s outcry over police brutality, can only react to alleged misconduct after the fact, Bell said.

"They've simply outserved their purpose," Bell said. "It was, at the time, to raise issues and shine a spotlight on the police so that federal government and other entities could step in and do something about it."

Instead of a review board, Bell recommended establishing an independent auditor's office, which he said could be "multi-dimensional," reviewing individual cases but also recommending policy changes and fostering communication with citizens.

"The interest in a civilian review board was driven by the obvious disconnect between the P.D. and the community," said Ward 6 Councilman Tony Yarber, who serves on the Planning Committee. "There's definitely a need to create the level of transparency that citizens need to have faith in police practices. But at the same time we want to protect the integrity of the investigations that P.D. has going on."

While Yarber and Ward 2 Councilman Chokwe Lumumba support some form of civilian review, Stokes' proposal will likely sit in committee a while longer, Yarber said, until the committee sifts through more data on the effectiveness of an independent auditor model.

This was welcome news to JPD Assistant Chief Lee Vance, who regards the civilian review board model as unnecessary and ineffective bureaucracy.

"On the surface, when you say 'civilian review board,' it appears to be a duplication of what we already have," Vance said, referring to the city's civil service commission.

The commission only reviews police cases when an officer appeals a disciplinary decision from his supervisor or the Internal Affairs Department, however. The civil service commissioners, who are appointed by the mayor, do not automatically review every civilian complaint against a police officer.

Citizens who are not satisfied with the department's complaint process can file a lawsuit, Vance said. "The remedy for that would be through the court system," Vance said. "Police officers get sued every day."

Adding another reviewing body to an already time-consuming Internal Affairs process would only hurt the department's transparency, Vance argued.

"One of the complaints I get more than anything else is people asking, 'What's taking so long for you to find out the resolution of my complaint?Ҕ Vance said. "If it did anything, (creating a review board) would probably make a greater divide between us and the public, because of the length of the time to get resolution on the complaints."

"The last thing we need to do is add another layer to what are already cumbersome, slow-moving processes," Vance added. "Neither citizens nor police want that."

Under the department's current system, supervisors handle minor complaints, like an officer's rude behavior. More serious complaints, like an officer demanding a bribe, are routed to the department's Internal Affairs Division. Depending on the severity of the complaint, a citizen may have little luck finding the disposition of his complaint through Internal Affairs.

Brent Cox, a field coordinator for the Mississippi chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that department's current investigation process is insufficient.

"To say it the most cynically, perhaps, it's the fox guarding the henhouse," Cox said. "There's no guarantee of independence and all the objectivity that would go along with that. People, for that reason, have little confidence in the Internal Affairs process."

Cox has personal knowledge of the opaque complaint system. In 2007, he tried to lawfully observe two JPD officers who were detaining a man and a woman in the parking lot of the Rainbow Whole Foods Co-Op Grocery on Old Canton Road. Cox took notes and asked for the officers' badge numbers. The officers arrested him on charges of interfering with and failing to obey a police officer. After his arrest, Cox immediately filed a complaint with JPD, but he never heard about its disposition. In 2009, a Jackson Municipal Court found Cox not guilty on all charges.

Jackson has multiple options for establishing civilian review of the police department, Cox says, adding that an ideal body would be funded separately, function independently of the department and have the power to investigate complaints concurrently with the JPD's Internal Affairs Department. A less independent model would only allow the civilian review board to audits complaints after JPD finishes its own investigation and to make non-binding recommendations for discipline.

Such a model would still be an improvement, Cox said.

"It's the least transparent, least accountable, but it would still be leagues ahead of where we are in Mississippi," he said.

Whether or not the council acts on Stokes' proposal anytime soon, Akil Bakari is done waiting. Bakari, state coordinator for the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, is helping organize a civilian review committee that will review police conduct independently of the city government, using public records and "cop watching" tactics like those that Cox before his 2007 arrest. Bakari hopes to involve the ACLU and the Ward 2 Task Force, an outgrowth of the People's Assembly started by Ward 2 Councilman Chokwe Lumumba during his campaign this year.

"We'll work with whatever's created by the city—if one is created—but our aim is to create an entity that is totally independent of the municipality," Bakari said.

Bakari argues that an independent review board could actually improve the department's relationship with citizens by rehabilitating its image.

"There is a culture with some of the officers of harassment and bullying as opposed to serving and protecting," Bakari said. "In the black community in Jackson, the police are viewed with a very suspicious eye. If the police view this as something that's hindering them, then it will. If they view this as something that will help them do their job better, then it will help them do their job better.

Previous Comments


Whether through a civilian review board or an auditor, it is clear that change is needed in how JPD handles complaints. Internal Affairs rejected every public-record request of mine that ever reached their desk, usually with a sweeping reference to the "personnel records" exemption in the sunshine laws. Obviously, police officers deserve a measure of privacy, and even exemplary officers may have complaints filed against them. They should not be penalized if the charges prove unfounded. But the situation we have today in Jackson is that it is almost impossible to ever find out anything about how a complaint is resolved. Internal Affairs is a black box. Complaints go in and disappear from public view forever. As Bakari noted, this unnecessary degree of secrecy does a disservice to the department. It creates the appearance of corruption and unaccountability. JPD should embrace proposals that would improve its relationship with the citizenry. Other cities have found ways to protect the privacy of officers while enabling citizens to provide oversight. Jackson should get serious about reform.

Brian C Johnson

I've covered these efforts in other cities. Police departments never seem to want civilian review boards -- imagine that. That means they need them. It should happen.


Also, I have to say that it's disheartening to see the response of Assistant Chief Vance. If he can't see the difference between a civil service commission and a civilian review board, he obviously does not understand how the latter would work. As Cox notes, it is hard to conceive of how the department could be less transparent, Vance's concern over delays notwithstanding. Finally, it's hard to take seriously Vance's assurance that citizens always have the right to sue. Of course they do. But lawsuits should not be lauded as some sort of triumph of transparency and accountability. They are extremely expensive proceedings that usually take years to move through the courts. They certainly do not provide a practical means for citizens to monitor the conduct of police officers.

Brian C Johnson

I like the idea of a salaried independent auditor accountable to an independent civilian review board made up of volunteer appointees, functioning parallel to JPD under a board/executive director model. The auditor should not be a JPD employee; that defeats the purpose of having an auditor in the first place.

Tom Head

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