It’s time to police the police

Trust, openness and accountability are principles at the heart of any effective partnership. Yet efforts to create community-policing partnerships between the Reno Police Department and the citizens it serves have clearly failed. While the RPD “talks the talk” on community policing, the police department is far from “walking the walk” with respect to trust, openness and accountability.

Although most police officers deserve unreserved respect and gratitude from the citizens they are sworn to serve, mistrust of law enforcement in communities is increasing nationwide. It is particularly evident in communities of color disproportionately affected by police misconduct—and for good reason!

In recent years, the national spotlight has focused on law enforcement scandals. In New York City, Amadou Diallo, an unarmed black man, was killed in the vestibule of his apartment building after police shot him 41 times. On the West Coast, investigations into the corruption and perjury scandal tearing apart the Los Angeles Police Department continue to reveal patterns of arrogance and intimidation.

Here in Reno, an officer was alleged to have choked and directed racial slurs at a citizen who was handcuffed and restrained to a holding bench at the Eldorado Hotel-Casino. In spite of a surveillance recording of the incident, which includes an audible “thud” as the victim’s head was slammed against the wall, the Washoe County District Attorney’s office refused to prosecute.

Police abuse continues to be a major civil liberties problem in the United States, particularly in poor communities and communities of color. The ACLU of Nevada receives hundreds of civilian complaints of police misconduct every year, ranging from verbal abuse to inappropriate use of lethal force.

In communities across the country, citizens are working with police departments for positive change. The most promising kinds of reform are based on the concept of civilian oversight of the police. Civilian review mechanisms already exist in Las Vegas and more than 75 percent of the 50 largest U.S. cities. Even if the community already feels positive toward police services, civilian review is good government.

It is becoming more difficult for agencies to resist the growing trend toward the establishment of civilian oversight mechanisms. Police agencies that resist civilian review are saying, in effect, that if problems arise between the community policing partners, only one partner—the police partner—should be allowed to investigate, issue findings and make recommendations.

Unfortunately, RPD does little to address the wider community skepticism about its ability and willingness to police itself. The department appears overly protective of its image and reluctant to share negative information with outsiders. The institutional message is that its obligation to protect fellow officers fully trumps any broader obligation to its community.

This message inherently widens the gap between police and the community. It is time to create an effective and proactive approach to this problem. We must come together and say enough is enough!