The Metropolitan Police Department would have us believe that there's something called the Civilian Complaint Review Board working on our behalf 24 hours a day.
But ask the people waiting to be helped by the board in the hundreds of complaints alleging police brutality that are backlogged, and you'll get a picture of just how impotent the board really is.
In the most recent case, D.C. police Officer Wayne Walker, 26, a two-year member of the force assigned to the 3rd District, where he worked the Adams-Morgan area, has drawn five complaints of police brutality in 14 months.
But it was only after Hispanic community leaders expressed outrage that Walker was still patrolling the streets after being named in so many cases of alleged brutality that he was ordered to assume administrative duties and made the subject of an internal investigation.
Still, police officials are investigating only the latest case, in which two men, Fernando Luna, 20, a part-time student from Silver Spring, and Linwood Bentley, 33, a teacher's aide at Ross Elementary School, alleged that Walker punched them without provocation when Luna asked the police officer to help him break up a fight.
The Civilian Complaint Review Board is handling the four other complaints against Walker. And therein lies the problem. Despite dedication and good intentions, the board just doesn't work as an effective way to handle citizen complaints against the police.
It's not that the concept of a civilian board is wrong -- who could quarrel with the noble intent of a panel that serves as a court of inquiry for police officers accused of brutality and harassment?
Nor is the problem only that the local board, which was formed in 1982, has been seriously handicapped --
short-staffed, underfunded and struggling under a load of cases that go back for years and annually finding 350 new cases.
The problem is that the board has very little power. After it investigates, it can only make a recommendation, which it forwards to Police Chief Maurice T. Turner Jr., who can then do what he likes in the case.
Furthermore, the problem with civilian review boards is not unique to the District. The assessment of scholars is that these boards don't work very well anywhere. "These boards are resisted by many police organizations although they are tolerated because they are so weak they offer no threat to police," said Dr. Gwynne Peirson, associate professor of criminal justice at Howard University. James A. Inciardi, in his 1984 book "Criminal Justice," agrees that most civilian review boards are ineffective.
My beef in the case of Walker, then, is that the police department tells us it is turning over allegations against him to the civilian review board, which means police do no investigation. Months (or years) may go by before the review board makes a decision.
Perhaps the time has come for a different approach to complaints against police officers. First of all, police should inform the public that there is another way to handle these cases: A criminal complaint can be filed. Too often, civilians are led to believe that the board is the only way to get redress. "In my 23 years as a cop," Peirson said, "we were taught to lead citizens away from making a criminal complaint against an officer."
But by filing a criminal complaint in some instances, an investigation can be completed within as little as one week's time. Then the results of the investigation could be turned over to the U.S. attorney, who would decide whether there was probable cause to file a complaint or whether to turn the case over to a grand jury.
But the greater use of criminal complaints is only one way of handling citizen complaints against the police. The Civilian Complaint Review Board needs to be expanded, sufficiently funded to meet the backlog of complaints and given teeth to function more effectively.
Some police officers won't like that. Already union officials complain that the local civilian board has become a tool for disgruntled people to get back at officers who arrest them. But that complaint lacks merit because a citizen can be criminally prosecuted for making a false complaint against a police official.
In addition, the police must come up with a better internal system of monitoring their own behavior.
Most cops are good men and women who take their duties seriously, gallantly upholding the trust the public places in them. But in the cases of those who are not, everyone -- their fellow police officers, the public, even the criminal we want removed from our midst -- will be better served if we rid ourselves of them swiftly.