Should a Montgomery County resident want to file a complaint against a police officer, she or he can turn to either a district station, or Ronald Clarkson, the man Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) appointed this year to serve as police-community liaison.
From his desk, high in the county's executive office building in Rockville, Clarkson can help an angry resident draft a complaint. He can deliver it to the police department and even inquire about an investigation--if one is launched. But Clarkson is powerless to compel the department to open a probe of one of its own.
"I'm not an appeal. I can just make sure they dotted their i's and crossed their t's," Clarkson said.
But that's not enough, say many Montgomery residents who want more: a fully-empowered independent board charged with investigating complaints against police officers. The demand made by the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union and 10 other organizations persists despite the partial results of a three-year U.S. Justice Department investigation publicized earlier this month. So far, the review of 300 citizen complaints found that Montgomery police did not use excessive force in several cases involving minorities. It did conclude that African Americans receive 21 percent of traffic tickets, although they make up fewer than 15 percent of the county's population.
NAACP leaders, who delivered the complaints to the Justice Department for review, said they've not been formally told by either county or federal officials of the findings and still believe civilian oversight is necessary.
The push in Montgomery County echoes a national trend that has seen the number of police departments with some form of civilian oversight grow from 60 to about 100 in the last five years, according to Sam Walker, professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, who is writing a book on the civilian boards. This year alone, review agencies have sprung up in Baltimore, Seattle and Boise, Idaho.
Montgomery's debate on whether civilian oversight is necessary is shaped largely by a string of recent police shootings and allegations of police brutality that have compounded many minority residents' deep-seated mistrust of police. That mistrust led the Montgomery NAACP to compile the allegations of racially-motivated police discrimination for review by the Justice Department.
A recent survey of 805 county residents commissioned by the County Council found that 43 percent of blacks believe police treat African Americans unfairly, while 41 percent of Latinos believe they are treated unfairly by officers. Seventeen percent of Asian American respondents said they, too, are treated unfairly.
Proponents of a review board also point to the county's $2 million settlement in August with the family of Junious W. Roberts, an unarmed black man who was fatally shot in the back by a Montgomery police officer in a McDonald's parking lot in April.
In September, the council received a 240-page report from its office of legislative oversight that found the department's complaint handling process was archaic, ambiguous and managed with scant accountability. The report also found many complaints that had been filed at district stations were deemed minor by station officials and never forwarded to the office of internal affairs.
"That tells us that citizen review is necessary. It's not the cure-all, but if you want a department that has the trust of the community, you've got to earn that trust. A civilian review board is the first step," said Stephen M. Block, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union.
And in October, new Police Chief Charles A. Moose disclosed that eight officers against whom charges of untruthfulness were sustained during internal affairs probes were allowed to remain on the force.
In light of the legislative oversight report, a County Council-appointed Human Resources Committee recommended that Moose be given six months to reform the complaint handling process or face possible civilian oversight. In not calling to create a review board immediately, the committee's chairman, Michael R. Spack, said such a board would be too cumbersome and costly to maintain.
The legislative oversight office, at the same time, told the council it should wait 12 to 18 months before a civilian review debate begins in earnest.
Unsatisfied, the ACLU's Block, who served on the Human Resources Committee, helped to draft a joint letter last month in which 12 organizations demanded that civilian oversight be established immediately.
The coalition proposed the creation of a five-member civilian review board fully empowered to investigate allegations of police misconduct. The board, if created, would be seated in the executive branch and would receive copies of all complaints filed with the department's internal affairs unit.
The board's investigations could run concurrently with those of internal affairs, the coalition said, and the board's administrator would have the authority to disagree with an internal affairs resolution and take the issue up with the police chief.
"We'll continue to dwell on that until it stays fruitful," said Montgomery NAACP President Linda M. Plummer. "We're going to hammer this issue until we get what we want, by monitoring these complaints and sending [them] to the Justice Department to take care of this nonsense."
Duncan has said he wants to postpone a debate on civilian oversight until the Justice Department discloses its findings and Moose has been given enough time to initiate his own reforms. Although county officials leaked partial findings earlier this month, Justice officials have not said when--or if--they will release the full findings.
"Clearly, there is a perception that certain members of our community won't be treated fairly. The chief has started addressing that. If there are concerns a year from now, let's talk about it," Duncan said.
In response, Plummer said: "I don't know where they're coming up with perception. Perception is real. Otherwise, we wouldn't be fighting so hard. If everyone would stop trying to pretend the issue [of police brutality] isn't real, and move on, we'd be okay."
Moose, who worked with a civilian review board during his six years as head of the Portland, Ore., police bureau, has said he would welcome such oversight if citizens deemed it necessary.
The police union's head, Walter E. Bader, has so far rejected calls for civilian oversight, saying such agencies "put people with a political agenda on a board, and no officer should be subjected to a political disposition.
"If you take the politics out of civilian review, there's nothing wrong with it," Bader said.
Most of the County Council's members have opposed calls for civilian review. Some, chiefly council member Isiah Leggett (D-At Large), have said they, too, will await Moose's reforms before deciding whether such oversight is necessary.
"At this point, I'm not convinced we need to go to that degree here. Certainly, it's something that's up for consideration," he said last week.
It was Leggett, the council's only black member, who last year recommended that the county hire an ombudsman to monitor complaints of racially motivated police brutality and abuse.
But the push for civilian oversight has been led largely by the NAACP, which for decades has fought for such boards. The group's Montgomery leaders say such agencies, if adequately funded, are the best means of restoring the public's faith in the department's integrity.
"Regardless of who's the police chief, you need to have a board to look into misconduct," said Leroy W. Warren Jr., chairman of the Montgomery NAACP's criminal justice committee.
In rejecting proposals for establishing independent review immediately, the Human Resources Committee recommended that Moose nominate a five-member advisory board charged with helping shape reforms to the complaint handling process over a six-month period.
Two months later, Moose said he has compiled a list of nine nominees but has yet to send the names to Duncan, who would appoint them before a council confirmation
Meanwhile, Moose began reforming the complaint handling process on his own. In October, he announced sweeping changes, centralizing the system, so that all complaints are sent directly to internal affairs. That office, equipped with two new investigators, determines if a complaint ought to be handled by district stations.
But years after departments across the state moved to computerized tracking systems, Montgomery's department still keeps most of its internal affairs files on index cards, and an official estimated as many as 100 complaints a year are purged or lost from the files.
Moose has since requested a copy of the Prince George's County Police Department's tracking program but has not said when the Montgomery department would receive it.
Still, even with Moose's efforts at reform, proponents of civilian oversight say it's the only way to restore the department's trust in the department.
The county's leaders, Block said, have not yet come to terms with the "distrust that many in the minority community have of this department, and that's a hard pill to swallow" on a community that prides itself on being a "progressive, enlightened community."