THE HEADLINE on staff writer Victoria Churchville's report yesterday -- "Police Board Concedes It's a Failure" -- didn't begin to tell the story. A Washington Post review of files and documents at the board responsible for handling complaints by citizens against D.C. police officers points up an administrative horror show; and the board itself now acknowledges that its system is a failure, that there are some 1,450 mostly unresolved cases to illustrate the disaster. There is no way that the current seven-member Civilian Complaint Review Board can operate properly as a court of inquiry in cases involving officers accused of brutality, harassment or using bad language. An overhaul of the system is planned -- and it can't come too soon.
The catatonic state of this board came to light most recently in publicity surrounding the case of Officer Wayne Walker -- a two-year member of the police force who continued to patrol the streets after at least six complaints of excessive force had been filed against him in 14 months. Officer Walker has denied the allegations and has been assigned to administrative tasks while an internal police panel is investigating a separate charge of brutality made against him last month.
This newspaper's review of board files shows that the Walker case is not an isolated example, that there is no working system to warn police officials of suspected repeat offenders. That's unfair not only to citizens who complain but also to wrongly accused officers who may have to wait years for resolutions of their cases. Since mid-1982, more than 300 police officers have been the subject of two or more complaints. Nearly two-thirds of all the complaints filed since the board's creation in June 1982 await any action at all. Such action that has been taken has been without order, with serious cases (brutality allegations, for example) and less serious cases (allegations of officers using off-color language, for example) treated in the same way.
Nobody seems pleased with all this. Police and union officials and citizens with complaints have all been troubled by this nonprocess. Proposals to improve things reportedly include adding 18 new staff members; doubling the number of investigators and hearing boards; separating serious and lesser charges for different tracks; and sending the backlog of cases to professional hearing examiners. The changes are scheduled for presentation to Mayor Barry on Tuesday. If any relief is a serious prospect, Mr. Barry's response had better be a lot faster than those of the pathetic system now in place.