July 19, 2024

Last year, a woman in Albany, N.Y., filed a complaint with the civilian board responsible for investigating allegations of misconduct by the city’s police: She believed officers had not thoroughly investigated her claim that the father of her 3-year-old daughter had sexually assaulted the girl.

But when the board asked the Albany Police Department for a copy of the case file and issued subpoenas to compel the investigators to answer questions, the police refused to cooperate. Releasing investigative files, they argued, could endanger victims, according to internal emails.

Eric Hawkins, the police chief, also told the board that he would not allow officers or detectives to cooperate with any of the panel’s investigations because forcing officers to respond to subpoenas would violate the police union’s contract, according to a lawsuit the board filed against the Police Department.

The resistance to the Albany board’s demands is emblematic of the struggles such panels continue to face across the United States, decades after being created to increase police accountability.

Civilian review boards, first formed in the 1970s, were meant to provide a mechanism for ensuring that law enforcement agencies were answerable to the public they serve. The most effective panels have the power to investigate misconduct and a role in meting out discipline, according to experts.

But many police departments remain reluctant to accept outside oversight, said Edward F. Davis, a former Boston police commissioner who generally supports such boards.

“When you get down to what the police view as their own responsibilities — policing the police and asking hard questions of what happened — they’re hesitant to turn that power over to just anybody,” he said.

Police unions and conservative officers are increasingly resistant to review boards, arguing that civilians are unqualified to judge how officers do their jobs even as many boards strive to include members with law enforcement or legal backgrounds. Albany’s nine-person board includes a retired police officer, a pastor, a lawyer and a mental health specialist.

Before Minneapolis police officers killed George Floyd in May 2020, there were 200 review boards around the country, according to the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement. After the killing, 50 more were formed, said Cameron McEllhiney, the organization’s executive director.

Some have experienced a backlash since then. Last year, five years after voters in Nashville overwhelmingly approved a referendum that increased the city review board’s ability to question officers, the state’s Republican governor, Bill Lee, signed legislation abolishing panels with such powers across the state, essentially replacing them with weaker boards.

In March, Florida lawmakers passed a bill that forbids the state’s 21 review boards from investigating allegations of misconduct against officers. Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, signed the bill on April 12.

The suit filed by the Albany board argues that the Police Department is violating a law approved by city voters in 2021 that expanded the power of the panel, officially known as the Albany Community Police Review Board, to investigate misconduct allegations.

The suit, filed in state court, accuses the city, the department and Chief Hawkins of undermining the board’s ability to review cases independently, including by repeatedly ignoring “lawfully issued” subpoenas to interview officers.

The police, the board’s lawyers wrote, “have offered ever-changing justifications to shield their outright disregard of their duty to comply.”

A police spokeswoman declined to comment, citing the suit.

Stephen J. Rehfuss, a lawyer for the Albany Police Benevolent Association, filed a motion asking for the lawsuit to be dismissed, arguing that the board was requiring officers to submit to interviews even though it did not have the power to protect them from prosecution.

“Without this immunity, the officers compelled testimony could potentially be used in a subsequent criminal proceeding,” he wrote. “As a result, the officers are denied their constitutionally protected right against self-incrimination.”

Matthew Toporowski, a lawyer for the city, denied in a motion that Chief Hawkins had directed his officers to ignore the board’s subpoenas.

The board “has no factual support to the contrary,” he wrote, adding that Chief Hawkins and another police commander had spent hours answering questions from the board about cases it was investigating.

In Florida, supporters of the legislation recently signed by Mr. DeSantis said police misconduct should be investigated by other officers, not by civilians. They also said some board members had an anti-police bias. One member in Tallahassee allegedly brought a mug with an “Abolish Police” sticker to a board meeting.

“Imagine being a doctor and being evaluated on the conduct of your care by someone who has no idea what your own community standard might be,” State Representative Daniel Alvarez, a Republican, told his colleagues during debate on the bill.

But a police oversight board without investigative powers is largely ineffective, said Ajenai Clemmons, an assistant professor of public policy in the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.

“Oversight can’t be reliant on police departments to turn over the information if and when they choose,” she said. Of boards, she added: “They need subpoena powers, and they need the ability to conduct independent investigations.”

More than 70 percent of Albany voters approved the 2021 referendum that expanded the review panel’s investigative authority by empowering the board to demand case files and subpoena officers.

The board hired an outside company that recruits retired police officers to investigate misconduct accusations, and the firm began examining several cases, including the one involving the 3-year-old girl.

But the police balked at providing the case files to investigators and complying with the subpoenas, which board leaders said was a direct violation of the law.

“Voters said they wanted to see the change,” said John Levendosky, a retired police officer and board member, in an interview last fall before the suit was filed. “The administration and the department itself are saying, ‘No, we like things the way they were. And we have the money the power and the time to keep things status quo.’”

The 3-year-old’s mother filed her complaint with the board on Jan. 30, 2023, after what she said was years of trying to get the police to make an arrest.

“I didn’t know which way to turn,” the mother, Jasmine, said in an interview. She asked that she be identified only by her given name to protect her daughter’s identity. “I was desperate.”

Jasmine described in her complaint how she had found blood in her daughter’s underwear after the girl returned home from visiting her father one day in October 2019. Jasmine said her daughter had told her that her father had put an object inside her vagina, according to court documents.

Jasmine immediately took the girl to the hospital, where the child gave doctors the same account and then repeated it again to the police, according to court documents.

But one of the investigators in the case called the child’s statement “hearsay,” according to a copy of Jasmine’s review board complaint. Another investigator, Sgt. Gregory Askew, waited more than two weeks to interview the child’s father and told Jasmine she should file a separate complaint with the child welfare agency, Jasmine’s complaint said.

Jasmine filed a complaint with the child welfare agency, and a family court trial was held. On Sept. 1, 2020, the family court judge found that Jasmine’s daughter had been sexually abused.

Citing the girl’s statements, photographic evidence of her injuries and the father’s “disjointed and inconsistent testimony,” the judge ordered the father to stay away from the girl for five years.

But when Jasmine called Sergeant Askew to tell him about the court’s finding, he told her that “the temporary stay away order ‘was good enough’” and he did not reopen the case, according to her review board complaint. The police “inflicted more trauma to me and my family,” Jasmine wrote in the complaint.

The father, who has not been criminally charged, and his lawyer in family court did not respond to requests for comment.

Sergeant Askew referred a request for comment to a police spokeswoman. She declined to comment, citing the board’s suit.

The police eventually provided the panel with the child’s case files after the board authorized two subpoenas for the documents.

But the investigation hit a roadblock in February, when Sergeant Askew did not appear for a scheduled interview to testify about the case, according to an email Jasmine received from the outside firm hired by the board.

“I am so sorry that I cannot move this forward until we can get the Albany Police Department to cooperate,” Julie Schwartz, a managing director at the firm, T&M USA, wrote, adding: “It is so unfair to you.”

Both Jasmine and her daughter, who is now 8, are in therapy. Jasmine said her daughter gets frightened when she sees a man walking down the street who resembles her father.

But she said her daughter remained optimistic and affectionate.

“She’s still that person, expecting the good out of people,” Jasmine said. “I have to just let her know that it’s unfortunate, but we can’t trust everyone.”

Kirsten Noyes contributed research.

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