Without subpoena and investigative power, Cincinnati's Citizens Police Review Panel (CPRP) remains relegated to shuffling papers nearly two years after its first meeting to review a fatal police shooting.
At issue for the seven-member panel is power. They don't have much of it, and some city leaders along with Cincinnati Police seem satisfied to keep it that way.
Made up of citizens, CPRP now reviews for thoroughness and accuracy investigation reports from police internal affairs and the Office of Municipal Investigations (OMI).
CPRP can call witnesses and question findings from other investigations. But its directives are not binding and might not even be taken into consideration by police or the city manager.
"Right now we've got a toothless tiger and we think it's designed that way," says Victoria Straughn, chairwoman of the Coalition of Concerned Citizens for Justice, a nine-member group in favor of giving CPRP subpoena power.
Straughn calls the panel an "appeasement to the community in the state that it's in." She says the panel will never be empowered as long as it depends on the police, who police themselves, to turn over findings from internal investigations.
"During their investigations, (CPRP) is using what's already been given to them by OMI and it's already the cases that are solved," Straughn says.
Furthermore, she says giving the group power to subpoena witnesses would eliminate the fear factor.
"Sometimes witnesses won't come forward out of fear," she says. "CPRP needs that kind of power to subpoena witnesses and other evidence."
But giving CPRP that kind of power requires a charter amendment, according to Councilman Phil Heimlich.
"Under the charter, only the council can get a subpoena," Heimlich says. "You'd need a charter amendment, an amendment of the voters."
But doesn't a panel, formed after two years' of negotiations with city council and repeated incidents of perceived police misconduct, need something more to do besides review solved cases?
In paternalistic fashion, Heimlich says if the city does it for one group, it will have to do it for all of them.
"If you're asking me if City Council should pass an amendment giving this one group, out of all the others, subpoena power — then, no," he says.
It's been a long, arduous road for CPRP. Created in January 1999, the panel first met on Oct. 18 of that year. Its first case of review was the March 19, 1999, fatal police shooting of Michael Carpenter after a traffic stop by Officer Brent McCurley in Northside.
While the panel continued to delve into that case, City Manager John Shirey outraged CPRP members when he sidestepped the panel's recommendations and approved final discipline for McCurley, leaving the panel feeling outraged and ineffective.
Detractors such as Fraternal Order of Police President Keith Fangman say the police already have enough oversight. Others have said waiting for the CPRP to conclude investigations when an officer's actions are so excessive could slow the termination process.
For supporters, giving subpoena and investigative power to the panel would go a long way in establishing trust between cops and the citizenry.
But if the panel gets more bite, will the added responsibility further burden its members? They are, after all, just regular folks. Even Straughn calls them "people who could otherwise fade into the middle class." But she commends them for addressing the problems that have kept them from effectively doing their jobs.
"We're saying to the police, 'What do you all have to hide?' " she says. "If you've got nothing to hide, let's put all the cards on the table and stop jiving around. What we've been asking the elected officials is nothing new. They know where the community stands on this issue." ©