Published January 08. 2011 4:00AM Updated January 08. 2011 4:48AM
The Police Community Relations Committee under its newly elected chairman, Jay Wheeler, is trying its best to improve its public image, gain more exposure and become a more effective working body.
The PCRC doesn't have a lot of teeth. Actually, it has none. Wheeler readily admits that. In fact, he would prefer to see the city create a Police Commission.
But until that concept catches on, Wheeler said, the committee will try to build a cordial bridge between the people and the department.
One of the PCRC's tasks is to ensure that the department's investigations of civilian complaints against police officers are done thoroughly and adequately. Wheeler said he would prefer to see those investigations done by an independent investigator with no ties to the city.
"I think that's important right now in our community," he said. "We need to build more trust between the public and the police department."
The committee is more than a complaint review board, though. It is intended to foster good community relations. And for that, it needs community.
The PCRC is the place to hear and be heard. Nothing would please Wheeler more than to have to move a meeting out of the senior center because of overcrowding. So far, though, he concedes that the committee's best chance of connecting with more people is to go the people.
"We've reached out to the housing authority, to meet at one of their communities. That will happen next month," he said.
He said the committee plans to hold meetings in communities throughout the city, from Winthrop Gardens on Crystal Avenue, to George Washington Carver Senior Housing at 202 Colman and possibly even to the high school.
"I want the community to come to us," he said. "It's their police department. They should come to us and tell the committee what they expect from the department."
The PCRC is shaping up to be an effective tool, if the citizens choose to use it. For one thing, there is a wealth of knowledge to be gained by listening to what police are accused of, who is doing the accusing, and learning how the department goes about trying to determine the truth.
While many people have opinions, good and bad, about individual officers, the department in general or the administration, those opinions would be better informed by attending a few meetings. The committee meets the first Tuesday of the month, usually 6:30 p.m. at the senior center.
At the committee's most recent meeting, Deputy Chief Marshall Segar reviewed six complaint investigations. He made it clear that the officers are expected to use the audio video systems in the cruisers during traffic stops, not at their whim and not intermittently. Of course that can only happen if all of the equipment is in proper working order, which surely is not always the case.
Two cases Segar reviewed demonstrated that the person making the complaint was inaccurate. One person claimed to have used a blinker. Another claimed to have stopped at the stop sign. In both cases, Segar said, video proved otherwise. (The committee does not see the video or hear the audio.)
In another case, Segar noted that an officer turned off his microphone twice to communicate with a fellow officer. Segar said such maneuvers could be cause for suspicion and erode public confidence in the process.
Police Chief Margaret Ackley has said several times in the past that she expects officers to treat people respectfully, even in the course of a peaceful arrest. Having audio and video would help assure that such is the case. The officers wouldn't be the only professionals whose performance is recorded by their employers.
(How many times have we all heard the customer service caveat that our call might be recorded for quality assurance or training purposes?)
"We certainly want to support the police," Wheeler said. "And we know they have to deal with a lot of rude, arrogant and aggressive people. But we want all of the people who live in and visit the city treated with dignity and respect."
"Our mission is to hear from the public what they feel about the police department. It's our police department. We need to shape the policy.
"If people don't speak up, then they have no one to blame but themselves."
This is the opinion of Chuck Potter.