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Hiring dispute trips up cop review

Call for 6 new members stirs more controversy over citizen group, role

The city auditor on Thursday morning submitted language to the City Council that would change the way new members are appointed to the citizen review committee of the Independent Police Review Division.

The IPR, under the jurisdiction of the city auditor's office, is charged with reviewing complaints against police. The citizen review committee hears appeals on findings of police internal investigations and can recommend policy changes to the police chief.

Five of the nine members of the citizen review committee are at the end of their two-year term, and at least one more is resigning in the middle of his term to take a sabbatical. The IPR is trying to fill the positions by Oct. 1.

But the issue of who has the power in the selection process has remained a sticking point.

The committee voted 5-3 Saturday for a plan in which four members and the director would review applicants, interview them and forward their recommendations to the City Council for approval.

Auditor Gary Blackmer and IPR Director Richard Rosenthal oppose that plan, calling it a conflict of interest for members to select their peers. 'Although it may be consistent with the language of the (current) ordinance, it's not consistent with the spirit,' Rosenthal said.

Currently, the ordinance states: 'The director and the committee shall select the appropriate number of nominees to fill impending vacancies.'

On Thursday, Blackmer submitted a revision that reads: 'The city auditor shall appoint a committee that shall recommend the appropriate number of nominees.' The City Council will consider the new language at its meeting Wednesday.

Issue of independence arises

To several committee members, taking the issue to the council is a slap in the face.

'It signifies to me that they aren't truly interested in having the citizens involved in the process,' said T.J. Browning, one of the original committee members who said she will seek reappointment this year.

'They'd be a lot more comfortable having a rubber-stamping organization that would run around doing what they want, and we don't want to be that,' Browning said.

But Blackmer said that isn't the case at all.

'Now it's come down to their way versus our way,' he said. 'When we disagree with them, they feel we're picking a fight with them.

'We're doing this to get the best citizens possible. We're really trying to create a committee that is respected and credible to all the parties, whether it's police officers or complaints from the general public.'

The police review division has been a political hot button since July 2001, when the City Council chose it as the new model for the city's clearinghouse for complaints against police.

Blackmer originally drafted the model, which immediately met with criticism from activists who said it was not independent enough from the police.

Hank Miggins, who is reapplying for a second two-year term, voted against the majority who want committee members to select new members.

'I personally don't think anyone sitting (on the citizen review committee) should be selecting the members,' he said. 'But there's a conflict in the way the laws were written. And until that's corrected, it can go either direction.'

Miggins said he favored the approach taken by the committee last year during the reappointment process, in which Blackmer had appointed a selection committee that consisted of a county commissioner, a county judge, the auditor and a former member of the citizen review committee.

'That worked fine,' Rosenthal said, noting that he and Blackmer were willing to proceed with that system.

But several members said they felt as if last year's process diluted the voices of the committee members.

Mixed messages cloud air

It's not the first time conflict between the committee and its leadership has arisen.

In March, for example, the committee voted to review an internal affairs investigation that cleared officers of excessive force in the March 2001 arrest of Jose Santos Victor Mejia Poot. Mejia was fatally shot by police at a Sellwood psychiatric hospital two days later. Although the committee had rejected the appeal in June 2002, it reversed the decision March 4 after deciding its original vote was a mistake.

Even though the committee formally suspended its rules in order to accept the appeal, the city attorney's office said the original vote must stand. As a result, Rosenthal and Blackmer said the IPR staff would not help the committee review the arrest investigation.

Committee member Denise Stone, whose term expires this year, says such clashes often leave her feeling like the citizen review committee is stuck in a no-win situation.

'It's very challenging to argue the meaning and interpretation of the ordinance with a legal body,' she said, referring to Rosenthal, a former Los Angeles district attorney who acts as the committee's legal counsel.