Should citizens oversee Fargo police? New chief's arrival may spur creation of review board | INFORUM

Local News 25-10-2020 IN FORUM 47

This is the case in Fargo and many other cities, but in some places there's another layer of oversight known as a citizen review board, a group of residents who oversee their local police department.

During the selection process for Fargo's new police chief, all three finalists, including David Zibolski, who got the job and started in his new position earlier this month, said they would support the creation of such a board.

A number of communities around the country have set up such panels, including Duluth, Minn., where it is known as the Duluth Citizen Review board.

Duluth's city website describes the group as an advisory body to the city's police department and city council "for the purpose of fostering relationships and strengthening trust and communication between the police department and citizens of Duluth."

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To a large extent, that is what the board has been doing, according to its president, Archie Davis.

Davis, who joined the review board about five years ago, said he and the board have good relationships with Duluth's police, including the current chief, Mike Tusken.

Davis said city officials have come to learn that he won't bite his tongue if he has something to say about an issue. Recently, the review board played a role in police department policy changes, including one governing the process involved when officers suit up in riot gear and another dealing with the use of body cameras.

However, he said, the citizen review board has less authority and teeth than what was initially envisioned.

According to Davis, reasons for that include the strength of police unions in the state of Minnesota, which he said make it difficult for municipalities to hold officers accountable when they break the rules.

Davis said change in that area will only come from the Minnesota Legislature. The time for such change is now, he added, when the nation's attention is on racial justice following the death of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police.

A spokesman for Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney said the mayor would be speaking about a citizen review board and other issues after Zibolski has settled into his job.

Zibolski said he is willing to talk about the possibility of setting up a citizen review board but was not available for an interview.

When it comes to police departments and citizen review boards, Steven Morrison, a professor at the University of North Dakota School of Law, said such boards are probably better than nothing, but as far as changing things he believes they have minimal value unless they are given enforcement power.

"You could have a citizen review board that does have enforcement power, but then you're going to need a citizen review board that truly understands policing," he said.

"To understand policing, you can't just be critical of police officers, you also have to understand the unpredictable and sometimes dangerous situations that their jobs require they be in," Morrison added.

To achieve a board that understands policing, Morrison said members might include individuals who have worked in the law enforcement world, including judges and lawyers, "or other people who know how to investigate things."

Matuor Alier is a member of Fargo's Human Relations Commission and served on the committee that worked to find a replacement for Fargo Police Chief David Todd, who recently retired.

Alier said he was pleased that all three finalists for the job were open to setting up a citizen review panel involving the police department, including Zibolski, who took Fargo's top police job after serving in the same role in the city of Beloit, Wis.

Alier said he doesn't feel it's his place to tell Zibolski and other Fargo officials what they should do, and he will wait and see what ideas they come up with.

"It's time to give room to the new chief to see the changes he wants to make," Alier said.

He added that he thinks a citizen review board is a good idea because he believes there is a divide when it comes to the police and the community, particularly when it comes to people of color.

"Hopefully having a police review committee would bridge that gap," Alier said.

Davis said any city looking to set up a citizen review board should work on good communication between review board members and the city's mayor and commission or council members.

Rochester, Minn., is another community with an advisory board that reviews and makes recommendations regarding police department policies.

Terre McJoynt became chairwoman of Rochester's citizen advisory commission last spring, around the time national civil unrest began after Floyd's death.

Since she became head of the commission, McJoynt said, she's worked to increase the volume of policies the board reviews.

She said she also strives to increase the public input the commission receives, adding that one recent virtual meeting of the commission was attended by about 100 people and lasted several hours.

Since then, meetings have been restructured to allow for 15 minutes of public input. After that, McJoynt said, meetings are closed to allow commission members to develop recommendations that are ultimately brought to the police chief.

She said policies the board recently reviewed include the police department's approach to use of force and handcuffs.

In addition to making recommendations to the police chief, McJoynt said, the board has also worked to educate the public on how the Rochester Police Department operates.

She said the latter came into play with the outcry over the death of Floyd and the type of restraint used on him. McJoynt said residents demanded a ban on such holds by Rochester police when, in fact, the police department already prohibited such maneuvers.

Moorhead Mayor Johnathan Judd said there appears to be two approaches when it comes to a community deciding to set up a citizen review board.

One type, he said, involves a board that acts as a go-between to build communication between the community and the police department.

The other approach, Judd said, usually involves a board that has authority to make rulings when it comes to things like officer discipline.

Of the two, Judd said, the former might be something for Moorhead to look into, but he isn't ready to commit to such an effort at this time.

When it comes to the type of board that has a say regarding officer discipline and employment, Judd said that may be something best left to agencies like the Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training. That board is limited to addressing officer behavior that violates the standards of conduct for peace officers outlined in state rules.

Judd said Moorhead's Human Rights Commission already serves some of the functions that a citizen review board might take on, including providing a public forum for citizens to talk about police issues.

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