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You Don’t Have To Wait For A Crisis To Review A Police Department

Paul Sakuma
A San Jose police officer stands guard outside of an apartment where authorities were looking for the suspect in shooting at a cement company in nearby Cupertino on Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2011.

Efforts to oversee police several decades ago resulted in hundreds of complaint review boards that investigate when an officer or civilian come forward about a specific case. But a new type of oversight is gaining traction – one in which appointed civilians look at whole departments and how they do their jobs day-to-day. 

David Harris is a Pitt law professor and host of 90.5 WESA's Criminal Injustice podcast. He talked to Independent Police Auditor Walter Katz in his office in San Jose, Calif. Katz said a police organization's investigative process is as important as its findings.

Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

DAVID HARRIS: Why is independent civilian oversight of police officers an important thing?

WALTER KATZ: It's important because it gives some assurance to the public that when there is questionable conduct, there is somebody independent of the police department who can take a look at that conduct and make an assessment.

HARRIS: In most cities that have civilian oversight, including here in Pittsburgh, people make complaints about specific incidents to an independent complaint review board and then as a group they the board will investigate and assess that one incident. You're the auditor working alongside a major police department. That's a different, newer idea. How is the independent auditor model different?

KATZ: Well, it's different because we're a full-time, professional staff. We don't conduct our own investigation; we apply our criteria to audit the investigation completed by internal affairs. And so we essentially act as a third-party quality assurance organization.

HARRIS: So you're out there to give an independent opinion on the investigation done by the police department?

KATZ: That's right.

HARRIS: So if your investigation finds a problem with the (the police) investigation, what happens then? You report it to someone else in the city? Do you issue a public report? What goes on?

KATZ: So when we see a problem with investigation, we prepare a memo that goes back to internal affairs. They take that under consideration. Very often, they will apply the corrective action that we've recommended. Sometimes they don't. They may think their investigation is sufficient, and then once we have that back-and-forth, we do our final assessment, and if we have a disagreement with internal affairs, then we can appeal that to the chief of police or even to the city manager.

HARRIS: You're involved in a lot of (police) oversight nationally, so you see this through (the lens) of organizations you're involved in. What's the major advantage of the auditor model as opposed to the complaint review model?

KATZ: I think having an outsider review presents a certain degree of assurance in the quality of the investigation. Somebody has to investigate it, right? It's either going to be internal affairs or it's going to be an outside group. But regardless of who does the investigation, who is going to be there to check up on that work? That's what we do.

HARRIS: Who is the auditor model designed to help? Is it the police department? Is it the public? Or is it both, maybe?

KATZ: Our currency, David, is objectivity. We are not an advocate for the police department, nor are we an advocate for a certain outcome, which may be favored by the public. Our strict role is to the objective, and if anything, we are an advocate for process. Doesn't sound exciting or sexy, but really that's what we are.

HARRIS: The police officers and the police department -- do they accept you and your work or do they fight you?

KATZ: We actually have a really good relationship with our chief, Eddie Garcia, and the department leadership. I think we even have a relatively good relationship with the local union. What I say to folks all the time is, "The greatest asset an oversight professional has is credibility." It’s being able to understand how does the organization – the police department – function? What is their culture? What's their policy? You really have to know a department inside and out so that when you do make recommendations, that they're taken seriously.

HARRIS: Sounds like you're serving a public education function, too.

KATZ: Oh sure, absolutely. You know, we just published our first edition of our “Students’ Guide to Police Practices” and it emphasizes teaching young people what their rights are. But it also emphasizes probably what best practices would be when having a police encounter and encourages young people to speak up when they do have an encounter with the police which they think was a negative encounter.

David’s conversation with Walter Katz is part two in a pair of podcasts exploring how different police departments are monitored and investigated – including Pittsburgh’s Citizen Police Review Board Executive Director Elizabeth Pittinger. Subscribe on iTunes, though your favorite podcast app and at criminalinjusticepodcast.com.

Megan Harris is a writer, editor, photographer and curator for Pittsburgh's NPR News station. She leads editorial coverage for The Confluence, 90.5 WESA's live, one-hour, daily morning news show.
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