Who's policing the police?
By John Kanelis
This issue hasn't gotten much attention in Amarillo over the years. It involves citizen review panels and whether the city should empower such a panel to examine complaints about law enforcement agencies' activities.
Three men with significant experience on this topic square off on the next "Live Here" segment, which airs Thursday at 7 p.m. on Panhandle PBS.
"Eyes On the Law: Policing the Police" examines the use of citizens review panels and discusses whether the time has come for Amarillo to adopt a policy that other cities have followed for a considerable time.
Amarillo Police Chief Robert Taylor and Randall County Criminal District Attorney James Farren -- who once served as a police officer in Amarillo -- take one side of the issue. Their view? The cops do a good enough job investigating themselves when complaints arise or when officers become involved in violent confrontations with criminal suspects.
On the other side of that divide is criminal defense counsel Jeff Blackburn, who has been active in the Innocence Project, a program aimed at examining the validity of death penalty sentences in Texas. Blackburn also has become a spokesman for individuals who allege misconduct by law enforcement officials.
Blackburn contends that the public doesn't "have much confidence" in the Amarillo Police Department and said that his campaign to create a citizens advisory panel isn't a "liberal big-government" idea. He expresses concern over whether the public can trust the police department to do the right thing every single time.
To no one's surprise, Taylor takes a different view. He believes Blackburn and his allies aren't interested solely in finding the truth. He says pro-citizens panel advocates are "saying things that aren't true" about the police department, adding, "I have a problem with that." He says those individuals and groups are interested in taking control of the police department.
And what is the view of the prosecutor, James Farren?
Farren said that "based on the evidence" Blackburn would present in a case against a police officer, he'd -- the prosecuting attorney -- would be "laughed out of court."
I see both sides in this matter. The reality, though, is that citizens who seek to take control of the police department -- as Taylor suggests -- do have an inherent right to act as the bosses that they are.
The problem with citizen panels, though, could rest in their composition and in the charter they are given. There would need to be a balance among its membership of those would be pre-disposed in either direction: Do they tend to believe the cops or side with the criminal suspect?
A citizens panel also could set a high bar for the kind of allegation that it would examine. Should an oversight panel examine whether a police officer spoke gruffly to someone pulled over for a speeding or for texting while driving? Or does the panel save its examination for cases involving physical altercations that perhaps result in an injury?
Well, whichever position one takes on this issue, "Live Here" will give us a chance to hear both sides of an issue that could divide our community.
Let's hear from you. What are your thoughts on citizens review panels? Are they effective? Can they go too far? Are the police doing an adequate job of ensuring they are doing the right thing every single time?