An Innovative Approach to Police/Community Relations


Terry O'Neill, J.D.

In many communities in nations throughout the world, there are internal conflicts between majorities and minorities. There is conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in Israel; Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland; Turks and Kurds in Turkey; Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo; the list is endless. The United States has its own community conflict between a dominant European-descended, Caucasian, English-speaking, Christian majority and a variety of ethnic, racial and religious groups. In many places in the world, that conflict involves the use of military and police authority to control, suppress or at best, manage it. No non-governmental community in the United States is subject to military rule; but in many places, there is enough police involvement in community conflict that it can make the police decidedly unpopular among minorities. An enlightened government will make changing that a top priority.

In New York's Capital City of Albany, a number of race-related incidents going back fifteen years had created a growing distrust between the city's African-Americans and the Albany Police Department. There were complaints of racism, bias in enforcement, brutality and general disrespect shown by police officers toward minority residents. A shooting of two police officers generated a spontaneous free-for-all of a manhunt in black neighborhoods that offended many of their residents. In the midst of this, the trial of four New York City police officers criminally charged for the shooting death of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed West African immigrant in New York, was moved to Albany where it generated weeks of pro- and anti-police protest.

What has been the resolution or result? Something cathartic. Something we hope that Albany will become famous for. To its enduring credit, Albany's legislative body, the Common Council, accepted the challenge thrown down by this situation of community conflict and began a series of hearings, researches and deliberations. Mayor Gerald Jennings sought out expert advice, including that of Professor Tom Constantine. All of this work and public discussion led to a far-reaching and innovative approach to improving the credibility of the process for investigating complaints against police officers. It was passed by the Common Council and approved by Mayor Jennings as Local Law No. 2 of the year 2000, entitled "Citizens Police Review Board" (CPRB).

The structure and the procedure created by this law are neither complicated nor unwieldy. As the bylaws are drafted, the board members trained, the mediators and independent oversight investigators are recruited and trained and the means of gathering and analyzing statistical information are put in place, we hope that it will come to be a matter of considerable civic pride that Albany's government -- both its Executive and its Legislature -- got so deeply involved in working on the relationship of trust that must exist between its law enforcement agency and minority citizens.

This institution continues a theme that carries through all of our innovations -- a partnership between government and academia. As the Leadership Institute for Police Executives of New York State is a partnership between the organization representing municipal police executives and the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy, the CPRB is a partnership between Albany city government and the Government Law Center (GLC) of Albany Law School. GLC is playing a major role in making this plan work and we invite community leaders everywhere to take a look at what is being achieved. as a result.

A summary of the essentials of this landmark law are set forth below.


The purpose of the new law is to create an independent review body with respect to complaints of misconduct against officers of the Albany Police Department. Its goals are to improve communication between the Police Department and the community, to increase police accountability and credibility with the public, and to create a complaint review process that is free from bias and informed by actual police practices.


The Citizens Police Review Board (CPRB) is comprised of nine members, five appointed by the Common Council and four appointed by the Mayor. Appointees serve terms of three years. To be qualified for appointment, a person must be a resident of the city, possess a reputation for fairness, integrity, and responsibility and have demonstrated an active interest in public affairs and service. Both the Mayor and the Common Council are required to consider the diversity of the city's community in making appointments.

Training of Members

The Government Law Center (GLC) of Albany Law School is charged with conducting and coordinating initial and continuing training and orientation for CPRB members. Members are also required to graduate from the Albany Police Department's Citizens' Police Academy, a program that familiarizes civilians with basics of police procedure.

Recommendations and Data Collection and Analysis.

The CPRB is encouraged by the law to make recommendations to the Common Council and the Mayor regarding police policies and practices relevant to the goals of community policing and the exercise of discretionary authority by police officers.

The GLC is required to evaluations and reports on the progress and activities of the CPRB. It is also required to contract with appropriate providers for the collection and analysis of data that may be used to gauge complainant and community satisfaction with CPRB and the Police Department.

The GLC is also required to collect data on alleged offenses by police officers and to transmit this data to the Chief of Police. The Chief of Police is thereupon required to analyze this data and use it to establish an "Early Warning System" to detect and deter patterns of abuse of police authority.

Member Responsibilities

CPRB members are subject to strict confidentiality of police information and to statutory protections of personal privacy of officers and persons involved in any complaint.

Filing of Complaints

A person wishing to file a complaint against an officer must do so in writing and submit it on an approved form either to the Police Department or the CPRB. Complaints must be filed within six months of the incident giving rise to the complaint; however, the CPRB may, on a majority vote, accept a complaint based on an incident occurring more that six months prior to filing. Whether filed with the CPRB or the Police Department, both must have copies of the complaint within two days of its filing. The CPRB must notify the complainant immediately that he or she may ask for the option of mediation at any time.

Review of Complaints

The complaint review process begins with the Police Department's Professional Standards Unit -- that which in other police agencies is often called Internal Affairs. PSU is responsible for every complaint filed. The Chief must report to the CPRB the status of each and every complaint referred to PSU on a quarterly basis.

If the complaint is an allegation of excessive force or a violation of a civil right (including complaints pertaining to sexual orientation), the CPRB appoints an individual to be its eyes and ears. The individual will be selected on a rotating basis from a panel of investigators recruited and trained by the GLC and approved by the Mayor and the Common Council. That individual will observe and monitor the PSU from the outset of its investigation and report to the CPRB and the Chief as to the conduct of the investigation. Stated simply, if that individual is of the opinion that the PSU investigation is deficient, not thorough or unduly restricted in scope, he or she may put that opinion in the form of recommendations for its improvement submitted in his or her report to the Chief and the CPRB.

PSU is required to develop formal procedures for investigating complaints and for interacting with the individuals appointed by the CPRB to monitor the investigation. GLC will cooperate with PSU to develop these investigative procedures and review them periodically.

The standard investigation will begin immediately upon receipt of the complaint by PSU and be completed within sixty days. If not concluded by then, PSU must immediately notify the CPRB in writing and include an estimate of the time required to complete the investigation. Thereafter, a progress report is to be submitted to the CPRB every thirty days.

Upon conclusion of the PSU investigation, the Chief has ten days to review it and submit a preliminary report of the Police Department's findings.

After review and deliberation, the CPRB shall do one of the following: 1) render a finding; 2) request that PSU investigate further; 3) obtain further specific information from the Chief; or 4) refer the complaint to mediation.

Where the CPRB is dissatisfied and sends the complaint back to PSU, it shall immediately notify the Mayor and the Chief in writing of the specific deficiency that prompted that action. The Mayor and the Chief shall at that time review the investigation in full and gather the information sought by the CPRB. Their response is due within three weeks. This process shall have the full force and authority of the Office of the Mayor, including its power to compel the testimony of municipal officers and employees.

If the response from the Mayor and the Chief does not satisfy the CPRB, the CPRB has the further option of going to the full Common Council to give it written notice of the specific deficiency of the investigation and to seek authority to retain the services of an independent outside investigator to conduct, on the Common Council's behalf, an investigation.

Investigators who may be appointed to these cases are to be selected on a rotating basis from a panel of investigators comprised of certified investigators, attorneys, retired judges, and the like who are recommended by the Government Law Center and approved by the Common Council and the Mayor. In selecting qualified persons to serve in this capacity, the selectors must take community diversity into account. These investigators may be used exclusively in cases where the complaint alleges an excessive use of force or a civil rights violation. In carrying out their duties, independent outside investigators shall have access to all the information pertaining to the investigation that is available to the CPRB.

If the CPRB is dissatisfied with the review of the investigation by the Mayor and the Chief, it may request that the Common Council exercise its subpoena power under the City Charter to call witnesses and produce documents for purposes of the CPRB's review of the extent and quality of the investigation.


After review and deliberation, the CPRB makes its finding by majority vote.

A finding of "Sustained" is made where there are sufficient facts to prove the allegations in the complaint.

A finding of "Not Sustained" is made where there are insufficient facts to prove or disprove the complaint allegations.

A finding of "Exonerated" is made where the review finds that the conduct complained of occurred but was found to be justified.

A finding of "Unfounded" is made when the conduct complained of did not occur or was misconstrued.

A finding of "Ineffective Policy or Training" is made when the conduct complained of is ascribable not to individual guilt or innocence, but to ineffective departmental policy or training to address the situation.

A finding of "No Finding" is made in a variety of cases, such as when the complaint is withdrawn, the officer leaves the city's employ, another agency is responsible for the matter, etc.

A finding of "Mediated" is made where the complaint is resolved through mediation.

The CPRB must render a finding within sixty days of its receipt of a preliminary report of the Department's findings. It either files it with the Chief for disposition or notifies the Chief and the officer who is the subject of the complaint of the reason for delay. If there is delay, monthly updates on progress are thereupon required. In any event, after the CPRB shall have had one hundred twenty days to act on the preliminary report and rendered no finding thereon, the file must be returned to the Chief for disposition.

Final Determination

At the conclusion of its review, the CPRB shall make its finding known to the Chief, the affected officer and the complainant. The Chief shall review the Department's preliminary finding in light of the CPRB finding, then make the Department's final determination known to the CPRB, the affected officer and the complainant. If the Chief's determination differs from that of the CPRB, the CPRB may request a written explanation of the reasons therefor.

Mediation Process

The Government Law Center of Albany Law School is the key player in the establishment and coordination of a mediation process for resolving complaints of police misconduct. Under the law, it also has the responsibility for recruiting and training persons to serve as mediators. A list of qualified persons is submitted to the Mayor and the Common Council for approval.

The complainant may ask for the complaint to be referred to mediation at any time. As set forth above, the CPRB may also, as its finding, recommend referral of the complaint to that process. However, mediation may not proceed without the consent of the officer with the approval of the Department, and the agreement of the complainant.

The mediation process is closed to the public, strictly confidential, scheduled conveniently for the complainant and the officer and nothing said or introduced during the process made be used in any other legal or administrative proceeding.

At the conclusion of the mediation process, the CPRB and the Chief are informed of its results. If the dispute is not resolved, the CPRB review process continues to its conclusion. If the dispute is resolved, the CPRB issues a finding of "Mediated" and all allegations relating to the complaint are deleted from the officer's CPRB history.

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