Citizens police review panel active but has vacancies

Citizens police review panel active but has vacancies

October 8th, 2009 by Jacqueline Koch in News

A citizens committee that reviews Chattanooga police internal affairs cases - including officer-involved shootings - remains active, but is lacking three members and has two who haven't attended meetings in several months, officials said.

"Somebody hasn't been keeping very good track of it," said Councilman Manny Rico, who sat on the original nine-member committee until he took his position on the City Council.

Some council members have complaints about the way the committee functions, Mr. Rico said, including that the panel has vacancies and that some members can be difficult to reach by phone.

Phone numbers given for two committee members listed as inactive, for instance, are disconnected.

Even committee members are vague about how often the group meets.

Member Mike Baskette said the group meets about once a month or whenever an internal affairs case needs to be reviewed, though he said the committee hadn't met in a while.

Hamilton County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Janice Atkinson, who also serves on the committee, said she is called about cases every few months, but not every month.

Mr. Rico said Ms. Atkinson gave up her seat on the review panel when she accepted the job with the sheriff's office, but she said she still is serving in her capacity as a city resident.

Committee and council members also are unsure about how long the three committee positions positions have been vacant.

The police department is supposed to be in charge of the committee and is responsible for alerting council members to vacancies so they can fill them, City Council Chairman Jack Benson said.

Police Chief Freeman Cooper recently met with Mr. Rico and Mr. Benson about filling spots on the committee. He and Assistant Chief Bobby Dodd told the council members about the vacancies within the last week, Chief Cooper said.

In the past, the review committee has examined cases involving use of deadly force. In Chattanooga, two recent shootings - the July deaths of 15-year-old Alonzo O'Kelley and 32-year old Alonzo Heyward - still are under investigation by the police department's internal affairs division and are not yet ready for the committee's attention, officials said.

While committee members aren't at liberty to talk much about cases, the committee reviews cases once they've been looked at by supervisors and internal affairs personnel, said Mr. Baskette, who lives in Hixson and represents District 3.

"It's pretty definitive by the time it gets to us, as to a lot of detail," he said. "And so it's not subjective."

Committee members decide whether the punishment was deserved and give their recommendations during each meeting, Ms. Atkinson said.

"I think it's a great way for citizens to become familiar and acquainted with how the internal affairs (process) works," said Ms. Atkinson, who said she never has disagreed with an investigation's punishment. "I just think it's very important for whoever serves on it to remain open-minded and listen to everything."

In 1999, then-police Chief Jimmie Dotson implemented the panel to examine the results of internal affairs investigations involving officers. The committee was comprised of representatives selected by City Council members and alternates selected by Chief Dotson.

Mr. Rico said the most significant case involved Leslie Vaughn Prater, who suffocated in January 2004 during a struggle with police. Citizens review members visited the county coroner, who showed them the body and explained what could have caused the bruises and cracked ribs, Mr. Rico said.

"We had information that other citizens didn't," he said.

In the case, the city eventually settled a lawsuit against the police department for $1.5 million, but the police did not admit any fault or liability, according to Times Free Press archives.

After his recent meeting with Chief Cooper, Mr. Benson said, he thinks the committee will become more active.

"We get the citizen's point of view as to various situations that are questionable out there as well as a professional's point of view," Mr. Benson said. "We want an active citizens review committee."

Overall, Chief Cooper says he welcomes reviews by the citizens committee.

"It is, in fact, a good practice having community involvement in reviewing the investigative case files of complaints against police officers," Chief Cooper said. "It has proven to be an asset to the process of the checks and balances of best practices in major city departments."


* Janice Atkinson, District 1

* Mike Baskette, District 3

* Bob Adney, District 4

* Willie Lee McClendon, District 5

* Wayne H. Smith, District 6

* Josiah Quintus Roe, District 7

Source: Chattanooga City Council