It’s time, Fort Worth: City, police, should say yes to forming citizen review board

It is high time Fort Worth join municipalities around the nation, and every other major city in Texas, and form a citizen review board for police affairs.

Last year’s thoroughly considered Race and Culture Task Force Report recommended such a review board, and city manager David Cooke has now endorsed it. And after fateful, occasionally fatal encounters between police and black men across the country in recent years — and two contentious arrests of black women by Fort Worth officers in 2016 and 2017 — the question is no longer whether to form an independent review board, but how.

The current proposal envisions a citizen review panel with no subpoena power or authority over personnel decisions because those powers aren’t expressly written into Texas law. Still, under the proposal there also would be an independent monitor with investigative purview embedded inside the police department who, importantly, would answer to the city manager.

Our friends and neighbors who put on a uniform and badge and venture out to keep us safe have quite often been unfairly maligned, even physically attacked, in recent years. One can understand an officer’s hesitance to cast his or her fate on a restive public sometimes given to hasty judgment.

We can assure Fort Worth police officers, rash rulings are not what a citizen review board would contribute. The process would be deliberative and contemplative — and advisory only.

Still, officers should understand the public’s deepening desire for transparency and accountability, particularly after the incidents cited above.

In August 2017, a black woman was tased after police responded to her 911 call regarding alleged domestic violence. The woman was non-compliant with police orders, but the officer who called for her tasing was fired for what the chief said was “an unnecessary physical confrontation.” The officer was reinstated in January, his punishment reduced to a 35-day suspension.

In December 2016, Jacqueline Craig had been similarly arrested after calling police for help. The situation deteriorated to her and her two daughters’ arrest. Video of it, and the officer’s controversial 10-day suspension for escalating the encounter, led to the formation of the city’s Race and Culture Task Force — which, in turn, has led to the proposed citizen review board and monitor.

While understandably wary of giving it too much influence, police officers should actually welcome the scrutiny of an independent citizen review board. Second-guessing of police actions is already happening anyway, particularly on the internet. Fair and impartial reviews of police encounters can, officers should expect, accrue to their benefit.

Likewise, citizens concerned about rogue police actions should give even an advisory citizen review board a chance to work, especially in conjunction with what amounts to a new ombudsman inside the department. If it doesn’t deliver results, then we can revisit its structure and powers, even if that means at the state legislative level.

As for the very valid concerns in the police department, we’re reminded that in the midst of the 2017 controversy a Fort Worth Police Officers Association spokesman firmly maintained that the fired officer had “reacted in a manner consistent with our policies, procedures and our training.” If so, a citizen review board should be expected to conclude the same in future disputes.

Every police encounter involves both common and divergent interests. A citizen review board can help us focus on the common interests of both public safety and police accountability.

It’s time, Fort Worth.