star star Worse Than You May Think:

Police Misconduct in Syracuse

by Sara Watrous

When discussing police brutality in Syracuse, three major problems exist: first, the mere existence of police brutality; second, public ignorance/denial of the issue; and third, the lack of political will to ensure police accountability.

Police brutality—the intentional use of excessive force, usually physical, but also in the form of verbal attacks and psychological intimidation, by a police officer—can take many forms. Patterns of brutality have long plagued most US cities, including Syracuse. Occasionally the public is made aware of more dramatic incidents, like the beating of Rodney King and the murders of Jonny Gammage and Amadou Diallo.

Yet many of us are ignorant of the daily incidents—experienced most often by African-American males, according to Felicia Davis, administrator of the Citizen Review Board (CRB). The abuse occurs primarily in disadvantaged neighborhoods, such as Syracuse’s Southside. The racial and economic backgrounds of victims make it easy for the overwhelmingly white Syracuse Police Department (SPD) police to brush aside these incidents and for society to ignore the stories. Despite decades of work on this issue, little progress has been made in Syracuse. Shouldn’t independent oversight of the police be a given in a democracy, where the police should be "policing by consent?”

The power of the police must be put in check in order to ensure that human rights are respected. Procedures must provide safety for victims who come forward with complaints, without fear of retaliation. All complaints must be fully investigated by an independent body and receive the appropriate response by officials.

Unfortunately, there is limited data on police abuse in our community. Yet the stories that find their way to people like Bridget Owens of the Syracuse/Onondaga County Human Rights Commission, Cherylene (Twiggy) Billue of American Friends Service Committee or Sam Donnelly of Jail Ministry—participants in the Law Enforcement Accountability coalition—leave little doubt that such abuse is all too common.

As this June 17 Post-Standard article illustrates, community members who do complain of police abuse may face media scrutiny and police counter-accusations. Fear, embarrassment and other factors dissuade many from reporting their experiences.

Creation of the CRB
Until the 1990s victims of police abuse had no recourse other than the Internal Affairs Department of the SPD. Following a lengthy grassroots organizing effort, the CRB was established here in 1993. The CRB aspired to be an independent oversight body that would ensure police accountability and "build bridges" between the police and the community.

The Board's original design gave it authority to fully investigate allegations of police misconduct, including sufficient staff, subpoena power to interview police officers and access to all police documents. Soon after its creation, however, it was gutted and a lawsuit by the Police Benevolent Association (PBA), the police union, ended with the removal of this power, leaving the CRB "fatally flawed" as described by Syracuse United Neighbors organizer Phil Prehn.

While past police chiefs have ignored the issue of police brutality, Prehn notes, "at least the current police chief addresses the issue." The CRB's Felicia Davis explains, "we have encountered police chiefs who did not believe that we should exist because they had an Internal Affairs department.. Chief Miguel has opened a limited process for the Board to ask questions to Internal Affairs on cases but does not allow for the Board to be able to get direct responses from officers or to be able to judge credibility."

As early as 1995, notes from the Task Force on Community and Police Relations state that the CRB was "not what [they] envisioned; not what [they] intended; not seeking justice; not building better community and police relations." Yet 14 years later, it still exists. But what has it accomplished? Not much, Phil Prehn and others will tell you.

At the very least, the CRB could be a "safe-haven" where people make complaints, turning anecdotal stories into testimonies that could provide data to understand the scope of the problem and emerging trends. But it has even failed to do that.

The inability of the CRB to do more than collect testimonies leaves many to wonder whether it is worth the time and energy to file a complaint. The mayor has the potential to play an important role in empowering the CRB and that is why the November  mayoral election is so important. Davis explains, "We submitted our proposed changes to the ordinance years ago, and there has been no action on the changes by the mayor or his corporation counsel."

Statistics and Stories
The CRB's data is only the tip of the iceberg. The average number of complaints from 1994 to 2007 is about 40 per year. In 1997 and 1998, the CRB received almost double the average number of claims (75 and 60 respectively). Davis believes that this was due to increased publicity the CRB received from the PBA's challenge to its process. Otherwise the number of complaints is quite low. Davis explains, "I have found that complainants act very similar to rape victims in that they have a lot of trepidation about filing for a variety of reasons including retaliation, embarrassment, humiliation, etc." It appears that few victims of police misconduct seek out the CRB. Excessive force was the most widely cited complaint for 12 of those 14 years. Harassment, threat of arrest, improper procedure, refusal to take a complaint, verbal abuse, improper /false arrest, and improper investigator were also common complaints. The lack of complete data makes understanding this issue problematic and addressing it even more difficult.

Members of the Law Enforcement Accountability Task Force have many stories from victims: individuals who had guns put to their heads, who were threatened with arrest and/or arrested for questioning an officer, experienced retaliation for complaints in the form of tickets, were verbally intimidated, had their identification confiscated and never returned, were beaten even after being disarmed, and the list goes on. (See for more detailed accounts.)

Even without full data, it is clear that some officers overstep their authority and abuse power. Yet it is clearly not accurate to make blanket statements that all police do so. It is equally inaccurate to describe the situation as "simply the doing of a few bad apples," as past mayors have stated. Based on the available information and the lack of accountability, the problems seem systemic.

Need for Dialogue and Action
Most people in Syracuse are unaware of the CRB. According to Felicia Davis, the CRB held community meetings in the five Common Council Districts for many years, but stopped the practice in 2002 when it began to work on proposals to revise the CRB ordinance. Meetings between the CRB and the mayor began in 2003 to discuss differing proposals-one from the CRB and another from the mayor and police chief. The Board pledged to keep the discussions about changes to the ordinance confidential until an agreement was reached. However, an impasse occurred in March 2007. The CRB has not restarted these community meetings since, though Davis agrees that they "would be helpful.."

Most parties agree that a dialogue between the police and the community must be reestablished. Many agree with Prehn that this breakdown of dialogue and understanding between the two camps has contributed to the problem. There needs to be a renewed attempt to "build bridges" because "you can't arrest your way out of this problem," as Prehn has said. This "fight violence with violence" mentality only breeds further violence.

Davis remains hopeful, stating: "We've survived!" But is survival as a toothless entity that can't accomplish its goal of police accountability worth it? The coming mayoral election in November is important for the future of the CRB. (See progressive platform) for responses of the six mayoral candidates to the Progressive Platform for the New Mayor, including a section on "Criminal Justice and Policing."

Just as the creation of the CRB required concerted grassroots organizing, similar efforts are needed to restore its power to play a meaningful role in the broader effort to eliminate police misconduct and create accountability.

Sara, a graduate student at the University of Quebec at Montreal, is completing a summer internship at SPC.

More Background Information on Police Misconduct in Syracuse

Rosenthal, Alan. A Report to the NAACP Syracuse/Onondaga Chapter on Racial Disparities in the Local Criminal Justice System (March 2001).
The data from the 2000 census provided an opportunity to look at racial disparities in our local criminal justice system.

Horrace, William C. and Shawn M. Rohlin. City of Syracuse Police-Citizen Encounter Study (pdf file). Center for Policy Research, Syracuse University (February 2006).
The purpose of the study is to determine if Syracuse citizens of different races or ethnicities receive differential treatment when encountered by Syracuse police.

CRB statistical reports: 1994-2007 (pdf file)

- - -

The Syracuse Peace Council also has boxes full of material dating from the time when the CRB was created. Videotapes and newspaper clippings mostly from the 1993-1996 period. Contact us for access.