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Catania: Inaction threatens funding for police review board

(Published June 14, 1999)


Staff Writer

D.C. City Council members say the city stands to lose $1.2 million in federal funds targeted for setting up a new citizen board to review complaints against the D.C. police if the mayor’s office doesn’t get the process started soon.

The law establishing the five-member board that would investigate police brutality and misconduct cases was passed last fall and became effective March 26. However, no names have been submitted to the council for confirmation and no office space has been found for the board, according to representatives of the mayor’s office.

"This is an executive branch failing," Councilman David Catania, D-At large, said during a June 8 hearing at which council members questioned why nothing is being done to set up the board. "Why should it be that the members of the council have to do executive branch duties like spending money and creating an arm of the government?"

Catania said he is particularly frustrated because, after the law was passed in October, he was the person who went to Congress to ask for the $1.2 million to set up the board this fiscal year. If the money is not spent by Sept. 30, that money will have to be returned to the federal government.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams, in a recent meeting with reporters, called the review board "one of our priorities."

"We’ve got to expedite it, get it on the road and work it," he said. "This review board is very, very needed and necessary and it’s a priority." The mayor did not offer any details as to how his office plans to proceed.

The previous citizen complaint review board was disbanded in 1986 with a huge backlog of cases and under criticism that the board was taking too long to dispose of cases. Catania noted at the hearing that the District is the only major city in the country that currently does not have a citizen review board.

The board is charged with investigating citizens’ complaints against members of the police department involving police brutality and misconduct. The board will be comprised of one member of the police department and four civilian members who have no ties to the police department. The board would have the power to refer cases to the U.S. Attorney’s office for criminal prosecution.

Currently, all complaints against police officers are handled by the police department’s internal affairs bureau.

Part of the problem establishing the board apparently is due to the disarray in the mayor’s Office of Boards and Commissions. Director Marie Drissell, who inherited the problems from the previous administration, has said she frequently cannot locate people who have been confirmed to sit on commissions but have never shown up for meetings. A frustrated Drissell testified that the problems sorting out the existing boards has made it difficult to get the nomination process started for the new review board.

At the hearing, Catania praised Drissell’s work in trying to straighten out the office’s problems but noted that "no good deed goes unpunished."

"She’s working very hard with what she can," Catania acknowledged. "But everyone knew (the law) was going to take effect in March and they should have had a framework in place for when it did."

Catania said he will return to Capitol Hill and ask that the money appropriated for the board be rolled over to the next fiscal year if the Sept. 30 deadline is not met by the mayor’s office. But he said the task of convincing Congress that the District would use the money next year might be difficult.

"The clock is ticking," Catania said, "and we don’t have money to waste in the District."

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator