Citizen committee provides accountability to city police
Apr 03, 2017 10:53AM
By Travis Barton
Chairperson of the PSRB, Abby Dizon-Maughan, laughs with other board members shortly before their monthly meeting to review various cases involving the West Valley City Police Department. (Travis Barton/City Journals)
By Travis Barton | [email protected]
Utah currently has two cities who have a Professional Standards Review Board (PSRB) to provide citizen oversight for its police department. West Valley City is one of them.
Created in the mid-90s, PSRB consists of a group of citizen volunteers (seven when at capacity) who review all use of force occurrences, displays of force, firearm discharges and citizen complaints. The board can then determine whether the action was within policy and, if needed, make disciplinary recommendations to Police Chief Lee Russo.
“The function of the board is so that they (police department) don’t lose sight of the people they are charged with serving and protecting,” said board chairperson Abby Dizon-Maughan. “We are the voice of the people.”
Protecting the community’s interests is their priority, she said, adding that she approaches each case as a citizen of West Valley rather than her occupation as a defense attorney.
“I’m putting myself in a position of what would I do outside of my professional capacity in the situation, given the information. Would I feel okay about the officers acting in a certain way given the totality of the circumstances?” Dizon-Maughan said.
City Manager Wayne Pyle said it helps the city know the citizens’ perception.
“Just gives us that gut check, if you will, on what our own actions are on this very regular basis,” he said.
Effect on the police department
PSRB reviews, on average, around 50-70 cases each month. They make notes, ask questions, determine whether policy was followed and make disciplinary recommendations if they feel strongly about it.
“It brings transparency, oversight and accountability for the public so there’s a level of confidence that we are not operating in secrecy,” Russo said. “It helps, I think, the public understand how we operate and why we operate the way we do.”
Russo said he reads through every note PSRB makes sending the file onto the commanders involved to make sure it’s addressed.
Having PSRB helps the public understand, he said, how the police department keeps themselves accountable.
“Complaints are not swept under the rug. Everything is addressed and we have a mechanism that assures that when complaints come in they are properly documented, properly responded to and there is an outside body that makes sure there is an accounting for that,” Russo said.
If disciplinary recommendations are made, there exists a matrix which has levels of violations from A to E. A being the most minor (typically remedied with counseling) and E the most severe (possible job termination).
It’s a matrix Russo introduced when he became chief three and a half years ago. He said while it’s always a concern to even have cases like this, it’s also the reason he created this matrix.
“The whole drive behind my matrix (was) so that I could basically announce to the organization (and the board), here’s the change in position on accountability and discipline so we didn’t have to play that gotcha game,” he said.
Though recommendations are made, final discretion is left up to the chief. If Russo ever decides outside of their recommendation, he comes to the board to answer questions and explain his choice. It is a measure of the accountability.
Russo said he will often go above PSRB’s recommendation because he sees it as a more serious issue.
“It’s not that they don’t see it as a serious issue, they haven’t spent a lifetime in law enforcement and they don’t get that organizational impact, that necessary discipline that I have to have,” he said.
Citizens of the board
Dizon-Maughan has been on the board for around three years having initially heard about it in a Salt Lake Tribune article when the narcotics unit was disbanded.
While she is a defense attorney, the occupational makeup of the board includes a business owner, hospital workers, a retired police officer from Los Angeles, and a transcriptionist who is married to a former police officer.
“We have a diverse range of experience,” Dizon-Maughan said.
Pyle examines many things when selecting potential board members, but mainly he looks at their availability and if they fit into the overall philosophy of what the board is trying to accomplish. After being interviewed by Pyle, he has the option to recommend members to the board.
Board members serve two-year terms that require approval from the city council. While they are volunteers, he added positions are time intensive.
With newest addition Melissa Lambourne who was approved in February, the board is now serving at full capacity.
Two officers and city attorney Ryan Robinson sit in on meetings as well. One officer is from Internal Affairs while the other represents the Fraternal Order of Police. They give input on what are normal officer policies and procedures in given situations.
PSRB holds monthly public comment meetings before reviewing cases to hear from residents regarding policing issues. It is rare for citizens to attend those meetings, but Dizon-Maughan believes it’s because residents don’t know the board exists.
“There is an avenue of recourse, just most people in the city don’t know that it’s available,” she said.
She added they want to hear about any problems or grievances people have experienced from their interactions with law enforcement.
“We’re hoping we can get more visibility and let more people know that we’re here to serve their interests and be the voice for them,” Dizon-Maughan said.
While there is cooperation between the police department and PSRB, both Dizon-Maughan and Russo said they try to keep their organizations at arm’s-length from one another. This is an effort to avoid public perception that they’re in collaboration together.
“It gives our board more credibility and it makes the officers out on the street [accountable],” Dizon-Maughan said.