Can police investigate their own? Some want citizen oversight of police

BAKERSFIELD, Calif.-- The death of 33-year-old David Silva while in custody of the Kern County Sheriff's Department raises a question that's been asked numerous times of law enforcement in Kern County.

Can police fairly investigate their own? When an officer or deputy is involved in cases such as an officer involved shooting or high profile controversial incident, both police and sheriff's office normally conduct their own internal investigation. It's police investigating police.

"Kern County has the reputation of being a good 'ol boy place and a lot of bad things are swept under the rug," said Larry Wells, retired from the California Department of Corrections.

"Anybody can investigate anybody. It's whether or not it's unbiased," said Rick Rasmussen, who heads the Office of Independent Review for the city of Fresno.

A growing number of cities are incorporating the use of a Citizens Review Board. This usually consists of a group of ordinary citizens who are not sworn officers whose job is to provide oversight of police practices. It can issue independent reports and make recommendations to police practices.

The members are given training in the rigors of police work, go on ride- alongs and usually appointed by members of a city council and usually serve for a specific time limit. Some cities, such as Fresno, structure its form as an audit model.

Rasmussen for example is a former FBI agent. He reviews every complaint or allegation of police misconduct and issues an independent report with recommendations.

Proponents of citizen oversight say community oversight is beneficial to all by promoting trust and transparency of police practices.

But not everyone is convinced for such a need, most of all police themselves.

"With some of the things we have in place, we think we're doing a pretty good job," said Bakersfield Police Chief Greg Williamson.

He added that the public can always turn to other avenues for help if not satisfied with the way a complaint is handled. "They can go to the Grand Jury, which has subpoena power, they can go to the District Attorney's Office which has subpoena power or the Department of Justice," said Williamson.

Establishing a Citizens Review Board can be a politically sensitive issue.

"It's not whether or not an individual or a group of individuals doesn't want, it's does the community want it?" said Rasmussen.