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Cities’ Efforts to Hold Police Accountable Hit a Wall: The Police

Last year, a woman in Albany, N.Y., filed a complaint with the civilian board responsible for investigating allegations of misconduct by the city’s police: She believed officers had not thoroughly investigated her claim that the father of her 3-year-old daughter had sexually assaulted the girl.

But when the board asked the Albany Police Department for a copy of the case file and issued subpoenas to compel the investigators to answer questions, the police refused to cooperate. Releasing investigative files, they argued, could endanger victims, according to internal emails.

Eric Hawkins, the police chief, also told the board that he would not allow officers or detectives to cooperate with any of the panel’s investigations because forcing officers to respond to subpoenas would violate the police union’s contract, according to a lawsuit the board filed against the Police Department.

The resistance to the Albany board’s demands is emblematic of the struggles such panels continue to face across the United States, decades after being created to increase police accountability.

Civilian review boards, first formed in the 1970s, were meant to provide a mechanism for ensuring that law enforcement agencies were answerable to the public they serve. The most effective panels have the power to investigate misconduct and a role in meting out discipline, according to experts.

But many police departments remain reluctant to accept outside oversight, said Edward F. Davis, a former Boston police commissioner who generally supports such boards.

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