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The Erie County district attorney continues pondering how opening a car door can deflect a policeman's gun toward -- rather than away from -- the exiting occupant. While he does that, Buffalo Common Council members should be pondering something else: the creation of a citizen review board.

The forgotten call for someone to police the police was revived by the NAACP after the recent shooting death of a car-theft suspect. He died after opening the door while a cop pointed a gun at him.

That shooting joins a list of high-profile incidents since the Council last held a public hearing on police misconduct in 1989. There was a 1990 nightstick assault on unruly downtown movie patrons. That same year, there was the Main Place Mall beating of two men. Then, last summer, came the controversial raid on Hispanic night-club patrons. All involved action against minority residents. All act as lightning rods for citizen mistrust.

The fear that there are scores of other, less brutal cases one never hears about is the best argument for Buffalo to catch up with the rest of the nation.

That fear -- whether justified or not -- undermines the very citizen trust police need to fight crime.

Police Commissioner Richard Donovan found that out recently at a community meeting. He tried to reassure East Side residents that they could call 911 to report crimes without the fear of revealing their identities.

However, the residents had a message for Donovan: Some don't call police because they fear being harassed by cops, not criminals. Crime prevention doesn't work when citizens have to stop and calculate who the bad guys really are.

Officials in two-thirds of the nation's 50 largest cities have figured that out. All have some form of civilian review to restore confidence. Buffalo, as usual, is behind the curve.

"Cities that don't have it are out of step," says Sam Walker, a University of Nebraska criminal justice researcher. His 1991 study found that 30 of the nation's 50 largest cities give citizens a voice. Now the number has grown to 33.

It's not hard to understand why. The boards stem from a very fundamental belief: Police can't police themselves. And even if they can, who'll believe it? Who would feel secure knowing their beef with cops -- notorious for sticking together -- is being decided by cops?

Even the district attorney's office is viewed by some as just another part of the criminal justice system, hardly eager to go after the cops it must count on in other cases. Ask those who hear the complaints of police brutality about Internal Affairs or the DA's office, and the responses range from disappointment to derision to outright laughter.

A citizen board could restore some credibility to a process that badly needs it. It could make disciplinary recommendations in cases that don't get to the courts but that still rile residents -- the hitting, shoving, cursing, ethnic slurs or other abuses of authority. And its presence could keep pressure on prosecutors in cases of major assaults.

The issue is critical now because Buffalo police are being squeezed as never before. Even those sometimes at odds with police recognize the pressures.

Attorney John Elmore, a former state trooper who represents brutality victims, and Council Member James Pitts, who convened the 1989 hearing, both point to the conflicting roles police are expected to play in a city increasingly under siege.

Residents want police to take back the streets; but those same residents demand respect and freedom from police harassment. Who is in a better position to monitor performance of that delicate balancing act than those caught in the middle?

The typical objections to such boards don't wash. They are not kangaroo courts; they typically uphold between 5 percent and 10 percent of complaints. Nor are they overwhelmed with bogus complaints from real criminals. Walker's study shows typical complaints come from blacks and whites, males and females, not charged with any crime.

As for the idea that citizens can't possibly know what it's like for police, if that logic were followed to its illogical extreme, we'd simply abolish all juries.

Citizen boards are not cure-alls. That points to what both Pitts and Elmore say is equally important: better training so that police don't get themselves in situations that necessitate outside review.

And any board in Buffalo would be subject to attempts at political machinations. It's a possibility the police union fears. But other cities manage somehow; Buffalo could, too. It's time to try.

When accounts of police actions seem to include "resisting arrest" as boilerplate language, and every criminal seems clumsy enough to hurt himself getting in the squad car, cynicism runs rampant. This city cannot afford it. It cannot afford not to give citizens a voice.

ROD WATSON is a News editorial writer.

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