Police Reform (6/10): “More Civilian Oversight”

Self-Monitoring Does Not Work

We have learned by sad experience that self-monitoring/regulating does not work.  It never has. There is too much actual or perceived bias and conflicts of interest inherent in the process. 

Accordingly, almost every profession is monitored and regulated by an independent review board. This includes: doctors, nurses, dentists, veterinarians, lawyers, prosecutor, and judges.  It should also include police officers.  

I have reviewed dozens of officer personnel records and complaints of misconduct or excessive force.  I personally agree with most, but not all, of the outcomes of the internal affairs investigations.

For example, I know a volatile officer with a bad attitude, ego, and temper who bragged that he survived 20 internal affairs investigations for excessive force.

For instance, I reviewed a case where an officer had five separate complaints for excessive force.  His fellow officers investigating the complaints automatically believed him and disbelieved the complaining parties and eyewitnesses. 

Each of these investigations was handled separately and independently. When viewed together, there was an obvious pattern of brutality.  The officer’s conduct in each case was identical.  Plus, the conduct was identical to my pending case. The investigating officers never connected the dots.

Just like other professions, every city, county, and state should have an independent civilian board to review complaints against police officers. In this way, “bad apples” can be identified and the conduct of good officers can be reinforced.

Sadly, in 2016, there were only 200 citizen review boards in the entire country out of 18,000 police agencies. That is less than one one-hundredth of a percent. (0.01%) percent.

A civilian oversight board is a body composed of community representatives. They are charged with reviewing and/or investigating complaints of police misconduct.

Advantages of Citizen Review Boards

  • Builds greater public trust and confidence in law enforcement
  • The community can be assured that discipline is imposed when appropriate
  • The investigation process is more transparent and credible
  • When the oversight agency confirms allegations, complainants are validated and receive closure.
  • When the oversight agency exonerates the officer, the officer is vindicated and gains closure
  • A board improves relations and communication between the community and police
  • Oversight agencies help reduce tensions in high profile situations
  • Review boards help increase the public’s understanding of law enforcement actions, and policies and procedures.
  • Oversight agencies can recommend improvements in department training, policies and procedures.
  • Review boards can assist in liability management and reduce costly litigation  
  • A civilian review board can mediate a mutually acceptable outcome, which had multiple benefits to both citizens and police officers.
  • Boards help complainants feel satisfied through being able to express their concerns to the specific police officer in a neutral environment 
  • Boards help police officers better understand how their words, behaviors and attitudes can unknowingly affect public perceptions
  • Boards citizens better understand and appreciate the stresses and difficulties officers face every day
  • Boards help citizens better understand the overriding concerns for officer safety
  • By establishing a citizen review board, public officials demonstrate their desire for increased police accountability and the need to eliminate “bad apples”
  • Oversight agencies help improve the quality of the department’s internal affairs investigations.
  • Review boards are intermediaries between the police and the public, and can reduce the “us verses them” mentality on both sides.

Disadvantages of Civilian Oversight

  • Powerful police unions object, resist, and obstruct citizen review
  • Rank-and-file police officers object, resist, and obstruct civilian oversight
  • Police department leaders object, resist, and obstruct review boards
  • Inadequate framework to hold officers accountable
  • The ability of police departments to routinely ignore board recommendations
  • Lack of adequate funding and staffing
  • Slow reviews
  • Limited power to conduct independent investigations
  • Lack of subpoena power for witnesses and documents
  • Board members are sometimes biased political appointees
  • Board members sometimes have personal agendas and are not fair and impartial
  • The board is vulnerable to political power and manipulation
  • Board members lack adequate knowledge, training, and experience to properly evaluate police conduct

Types of Civilian oversight

Audit Oversight. One type of citizen oversight agency simply audits police investigations of officer misconduct. The board determines whether the internal affairs investigation was fair and thorough. The board reviews the conclusions and the recommended discipline.  The board either endorses the conclusions and recommendations, or suggests alternatives. The board does not conduct any independent investigation and relies solely on the investigation by the police agency.

Appellate Review. Some review boards are activated only when there is an appeal to the internal affairs investigation.

Independent Investigation. Other civilian oversight boards conduct their own independent investigation. The board has its own investigators. It subpoenas documents, interviews witnesses, and conducts hearings. The board reaches its own conclusions and makes its own recommendations regarding discipline.

Hybrid. Some citizens review boards are a hybrid.  The board oversees and audits the police investigation.  If the board is satisfied then no further action is needed.  If not, the board conducts further investigation.

Independent Boards. Some citizens review boards are independent agencies.  They serve under the city council or county supervisors.

Police Boards.  Some review boards serve under the police chief. They are an adjunct to the department. They simply advise the chief.

Advisory. The recommendations of some civilian oversight boards are advisory only.  Their conclusions are tentative.  Their recommendations are not conclusive.  

Binding. With other boards, their conclusions and recommendations are binding and final.

Board Member Qualifications and Competence

A citizen oversight board should have the confidence of the public and the police.

Board members should have sufficient training and experience to competently evaluate police conduct. 

Nothing is more dangerous than ignorance in action.” (Goethe.) Board members should not be ignorant or naïve.

Board members should be fair and impartial. They should not have their own “agendas.” They should be aware of, and guard against, personal prejudices.

Board members should include citizens who have training and experience in law enforcement, like former: police officers, investigators, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges.

Board members who lack law enforcement experience should receive practical training.

For example, inexperienced board members should be required to take a course in gun use and safety. How can a board member evaluate a shooting, if they have never fired a gun?

For instance, inexperienced board member should be required to go on several police ride-a-longs.

For example, inexperienced board members should participate in several police shooting simulations.


There are so many advantages of having a citizen police review board.  The advantages far outweigh any disadvantages. Every city, county, and state should have a civilian oversight agency to review complaints against police officers.

  • In this way, “bad apples” can be identified and the conduct of good officers can be reinforced.
  • In this way, mutual trust and confidence between the police and the public can be strengthen.
  • In this way, the reputation of law enforcement can be enhanced.

 It is disheartening that there are so few civilian oversight agencies.

(“Citizen Review of Police: Approaches and Implementation,” U.S. Dept. of Justice, (181 pages); “Is Civilian Oversight the Answer to Distrust of Police?” Priyank Boghani, Frontline: PBS, July 13, 2016; “Civilian Police Oversight Agency,” Wikipedia; National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, http://www.nacole.org)

(Other Articles: http://www.londonedition.net)

One thought on “Police Reform (6/10): “More Civilian Oversight”

  1. Great article Brett! Based on the points of both pros and cons, the benefits of having an oversight board that is independent and impartial biases or agendas far outweigh the negatives. Until this change occurs, the current climate of layers of protection and the code of silence will continue to perpetuate actions of the few bad apples with continued history of abuse of excessive force and bad behaviors.


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