Can Civilian Oversight Change Police Behavior?

Police in riot gear prepare to disperse a group of protesters as they march through downtown for a third night of unrest on May 31, 2020, in Richmond, Va.

Police in riot gear prepare to disperse a group of protesters as they march through downtown for a third night of unrest on May 31, 2020, in Richmond, Va. AP Photo

COMMENTARY | Cities across the country are looking at creating police oversight bodies. That makes questions about their efficacy and value more important than ever.

Since the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police on May 25th, the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE) has fielded about ten times its normal four to five monthly requests from community groups and municipalities on establishing new police oversight bodies. At the same time, dozens more local governments are puzzling how to strengthen police oversight organizations they already have.

NACOLE counts 123 municipalities with police oversight on a resource page and some cities even have more than one entity. But comprehensive data on oversight boards or offices and their responsibilities isn’t available, partly because even after organizations are established some fade into near-oblivion or cease to exist altogether. “Sometimes the urgency of the moment dissipates and it can be politically challenging for the oversight agency to do its work in a meaningful way,” says Nick Mitchell, who heads the Office of the Independent Monitor for the City and County of Denver.

Civilian review boards began to take off in the late 1970s with more policy-oriented police monitors, auditors and inspectors general appearing in the 1990s. Today, civilian oversight takes multiple forms, including civilian investigative boards, independent police commissions, police monitors, auditors, inspectors general and review panels.  Many new organizations are hybrids—a combination of multiple approaches. “There’s so much happening, it’s hard to keep up,” says Sam Walker, a frequent expert witness and historian of police oversight and professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska, Omaha.

Building up an oversight organization that works takes time. In 2005, Denver established its Office of the Independent Monitor after the 2004 fatal shooting by police of an African-American teenager who was developmentally disabled. Its authority and staffing have grown over the years and its reports have contributed to changes in body camera policy and better police compliance with those rules, as well as to changes in use-of-force policies and attention to de-escalation strategies.

The three-person staff in place when Mitchell was appointed Denver’s independent monitor eight years ago has grown to 12. In 2014, stronger legal provisions were passed requiring the police department to share documents and information upon request. In 2016, 72% of Denver citizens voted to make the independent monitor a permanent part of the City Charter and the following year, the city council required the police to respond in writing to all of the monitor’s recommendations. “Trust has built over time as they’ve come to see the value of the work,” Mitchell says.

In June 2019, an analysis of police shootings by the Denver Post found that shootings in the City and County of Denver had declined over the last four years in contrast to five neighboring counties, which all saw shootings by officers increase.

Though Walker and other experts point to major shifts in approach over the years and a growing focus on policy change, there’s been minimal serious evaluation of the impact that different approaches have had. Whatever the approach, challenges to success remain significant.

Those obstacles were spelled out in a June 2020 audit in Oakland, California,  covering the rocky first years of a new civilian police commission and an aligned independent police investigative agency that was set up following a November 2016 ballot initiative that was passed by 83% of voters.

Since then, the commission and the investigative agency have experienced substantial growing pains. A permanent director of the investigative agency was not in place until July 2019, following short-term stints by three different interim directors. Required training of commissioners has fallen short, with commissioner turnover and resources available for senior-level staff also cited as problems. The audit also noted that investigator staffing fell short of city charter requirements through 2018 and most of 2019. Between January 2018 and August 2019, only 3 of 81 investigations were completed within the requirement “to make every reasonable effort” to complete investigations in 184 days.

A clear problem that surfaced in the audit was the shaky relationship between the commission and city administration. “Without an improvement in their relationship, the trust level will remain low (and) policy direction will remain unclear,” the audit warned. Those factors affect both the commission’s effectiveness and public confidence.

One major frustration for volunteers who serve on civilian oversight bodies is the sense that their work has minimal impact. Says NACOLE’s director of operations, Liana Perez: “I tell people they may have the authority to make recommendations, but what happens to the recommendations? What are the consequences for not implementing them? In many cases, the police chief is under no genuine obligation to pay heed and sometimes to even respond. The police chief can take it or leave it and nobody holds them accountable.”

The places where oversight works most effectively are supported by strong policies that provide tools to make change, a commitment on the part of police and local government leadership to listen, and requirements that recommendations must be acknowledged and addressed even if they are ultimately rejected.

With calls for immediate change and passionate cries to “defund the police”, providing better police oversight may seem too mild a course of action, but Mitchell sees no conflict between different approaches to change. “The need for oversight is not at all reduced by discussions of reducing funding to police departments,” he says. “Police continue to make arrests and with enhanced scrutiny, we believe there is a deterrent effect. When police know their conduct is going to be scrutinized more closely by people who aren’t part of their organizational culture, they tend to think a little more carefully about what they’re doing and how it will be viewed by others.”

Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene of Barrett and Greene, Inc. are columnists and senior advisers to Route Fifty.

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