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Civilian Oversight Is an Essential Police Reform

This is the second article in a two-part series on police reform. To read the first article, click here.

As the list of recent police killings grows — Daunte Wright, Kurt Reinhold, Breonna Taylor — the scope of possibilities for police reform does the same. Many have subscribed to the reallocation model of reform, widely known as “defund the police,” where police funds are directed towards issues such as mental health response teams in order to address crime at its systemic roots. However, as long as gun violence is prevalent in the United States, armed police will have to exist in some capacity. In part one of this two-part series, a variety of issues and inefficiencies in American police training were addressed, with reforms proposed as a way to reduce unnecessary police violence. However, training reform can only prevent police violence for officers who follow the training. It will not completely deter officers from using violence while on duty. For that to happen on a national scale, a “one size fits all” approach to reform will not be effective. Rather, changes need to be made to police departments and their operations in order to make them self-evaluative. By adding robust civilian oversight bodies, altering transparency policies, and overhauling staff management practices, unnecessary police violence can be eradicated from American police departments. 

Civilian oversight committees have become a primary contender in the police reform debate, and already exist in many forms across the United States. They usually consist of appointed individuals who evaluate policing in their community. Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), a component of the Department of Justice, categorizes civilian oversight into three distinct models: investigation focused, review focused, and an auditor/monitor model. The “investigation focused” model involves independent, routine investigations into complaints against officers, and is the most hands-on version of oversight. The “review focused” model attempts to scrutinize completed investigations and give recommendations to police executives. The “auditor/monitor” model focuses on evaluating broad patterns in complaints and investigations and using this data to review police practices. For civilian oversight to be an effective analysis mechanism, committees must be properly staffed and funded. 

These models exist in various forms throughout the country, yet in nearly every instance they only serve to advise the policing institutions, not to take part in any authoritative decision making. Civilian oversight lacks power, particularly disciplinary power, because of what Berkeley Law Professor Catherine Fisk calls “the most powerful union in the world;” police unions. Police unions do not want non-police to review the operations and work done by their members. Their political power leads to the imposition of legal barriers that make it impossible for civilian oversight bodies to have managerial powers, including disciplinary powers. However, civilian oversight can still be used as a piece of police reform by doing what it is designed to do: evaluation. To help stop police violence, cities should institute robust civilian oversight entities that include investigative, review, and auditory components to help them evaluate the effectiveness of their policing. Members of the committee should also receive police training to become familiar with the practices that they will be evaluating. 

The next step in the process of evaluating a police department is building an understanding of how successful the particular agency is. For that to happen, the department’s information — misconduct allegations, consistent disciplinary action, history on the use of force, etc. — must be public. In August of 2020, transparency reform brought 323,911 misconduct accusations against the New York Police Department (NYPD) into the public eye as the state of New York repealed statute 50-a in the city’s civil code, a law that sealed every NYPD misconduct case since 1985. The allegations were filed through the city’s civilian oversight group, the Civilian Complaint Review Board, and included complaints on over 81,550 New York City police officers. The New York Times reported that these misconduct allegations named many current NYPD officers, including the current NYPD commissioner. Repealing laws similar to 50-a, such as Section 832.7 of the California Penal code which seals police personnel records, is the first step towards increasing transparency in order to empower auditory models of civilian oversight to better evaluate its police department. 

Because a civilian oversight body is fundamentally based on the information it receives about its police department, the more access it has to department records, the more analysis it can provide. In a 2020 article in the California Law Review, Fisk suggested multiple amendments to current transparency laws regarding departmental decision making. These include recommendations to make use-of-force policy negotiations and all disciplinary records available to the public. The more a city or district chooses to make police information publicly available, the more empowered its civilian oversight will be.

Funding civilian oversight committees and giving them access to police records and decision making processes will undoubtedly help them function better as evaluative entities. However, this doesn’t directly lead to greater accountability in policing. Citizens can only influence this by electing officials who are willing to take action against police violence, and their vote must be informed by civilian oversight committees. By publicizing conclusive investigations of complaints, reviews of problematic investigations done by police, and analysis of broad patterns in city policing practices, civilian oversight committees can inform voters on the state of their police department. This would call for civilian oversight bodies to not only function as an investigative tool, but as a journalistic institution as well. By focusing on community outreach and publicizing their findings, civilian oversight is the key to voters’ understanding of the state of their police department. Once informed, voters must hold their elected officials accountable in order to solve or eradicate any issues with policing in their city. 

A noteworthy example of city council members (almost) taking action to fix a broken policing system is in Minneapolis, where a veto-proof majority of Minneapolis City Council members pledged to dismantle their police agency entirely after reaching the conclusion that the department could not be reformed. Although they were delayed by the Minneapolis Charter Commission and later went back on their decision, their initial intentions were sensible. There have long been statistics to show that the department was overly-violent, especially towards Black citizens. According to the New York Times, Black people experience sixty percent of the documented police violence in Minneapolis, despite making up just twenty percent of the population. The department received 569 complaints in 2018, a number that had grown steadily throughout the decade prior and was a 41.5 percent increase from the year before. Additionally, a survey by the Leadership Conference Education Fund concluded that more than eighty percent of African American residents were not willing to cooperate with the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD). Of the 31.3 percent of surveyed African Americans who interacted with MPD during a mental health crisis, an alarming 81.3 percent said that MPD involvement was unhelpful. If a robust civilian oversight committee had examined these patterns and reported on these trends, a large scale decision to reform or replace their police department could have been made earlier. Although Minneapolis’s decision was delayed and ultimately abandoned, it showed that the mechanism of voter-to-council-member reform was possible. If civilian oversight is to be a part of the solution to police violence, it must draw its power from the vote of the citizens. 

Berkeley has had their own form of civilian oversight in the Police Review Commission (PRC) since 1973, and in 2020, voters opted to replace it with the reimagined Police Accountability Board. While the PRC only has five members and operates solely as an advisory body to Berkeley Police Department (BPD) and not as a mechanism to inform voters, it was one of the first of its kind. When it was founded in 1973, it was one of the first ten oversight agencies in existence. While it is difficult to draw conclusions that BPD’s decent track record is because of its oversight committee, it should not be overlooked as a helping factor. 

The issues in policing can be attacked at many angles, but for an adaptive and multifaceted solution to departmental flaws, civilian oversight should be considered. So long as civilian oversight councils are well staffed, properly funded, and able to handle all aspects of their evaluative and community outreach functions, they can be a way to diagnose the issues present in policing institutions around the country. Through these diagnoses, voters can be informed on the need for change in their police departments and can support representatives that concur.