How civilian review of law enforcement can improve police-community relations

A need for stronger community relationships and greater transparency of operations has caused many local governments to engage with police oversight programs


While not a new concept, civilian review of law enforcement agency programs is gaining traction in many communities across the country.

Review programs may be known as “police oversight,” “civilian review” or “police monitoring” agencies, boards, or committees. The main goal of these programs is to provide an independent system of checks and balances that ensures law enforcement agencies are doing things the right way. A large part of this process is demonstrating that community members are being treated fairly and equitably and guiding agencies in their efforts to be sensitive to the community’s culture and diversity.

Many agencies find a form of a police monitor program preferable to other types of reform such as court injunctions and federal oversight from consent decrees, which are involuntary, inflexible and quite expensive.

Many agencies find a form of a police monitor program preferable to other types of reform such as federal oversight from consent decrees as has been the case for the Baltimore City Police Department.
Many agencies find a form of a police monitor program preferable to other types of reform such as federal oversight from consent decrees as has been the case for the Baltimore City Police Department. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

Early Civilian Review

Perhaps one of the best-known examples of contemporary civilian review of police ethics and operations involved a young Teddy Roosevelt.

In 1895, Roosevelt was appointed President of the New York City Board of Commissioners by then-Mayor William Strong. The six-member board was responsible for the governance of the NYPD.

Although he only served for two years, Roosevelt’s methods of rooting out graft and corruption, improving departmental standards and officer accountability, and many of his leadership principles have been thoroughly studied and are still in use today.

Our country’s Progressive Era continued through the turn of the century and by the 1920s several major U.S. cities had civilian oversight of law enforcement boards. These groups were initially formed as a way to decrease the influence of local politics within the police department. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, the civil rights movement became a catalyst that pushed the further development of oversight boards. Eventually, the cities of Washington D.C. and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania were recognized for their progress and emerged as early leaders in civilian oversight program development.

In some jurisdictions, the police oversight function has been incorporated into an Office of the Inspector General (OIG). These are autonomous agencies charged with conducting audits, inspections and investigations into allegations of waste, fraud and abuse committed by government organizations. These departments are modeled after the OIG offices that exist for the Department of Defense as well as most federal agencies. They are responsible for oversight and required to make an annual report to the U.S. Congress.

Current Concept

Modern civilian review agencies are autonomous of their police department and are led by a chairperson or director. Neither agency is within the other’s chain of command nor do they direct the activities of the other. Boards and committees are generally made of community volunteers or part-time positions that are nominated and appointed to serve for a term while independent police monitors are city employees who work full time.

Generally, boards and committees tend to be more advisory in nature while police monitors tend to be more investigatory. Exceptions to the rule can be found, however, as it is often the case that no two civilian review agencies are exactly the same. Communities are encouraged to build the organization that works best for them and there are many examples of hybrid review agencies nationwide.

While organizations such as the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, Inc. (CALEA) or the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) do not provide a “standard” for civilian oversight programs, they maintain a dialogue with the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE). NACOLE provides a national framework for the network of civilian oversight programs around the country and actively works with them to develop and promote agency best practices. As the national oversight organization, NACOLE also works to provide a system of peer review between the nation’s civilian oversight programs.

Operationally speaking, most modern police oversight agencies have two objectives: mediation and compliance auditing.

As the agency ombudsman, the civilian oversight organization takes an active role in mediating disputes and resolving issues that are brought to them by the community and regarding the police department. They try to bring both sides to the table in an effort to explain police department policies and actions. As appropriate, they also attempt to mediate differences of opinion between the community and the department. It is critical to note that it is not the oversight organization’s job to tell the police department what to do. Rather, the oversight organization leads efforts in collaborative problem solving between all of the parties involved.

In its compliance audit function, the civilian oversight agency is charged with conducting an independent review of police investigations and then presenting a report to the police department’s Internal Affairs Division. Any findings of a failure to follow policy are then addressed formally as part of the department’s internal affairs function.

Conducting an ongoing review of the police department’s policies and procedures is also a normal function of civilian oversight agencies. This helps to ensure that best practices are being followed and that the department is not only in compliance with all current city ordinances but with state and federal laws as well. The oversight agency is also usually granted an opportunity to provide input to law enforcement leaders before any policy or procedural changes are made.

Three Main Forms of Oversight

Kim Neal serves as the independent police monitor for the newly established Office of Police Oversight with the City of Ft. Worth.
Kim Neal serves as the independent police monitor for the newly established Office of Police Oversight with the City of Ft. Worth.

I spoke with Ms. Kim Neal, former Director of the Cincinnati, Ohio Citizen Complaint Authority (CCA) and the current independent police monitor for the newly established Office of Police Oversight with the City of Ft. Worth, Texas. She shared with me the following information about the types of police monitor programs.

Over the past 80+ years, local governments have experimented with many different models for civilian oversight. Today there are three main types of civilian oversight boards for law enforcement:

  • Investigative Focus Model
  • Review Focus Model
  • Auditor/Monitor Focus Model.

Ms. Neal states that during her time in Cincinnati, Ohio they used a form of the Investigative Focus Model. Civilian oversight was performed by the CCA in conjunction with a civilian review board. Both were separate and independent of the police department. Only the CCA was allowed to conduct third-party investigations in parallel with the police department’s internal affairs division and any other agencies. The CCA’s investigative findings were then given to the Board, which could either agree or disagree with the CCA’s findings. The final CCA report with both the CCA’s and the Board’s findings then went to the City Manager who agreed or disagreed with the findings, which were then turned over to the police chief. The CCA also issued policy and training guidance through recommendations that it issued as a part of its investigations.

The next model is described as the Review Focus Model, which is involved in the constant review of agency operations. In addition, this model conducts an ongoing review of agency complaints and the manner in which those complaints are handled by the police department. Formal board meetings are held periodically so that the board’s findings can be shared with the agency. The Indianapolis, Indiana Metropolitan Police Department’s Citizens Police Complaint Office is representative of this type of model.

Finally, there is the Auditor/Monitor Focus Model, which is used in Ft. Worth, Dallas and Austin, Texas. In Ft. Worth, Ms. Neal is leveraging this model to review complaint investigations conducted by the police department, review police policies and procedures and make recommendations, audit police operations including training, collect and analyze police data, conduct community engagements in order to enhance community-police relations, provide periodic reports regarding any trends or patterns noted, as well as mediate concerns brought by community members regarding police officers. Her office will also use tools such as survey information to determine the level of community relations and community problem solving taking place between the police department and the community. By mediating police and community discussions about survey results she hopes to develop metrics that meet everyone’s needs and expectations. This model also reviews all use of force reports and sits in on use of force review boards, as well as hiring panels for new recruits. In its oversight capacity, this model reviews all body-worn camera and vehicle camera footage. In Ft. Worth, Ms. Neal is also using program outreach and public affairs to better inform the community about police department programs.

All three models are also evolving hybrid models that incorporate a review board as part of their processes. The review board helps promote transparency by ensuring an independent review is conducted and then adjudicated by sharing the results with department command staff, government leaders and community leaders.

Summary

An independent civilian oversight program can be a viable option for agencies seeking to improve community relations, increase transparency and develop meaningful reform initiatives. Like an Inspector General, they are autonomous and provide an impartial third-party review of agency activities. Unlike court orders and consent decrees, they allow communities the flexibility to determine the type and manner of reform that best suits their needs. They currently focus on the two key performance objectives of mediation and compliance auditing. Most importantly, their function is not to direct the activities of a police department, but rather to ensure police accountability and transparency through fair, equitable and unbiased policing.

Recommended for you

Copyright © 2021 Police1. All rights reserved.