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How to successfully create and run a Citizens Advisory Board

Unlike a Citizens Review Board, a Citizens Advisory Board is a group of people who meet on a regular basis to provide the chief of police with advice on a wide range of issues and exchange ideas


From left to right, Dr. Dianne McAdams-Jones, Dr. Brian Woodfield, Chief John King, and Chief Mike Brown.

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In today’s climate of increased scrutiny of law enforcement, citizens in many jurisdictions are clamoring to have greater visibility into their police departments, and are demanding more robust community policing efforts. One way to achieve both goals is to create a Citizens Advisory Board (CAB), which is distinctly different from a Citizens Review Board (CRB).

A CRB is largely detached from the police department so as to establish a level of independence and autonomy in making judgments about police activities. A CAB is entirely different. Unlike a CRB, a CAB is a group of people who meet on a regular basis to provide the chief of police with advice on a wide range of issues and exchange ideas. Members of the CAB and the department make joint public appearances. When the CAB is succeeding, it becomes an integral part of the department. The CAB can provide insight into blind spots — activities and attitudes in the jurisdiction that are beneath the surface and invisible.

During a seminar session at IACP 2016 in San Diego, a panel of experts who have “been there and done that” helped attendees get some insight into the successful creation and management of a CAB. Dr. Brian Woodfield and Dr. Dianne McAdams-Jones — both of whom serve on the Provo (Utah) Police Citizens Advisory Board — were joined by Chief Mike Brown of the Salt Lake City Police Department and Chief John King of the Provo City Police Department on the dais.

Setting up a CAB
King mentioned at the outset of the session that the nature of the CAB is to advise the chief. The board is to bring its vast expertise outside of law enforcement in order to help the chief make better-informed decisions taking into account outside perspectives, but as the CEO of the organization, the chief has the final say about what happens.

King said that the overarching purpose of the CAB is to achieve transparency, increase credibility, gain support, obtain outside opinions, and receive direct feedback. He mentioned that the CAB is not a formal city organization, and therefore is not subject to the rules which can mire down public meetings. He said that his CAB is structured such that it is a relaxed environment that encourages dialog, not an hour of formal drudgery.

A few years ago, Brown became interim chief for Salt Lake City, about an hour north of Provo. After meeting with King, Brown almost immediately set up a CAB, and his assessment is that ever since then it has “paid dividends” for his department. Brown mentioned that it’s important to include people on the CAB who are your most ardent critics — the more diverse the group, the more perspectives will be brought to the table, and the better advice the chief will ultimately get.

Benefits of a CAB
Chief Brown then quoted Sir Robert Peel: “The police are the public and the public are the police,” adding that “as we have gone through Baltimore and Ferguson and the many turmoils around the country, we see that we need having our community — part of our community — at our backs. If it hasn’t happened to you yet, it soon might.”

“We have a psychologist, we have a chaplain — who is a female and not Mormon — and we have a freelance writer. We have a Hispanic leader and we have an African American, and that’s me,” said McAdams-Jones. The Provo CAB has university students as well as representatives from The United Way and the ACLU.

McAdams-Jones then spoke about her perceived benefits of being on the CAB, paramount among them simply being the opportunity to learn about law enforcement. “You can educate the public. There are a lot of things that I did not know before joining this CAB. It helps me to understand law, I understand how police approach things... I can fact-check rumors and that’s extremely important. And once I’m educated, I can educate the people around me.”

Woodfield added, “In my profession, it is all about ideas. Participating on this CAB allows me to funnel ideas. And I support what Dianne is saying. I teach classes with 250 students and if you think it’s hard to talk about how policing works, try teaching quantum mechanics to a bunch of freshmen. You can teach people what’s going on, and the way you start is you start on these individual relationships. Then I talk to everyone in my neighborhood.”

“I would just add,” said King, “that when the citizens leave the Citizens Advisory meeting, they become an information force multiplier. Each of them has a circle of influence and they go back and they really do talk to the people in their network.”

Another direct benefit for the department is the availability of perspectives which are completely different from law enforcement. Woodfield mentioned an example illustrating why this can be helpful.

“My expertise, besides science research and developing new materials, I’m also in education. I have a huge education program at BYU, and so I can say, ‘Hey, let’s talk about training,’ and I can bring in a bunch of research that may not be targeted to police work, but it’s education research and we can say, ‘Hey, this is pretty similar here.’ We can bring in a lot more new ideas to do a better job,” Woodfield said.

For example, Woodfield has introduced classroom concepts of unstructured learning — creative learning — to solve problems into scenario-based training at the police department.

“I tell my students, ‘Why would I care that you can solve a problem that everybody knows how to solve. I’m trying to teach you to solve a new problem.’ When you’re out on the streets as a police officer, every problem can be similar but every problem is unique. So what we did was set up a training program where I took a lot of these principles that we have demonstrated in creating virtual laboratories in science and converted that over to training,” Woodfield said.

King confirmed that the results have been positive. “We just had a class before we came here with our newer officers, and it was a big hit. It’s evolving as the professor changes his science language to cop talk — you know, we’ve got to make it kind of trooper-proof.”

Get your CAB up and running
No matter the size of the department, a police leader can do a great deal of good for police-community relations by setting up a CAB. Chiefs and command staff may choose to have members of the CAB attend the Citizens Police Academy, and they may be eligible to do ridealongs. The CAB can evolve from something very small to a group that is not only larger in size but also complex in the initiatives and work conducted by the group.

The point really is to simply get started. Set regular meetings. Have an agenda for each, and make sure that the agenda is set by the citizens as well as the chief — find out what the participants want to discuss, and allow that to drive the growth of enthusiasm and engagement. Bring to each meeting an idea about how to educate the public about law enforcement issues. If the Provo and Salt Lake City examples are any indicator, you will be glad you created your own CAB.

Doug Wyllie writes police training content on a wide range of topics and trends affecting the law enforcement community. Doug was a co-founder of the Policing Matters podcast and a longtime co-host of the program.