As part of our commitment to examine the issues that affect law enforcement officers and their relationship with the communities they serve, the American Police Officers Alliance is presenting the first in a series of articles about Police Oversight Boards. We’ll review what these agencies are and their purpose, as well as review their impact, their membership, and their effects on the departments subject to them.
What are Police Oversight Boards?
Police Oversight Boards, also known as Civilian Police Oversight Agencies, are organizations made up of citizens or non-police civil servants whose objective is to review police actions in the interest of providing accountability and improving police conduct. These organizations are attempts at creating impartial reviews, beyond the work of internal police review departments.
History of Police Oversight Boards
According to the National Association of Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE), the origins of civilian oversight of police date back to the late 1800s with an attempt to counter perceived political influence over police departments. Various forms of these groups started and failed due to numerous reasons, including lack of objectivity, expertise, and resources. As noted by the American Bar Association, in the 1960s, inspired by challenges of the Civil Rights Era, oversight boards had more longevity and from the 1980s they expanded from less than 40 to over 100 in 2000. Currently, NACOLE has documented more than 200 oversight boards across the country.
What is the Purpose of a Police Oversight Board?
A primary function of oversight boards is to review complaints or conduct independent reviews of allegations of police misconduct. Oversight boards comment on police polices and training as well as complaint handling procedures.
There are multiple types of models for the way these boards perform their reviews as described by the Police Assessment Resource Center and NACOLE.
Some boards use “investigation-focused” models, where boards review complaints separately from police departments. They heavily involve citizens, but have high operational expenses.
Other boards, known as “review-focused boards”, do not perform investigations themselves, but review investigations conducted by internal police agencies. This option requires fewer resources, so they have lower operational costs. They increase visibility into investigative process outside the police department.
A third type of board, the “audit/monitor board”, focuses more on large scale police department reform, specifically monitoring the processes of complaints investigation, public reporting, police training, and code of conduct policies. This type of board typically has members doing the monitoring with more police expertise than the other types.
A Desire for Trust
Based on the evidence available from existing Police Oversight Boards, it is the position of the American Police Officers Alliance that these agencies do not improve police conduct or reduce crime in the communities that have them.
Their impact and possible causes for limitations will be explored more in future posts. Regardless, the desire from both communities and law enforcement to strengthen and in some cases, earn, trust is universal. Focusing on transparency, communication, and accountability through effective means will go a long way to setting up both groups to help each other.