Communities establish oversight of law enforcement to help police departments provide fair, firm and consistent policing; to re-build trust between officers and the communities they serve and to prevent death or injury to citizens and police.
Any of the oversight models can be effective as long as the community maintains the political will to make the model effective.
Policing fails its community if it is not constitutional. Oversight fails if it is not provided with funding, patience and dedicated work by citizens, whether or not a community is in a crisis. That failure comes when commissions or ombudsmen over-identify with police or with the community. Like the police work it seeks to guide, oversight is hard, unglamorous and painstaking work.
San Diego’s Citizens’ Review Board is a monitoring model, in which a board or commission reviews an Internal Affairs investigation that has been conducted inside the law enforcement agency. The model functions to lead Internal Affairs to conduct more thorough and unbiased investigations; this is its strength.
But the model has a few weaknesses. The board itself may be poorly trained. If it gets most of its training from the department it oversees, the board may not recognize problems in investigations, or may not recognize when evidence is insufficient.
Another potential problem: The board may be co-opted by the department it oversees. It may give undue deference to Internal Affairs while working with the department. If the police department controls the budget and/or the training, the department controls the board.
If the same legal department defends the actions of the policing agency and provides legal services to both the policing agency and the oversight agency, a conflict of interest exists. If this isn’t dealt with, the legal advisers essentially control the board.
Problems may arise with the other oversight models, though. Under the investigative model, investigations are conducted outside the law enforcement agency. San Diego County’s Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board is this model. Its strength is that citizens can have confidence knowing an investigation will take place outside the department.
But among its weaknesses are the potential for poorly trained board members or staff, a potentially hostile investigation process, the risks of being co-opted by the department under investigation and possibly having legal advisers with conflicts of interest.
Alternatively, an outside auditor or ombudsman model would grant an individual power to compel evidence from the law enforcement agency.
And if a law enforcement department cannot make changes on its own, a federal court may find a “pattern and practice” of civil rights violations and decide federal oversight is needed. A court monitor would then oversee the department’s progress establishing or returning to constitutional policing. Cities that have in the past or currently use this model include Los Angeles, Seattle and Albuquerque.
Whether it’s a commission, ombudsman or court-ordered monitor, each of these models of oversight must strive to avoid several critical errors: failure to be adequately prepared and informed on the relevant case details and governing policies and laws; over-identifying with the community or complainant; and over-identifying with the police.
When an oversight board avoids these mistakes, maintains thoughtful curiosity in examining statements, policies and procedures and is ethical and unafraid to follow the evidence, then and only then can it help law enforcement departments maintain or regain community trust.
Sue Quinn is a retired peace officer and civilian oversight professional. She was the first elected president of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement. Quinn’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.