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Getting Along with Citizen Oversight.

Two Rochester, New York, police officers arrested two young males allegedly for dealing drugs. One youth's mother claimed that the young men were innocently walking along the street when the officers approached them. She further alleged that one officer grabbed her son and threw him through a store window. Some community members became enraged at what they perceived as police brutality. When the city's citizen review board heard the case, however, it learned that the two males had drugs in their possession at the time of the arrest. Also, the store owner reported that the officers had remained polite and professional during the encounter and that the woman's son had pushed the officer into the store window. The review board discovered the truth, exonerated the officers, and calmed the community members. [1]

While this example illustrates how citizen oversight helped defuse a potentially volatile situation, the relationship between law enforcement and citizen oversight often has proved strained, at best, or even adversarial, in some cases. However, the 1990s showed a considerable increase in citizen oversight of police in the United States. In light of this expansion, police administrators and citizen oversight members must consider how they can work together with a minimum of conflict and a maximum of collaboration. [2]


Communities rarely create identical oversight systems. However, most of these review processes fall into four main types.

1) Citizens investigate allegations of police misconduct and recommend a finding to the head of the agency.

2) Officers investigate allegations and develop findings. Then, citizens review and recommend that the head of the agency approve or reject the findings.

3) Complainants may appeal findings established by the agency to citizens who review them and make recommendations to the head of the agency.

4) An auditor investigates the process the agency uses to accept and investigate complaints and reports to the agency and the community the thoroughness and fairness of the process.

While some oversight procedures represent "pure" samples of these models, many exist as hybrids that merge features from two or more different varieties of citizen review into their own unique systems. For example, the Minneapolis, Minnesota, civilian police review operates in two stages. First, paid, professional investigators and an executive director examine most citizen complaints to determine whether there is probable cause to believe that police misconduct occurred. Then, volunteer board members conduct closed-door hearings to decide whether they should support the allegations in probable cause cases. However, in Orange County, Florida, nine volunteer citizen review board members hold hearings, open to the public and the media, on all cases involving the alleged use of excessive force and abuse of power after the sheriffs department has investigated them. A member of the department helps coordinate the review board's activities. By comparison, 13 citizen advisors, appointed by the city council and neig hborhood coalitions in Portland, Oregon, hear appeals from citizens dissatisfied with police investigations of their complaints, review all closed cases involving allegations of the use of excessive force, and conduct random audits of internal affairs investigations. The city council also meets as an audit committee to hear appeals from citizens dissatisfied with the department's investigation of their complaints. A professional examiner coordinates the work of the city council committee and the citizen advisors and conducts many of the audits. Although different in structure and content, these three oversight systems all function in similar ways by providing policy and training recommendations to their respective law enforcement agencies.


In many jurisdictions, law enforcement agencies have fought the initiation of citizen oversight. After communities have implemented such systems, agencies frequently have found them troublesome. Basically, most agencies have opposed citizen oversight because they feel that oversight procedures represent outside interference, oversight staff lack experience with and understanding of police work, and oversight processes are unfair.

Outside Interference

Most police administrators believe that their agencies should have the final say in matters of discipline, policies and procedures, and training. Because police administrators are in charge of their agencies, they are held accountable for their officers' behavior. Accordingly, without final say over matters that directly affect their officers, administrators feel that this accountability becomes undermined. Therefore, most jurisdictions have used a variety of approaches in addressing concerns about outside involvement in police affairs. In many communities, local governments have established oversight bodies that solely advise; they can make only nonbinding recommendations to law enforcement agencies. Also, some review bodies can appeal the agency's rejection of their recommendations to elected or appointed officials who can require the department to act. However, because these officials have this authority regardless of whether an oversight body exists, the oversight procedure itself does not further dimini sh the authority of agency administrators.

Even when citizen oversight systems have some authority over the police, they generally exercise it cautiously. For example, oversight bodies in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Flint, Michigan, have never used their subpoena power to compel officers to testify. Moreover, most oversight staff members agree that citizens should not have the power to discipline officers. They realize that giving citizens that authority could violate state laws, city charters, or collective bargaining agreements with police unions. Also, such authority would detract from holding the agency's administrator accountable for ensuring proper standards of professional conduct.

Lack of Understanding

Because they lack experience as law enforcement officers, oversight members may have difficulty fairly determining whether officers have engaged in misconduct. Citizens generally are not familiar with pertinent case law governing officer behavior nor do they understand the nature of police discretion, the methods employed to train officers, or the totality of the circumstances of an incident that can influence officer behavior. Officers frequently observe that state medical boards, composed only of physicians, investigate doctors for malpractice, and only attorneys investigate lawyers for misconduct. Similarly, some police argue that only law enforcement officers have the knowledge to investigate and judge other sworn personnel.

However, many law enforcement administrators have worked with citizen review members to address these concerns and find ways of improving their relationships. For example, some agencies train oversight staff and volunteers. In Rochester, New York, candidates for the review board attend a condensed version of a police academy run by the police department. The 48-hour course involves 3 hours per evening for 2 weeks and 2 all-day Saturday sessions. The members use a shoot/don't shoot simulator, practice handcuffing, and learn about department policies and procedures, including the use-of-force continuum. Other oversight systems require a department supervisor to attend hearings or be on call to answer questions about department policies and operations. Also, review systems that investigate citizen complaints often hire investigators with pertinent law enforcement expertise. Finally, many agencies have found that outsiders can sometimes do a more objective job than insiders in assessing the performance of member s of their own profession. Juries illustrate a frequent use of representatives of many different professions and life experiences to resolve allegations of police misconduct, physician and attorney malpractice, and other profession-specific cases in civil and criminal trials. [3]

Unfair Process

While many law enforcement administrators and officers feel that the oversight process is unfair because outside reviewers are unfamiliar with police work, they have other objections to citizen oversight. For example, unjust criticism and lengthy delays represent two concerns that many officers have about the oversight process.

Unjust Criticism

Many officers complain that oversight staff members hold them accountable for minor infractions, such as placing the wrong offense code on a citation or failing to record the end mileage on a vehicle transport. Also, some administrators feel that complainants take advantage of the complaint process to benefit a planned or ongoing civil suit against an officer or the community.

Through educating civilian review members about police work and informing officers of the benefits that review members can provide, administrators can reduce some of these concerns. In one case, when a citizen, whose complaint a review board did not sustain, filed a civil suit, the city attorney had the oversight investigator testify. This investigator's testimony helped have the suit dismissed.

Lengthy Delays

Delays harm the credibility of the oversight process and cause officers considerable stress as they wait for their cases to be decided. [4] To reduce these delays, agencies first should avoid contributing to them by establishing their own time lines for each stage of the review process. Next, agencies should work with oversight bodies and local government officials to establish deadlines. For example, in Rochester, New York, the city council requires oversight members to review cases within 2 weeks after the police department has completed its investigation. To speed up the hearing process in Berkeley, California, the review board decided to allow the director to recommend that the board summarily dismiss cases without merit.


Faced with concerns about the oversight process, law enforcement administrators have discovered that they can take steps that may short-circuit future tension and lead to a successful relationship with oversight members. First, administrators can initiate citizen oversight systems. For example, the chief of the St. Paul, Minnesota, Police Department decided to implement an oversight system to gain citizens' perspectives on the behavior of the department's officers. The seven-member commission meets monthly to review cases investigated and decided by the department. The members, including two police officers, make their own findings and, in sustained cases, recommend discipline to the chief who makes the final decision.

In addition, when local officials begin talking about setting up a citizen oversight system, administrators can become involved in the planning process. This allows administrators to try to ensure that the oversight system has realistic and precisely specified objectives. Without well-defined objectives, an oversight system can cause the involved parties to have different expectations for how the process should operate and what it should accomplish. For example, specific objectives could--

* reassure the public that the agency appropriately disciplines officers who engage in misconduct;

* provide the public with a "window" on how the agency investigates allegations of officer misconduct;

* defuse hostility expressed by residents or specific groups of citizens;

* reduce the number of police shootings; and

* establish mechanisms through which citizens can make recommendations for improving police policies, procedures, and training.

Finally, law enforcement administrators should demonstrate their willingness to work cooperatively with oversight members. Police supervisors and oversight staff should meet regularly to discuss any specific misconceptions or conflicts and to share information. For example, when the Tucson, Arizona, citizen oversight board found some of the police department's statistics difficult to understand, the chief and the board's chair met with the department's statistical personnel, who then developed a clearer presentation method.


Despite serious reservations about citizen oversight, many law enforcement administrators have identified several ways that such systems can benefit police agencies. These include bettering an agency's image with the community, enhancing an agency's ability to police itself, and, most important, improving an agency's policies and procedures.

Police Image

The example at the beginning of this article illustrates how citizen oversight can improve a department's relationship and image with the community it serves. Particularly among skeptical citizens, the oversight process can help establish and maintain an agency's reputation for fairness and firmness in addressing allegations of police misconduct. Citizen oversight also can promote the goals of community policing by enhancing communication between police and citizens and obtaining the public's views about law enforcement activities.

Internal Investigations

Oversight systems can improve the quality of a department's internal investigations of alleged officer misconduct. [5] Some agencies report that officers perform more thorough investigations of such cases because they know that the oversight body--and, through it, the general public--will be examining how accurate and unbiased their reports are.

While no empirical evidence may show that oversight systems deter police misconduct, [6] citizen review may help in three ways to improve officer actions. First, by recommending additional training for errant officers, oversight bodies can encourage officers to learn how to avoid the behavior that led to citizen complaints. Next, oversight systems may discourage some officers from engaging in misconduct by reducing their chances for promotion. Finally, when law enforcement agencies adopt policy and procedure changes recommended by oversight bodies, officers gain a better understanding of how they should perform their duties.

Policies and Procedures

Many law enforcement administrators and oversight staff feel that providing suggestions for agency policy and procedure changes represents the greatest benefit of oversight systems. Policy recommendations, including suggestions for training improvements, can influence entire departments not just individual officers' behavior.

While some police administrators believe that outsiders do not have the necessary understanding of police practices to make useful policy recommendations, others disagree. For example, some managers feel that this lack of expertise allows oversight members to ask questions that encourage officers to reevaluate long-standing practices and approach situations from a different perspective.

Citizen oversight bodies can provide two general types of recommendations for changing police operations. First, they can recommend changes in the way the department conducts its internal investigation into alleged misconduct. For example, because of investigative inconsistencies in Portland, Oregon, the oversight committee recommended that the police department's internal affairs unit handle all use-of-force complaints rather than sending them to the precincts for investigation. The department agreed.

More often, oversight bodies offer recommendations intended to improve department policies governing officer behavior. For example, in the wake of riots in a local park that drew over 30 complaints from citizens alleging officer misconduct, the Berkeley, California, city council directed oversight members to prepare recommendations about crowd control at large demonstrations. As a result, the city's oversight commission recommended 12 specific changes, including obtaining and using better-amplified sound devices to address crowds and monitoring the audibility of dispersal orders; providing clearer instructions about the location of the unlawful assembly site, the route that persons can use to leave the area, and the amount of time given to comply with the dispersal order; and training specific officers to serve as crowd liaisons at demonstrations. The department subsequently implemented all 12 of the oversight commission's recommendations.

By comparison, oversight systems may recommend changes to policies and procedures that prove more favorable to officers. For example, the internal affairs unit of the Orange County, Florida, Sheriffs Office recommended firing a deputy for violating the agency's pepper spray policy--excessive use of force. However, the citizen review board determined that the deputy, a recent hire from another department where deputies had carried ammonia capsules, had used the pepper spray only as a substitute to wake an unconscious suspect. The board concluded that the sheriffs office had a poor pepper spray policy because it required automatic termination for misuse regardless of mitigating circumstances. As a result, the department rewrote its policy so that misuse of pepper spray would not require automatic termination and suspended, but did not terminate, the deputy.


Law enforcement administrators often find citizen oversight a burdensome, even contentious, procedure. In many jurisdictions, perpetual conflict has reigned between agencies and oversight members. In fact, some tension between the two may prove inevitable if the oversight system is functioning conscientiously. However, constant friction does not have to exist.

Ultimately, a good, or at least tolerable, working relationship depends on the personalities and commitment to fairness displayed by the oversight director and the law enforcement administrator. Both of these individuals must communicate openly and with a willingness to listen to the other's point of view. Indeed, if both sides make a sincere and sustained effort to work together, citizen oversight can help law enforcement administrators perform their jobs more effectively and with increased public support.

Mr. Finn is a senior research associate for a private firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and serves as a special officer with the Belmont, Massachusetts, Police Department.


(1.) Andrew Thomas, executive director of the Rochester Center for Dispute Settlement, which operates the city's citizen review board, interview by author 1999.

(2.) The author based this article on information he collected as part of a report prepared for the U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice, Contract OJP-94-C-007.

(3.) Maxy Dunlap, director of the San Francisco, California, Office of Citizen Complaints, interview by author, 1999.

(4.) Jerry Sanders, former chief of the San Diego, California, Police Department, interview by author, 1999.

(5.) Charles Moose, former chief of the Portland, Oregon, Police Bureau, and Captain Melvin Sears of the Orange County, Florida, Sheriff's Office and administrative coordinator of the Orange County Citizen Review Board, interview by author, 1999.

(6.) The oversight process may lack certain qualities thought necessary to deter misconduct: certainty, severity, and swiftness of punishment. Michele Sviridoff and Jerome E. McElroy, Processing Complaints Against Police: The [New York City] Civilian Complaint Review Board (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 1998), 35.
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Title Annotation:citizen involvement in investigating complaints against police
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2000
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