Civilians on Police Use-of-Force Review Boards: A Delphi Study of Six Police Departments

John Breckenridge


Civilian involvement in the oversight of law enforcement has been debated for many years. Much of the debate surrounds the citizen complaint process and the extent to which civilian involvement improves the process and outcomes. On one side, law enforcement claims that civilians do not understand what it is like to be a law enforcement employee. On the other side, members of the public claim that law enforcement agencies cannot be trusted to thoroughly and independently investigate themselves.

In May 2015, the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing recommended, “Law enforcement agencies should establish a culture of transparency and accountability in order to build public trust and legitimacy.”[1] One recommendation was to incorporate community members in departments’ reviews of officer-involved shootings for the purpose of identifying “any administrative, supervisory, training, tactical, or policy issues that need to be addressed.”[2]

This thesis identified six law enforcement agencies—in Denver, Las Vegas, Olympia, Phoenix, Portland, and Tucson—that have voting community members on their use-of-force review boards. A collective case study was conducted to analyze the structure and operations of the six identified boards. The research finds there is no established standard for incorporating community members on use-of-force review boards. The boards were different in overall size; number, training, and term limits of community members; and methods for recruiting and selecting community members. One similarity was that all the boards have the authority to identify issues as recommended by the President’s Task Force.[3]

The structure and operations of the six boards were then compared against criteria suggested in the literature on law enforcement oversight and citizen involvement in government. The criteria included methods for recruiting and selecting community members, term limits, community-member training, the scope of the boards’ authority beyond the incident being reviewed, the compulsion of employees to answer questions from the board, and the departments’ public reporting of review board decisions. The research showed that all of the boards met at least two of the suggested criteria and were deficient in at least one.

A two-round Delphi survey was conducted to gather opinions about the structure and operation of review boards with community members. The participants in the survey were associated with the six studied law enforcement agencies and, collectively, have participated in over 100 use-of-force review boards that included community members. The survey participants provided information about the benefits of having community members on review boards; the training, recruitment, and selection of community members; and the number of community members on their boards.

The President’s Task Force did not recommend specific structure and process criteria for including community members on department use-of-force review boards. The Delphi survey and criteria from the literature suggest that agencies should consider the following actions if they operate or consider operating a board with community members:

  • Survey the involved community members to determine their satisfaction with the board process
  • Create a method for objectively recruiting and selecting community members
  • Set term limits for community members
  • Create policy requiring training for community members in use-of-force law, department policy, and department use-of-force training methods
  • Give the board authority to examine issues—policy, training, and equipment—beyond the specific incident being reviewed
  • Compel testimony from all necessary department employees
  • Provide easy public access to relevant policies, incident information, and board findings

The inclusion of community members on use-of-force review boards is a useful method for agencies to increase their transparency and legitimacy in the communities they serve. By creating transparent policies for the structure and operation of review boards, departments can show the public they are holding employees and the department accountable. In the end, both the departments and communities will benefit.




[1] President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing (Washington, DC: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, May 2015), 12.

[2] President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, 22.

[3] President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, 22.

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