Ideal Police Oversight and Review: The Next Piece of the Community Policing Puzzle

– Executive Summary –

Independent oversight boards of law enforcement misconduct investigations are often asked to make the complaint process more inclusive by providing mechanisms and locations outside of law enforcement facilities to accept complaints and provide non-police driven feedback on the status and outcomes of complaints. Boards are also used to provide an independent voice to hold law enforcement and civic leaders accountable for training and disciplining officers when necessary.

On May 18, 2015, the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing recommended the inclusion of civilians in review of officer involved shootings, that communities should “define” what form of independent oversight fits their community needs, and that the federal government “should provide technical assistance and collect best practices from existing civilian oversight efforts and be prepared to help cities create this structure, potentially with some matching grants and funding.”[1]

Law enforcement in the United States has championed a philosophy of community policing at the local, state, and federal levels for more than 30 years. Community meetings, a shared desire for safer communities, and working partnerships are all part of this philosophy—a philosophy based on the police providing their community with the service that it desires and needs. One of the last pieces to be fully implemented nationwide into community policing models appears to be independent oversight of internal law enforcement misconduct investigations. Although independent oversight boards can be found throughout America, they are infrequently used in medium and small municipalities.

A purposive sampling method was used to obtain a representation of boards from across the Unites States. This thesis set out to discover frameworks, operation methods, and responsibilities of independent oversight of law enforcement excessive use of force cases by examining what the current structures and practices of oversight bodies across America, seeing how are they different from each other, how they are successful, and determining if there should be a national standard framework. The research includes oversight boards from small, medium, and large American municipalities with law enforcement agencies whose ethnic diversity was not reflective of their ethnically diverse communities.

From the research, it can be surmised that there is a lack of established national framework for what is accepted as oversight at minimum; there are only recommendations. There is no established specificity as to what a board must have in its framework organizationally, operationally, and written in policy to be consistent with other boards across the United States. As a whole, the boards together were found to have structures that matched what has been put forth in academic literature. In addition, boards are consistent with having governance that established their creation and have mechanisms for complaint intake. Also, not only do they all have a part in addressing complaints of excessive use of force, they have defined roles as to responsibilities directly related to the review or investigation of complaints. In addition, they provide avenues for making a wide array of recommendations to the head law enforcement executive or city administrator/civic leader. All boards provide some form of feedback to their law enforcement agencies to insure complete and thorough investigations have been conducted. With the exception of one board, those examined do not have the capability to recommend discipline on law enforcement officers who are found committing misconduct.

Results from this research perpetuate findings from the literature review in that there was little to be learned on how boards gauge operational success. This may be due to a wide range of individual missions and vague goals. Eleven of the 12 boards were found not to conduct any type of subjective survey with the end users, the complainants, with regard to their feelings towards the inclusiveness, transparency, or thoroughness of their case. The research and responses also indicate that there is a lack of a standard mission and set of quantifiable goals for oversight nationwide.

Several research limitations were encountered during this thesis. Research was limited due to the lack of an established and available nationally maintained database on oversight board frameworks, operational goals, and metrics for success. Additionally, the research was unable to provide an even mix of independent oversight boards by function; nine are review boards, and three have true investigative capabilities. This can be attributed in part to scoping criteria addressing ethnic demographics of the police departments themselves and budgets. Also inhibiting the research were non-responses by boards who received a request for information.

This thesis provides recommendations based on the research and findings for the future of independent oversight. They are as follows:

  • As a response to the lack of a national database of information on oversight boards, an area of further development would be to create a database of oversight boards that is exhaustive and periodically maintained.
  • Research into independent oversight of internal police use of force investigations should consider more in depth case studies on a broader group of boards, including those from countries with comparable governance structures.
  • Research on if the Ideal Police Review System as presented by Dr. Douglas Perez in his book on police oversight, Common Sense about Police Review, can be used as a model for a national standard for independent police oversight.[2]
  • Future research should consider questioning how social media and the rise of body-worn cameras and cellular phone video footage affect independent oversight boards.

The final report from the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing recommends, “Some form of civilian oversight of law enforcement is important in order to strengthen trust with the community. Every community should define the appropriate form and structure of civilian oversight to meet the needs of that community.”[3] Communities should have a say in how their boards operate, but if the president and federal government are going to advocate for oversight, then they should also provide sage guidance based on data and research as to what the minimal standard service an oversight board performs, how it performs the service, and how success will be measured. If minimal standards are not established on verifiable best practices then, we may be addressing this same issue again in 20 years and still only providing recommendations instead of refining what has been offered through analysis as a standard that provides results.

[1] President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice: Community Oriented Policing Services, 2015),, 26.

[2] Douglas Werner Perez, Common Sense about Police Review (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1994).

[3] President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, Final Report of the President’s Task Force, 26.

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