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​Citizen Advisory Boards

Background – Models of Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement

While they can differ in name ("citizen oversight," "civilian review," "external review," "citizen review board") and functional purpose, citizen advisory boards are generally defined as "a group of individuals appointed for the purpose of examining a public issue or set of issues, who meet over an extended period, and develop alternative solutions and new ideas through comprehensive interaction." Some advisory boards serve as a vehicle for receiving complaints from community members regarding police, while others are responsible for serving as independent auditors, investigators, and/or monitors of police.

Civilian oversight systems and practices vary widely in their design and implementation, including significant variances in organizational structure and authority. A 2016 report commissioned by the OJP Diagnostic Center and the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE) identifies three models that citizen advisory boards can take:

MODEL #1: INVESTIGATION-FOCUSED

Key Characteristics:

1) Routinely conducts independent investigations of complaints against police officers; 2) May replace or duplicate the police internal affairs process; 3) Staffed by non-police ("civilian") investigators

Potential Key Strengths:

1) May reduce bias in investigations into citizen complaints; 2) Full-time civilian investigators may have highly specialized training; 3) Civilian-led investigations may increase community trust in the investigations process.

Potential Key Weaknesses:

1) Most expensive and organizationally complex form of civilian oversight; 2) Civilian investigators may face strong resistance from police personnel; 3) Disillusionment among the public may develop over time when community expectations for change are not met.

MODEL #2: REVIEW-FOCUSED

Key Characteristics:

Often focus on reviewing the quality of completed police internal affairs investigations (individual-level/case specific); 2) May make recommendations to police executives regarding findings or request that further investigations be conducted; 3) Commonly headed by a review board composed of citizen volunteers; 4) May hold public meetings to collect community input and facilitate police-community communication.

Potential Key Strengths:

1) Ensures that the community has the ability to provide input into the complaint investigation process; 2) Community review of complaint investigations may increase public trust in the process; 3) Generally the least expensive form of oversight since it typically relies on the work of volunteers.

Potential Key Weaknesses:

1) May have limited authority and few organizational resources; 2) Review board volunteers may have significantly less expertise in police issues and limited time to perform their work; 3) May be less independent than other forms of oversight.

MODEL #3: AUDITOR/MONITOR-FOCUSED (a.k.a. “police monitor,” “inspector general”)

Key Characteristics:

Often focuses on examining broad patterns in complaint investigations, including patterns in the quality of investigations, findings and discipline; 2) Some auditors/monitors may actively participate in or monitor open internal investigations; 3) Often seek to promote broad organizational change by conducting systematic reviews of police policies, practices or training and making recommendations for improvement.

Potential Key Strengths:

1) Often have more robust public reporting practices than other types of oversight; 2) Generally less expensive than full investigative agencies but more expensive than review-focused agencies; 3) May be more effective at promoting long-term, systemic change in police departments.

Potential Key Weaknesses:

1) Auditor/monitor focus on examining broad patterns rather than individual cases may be treated with skepticism by some local rights activists; 2) Significant expertise is required to conduct systematic policy evaluations. The hiring of staff without relevant experience may cause tension between the oversight agency and the police officers. 3) Most auditors/monitors can only make recommendations and cannot compel law enforcement agencies to make systemic changes.

Key Considerations and Decision Points for Local Stakeholders

In determining which model (or hybrid) is best suited for the specific community and law enforcement agencies that would enter into a civilian oversight agreement, municipalities/counties should consider the following:

  • Determine eligibility criteria for complainants;
  • Identify the type(s) of cases to review or investigate;
  • Decide where complainants file (i.e., at police station/sheriff's department, directly with oversight program, or another location like city hall);
  • Establish extent of openness to public scrutiny (i.e., extent to which hearings, decisions and other deliberations are open to the public and media) as well as reporting procedures (type, content, frequency, distribution);
  • Consider whether decisions recommended by the oversight program can be subject to appeal and by whom;
  • Determine whether to allow for a mediation option;
  • Establish whether to grant subpoena power and/or establish levels of access to police records;
  • Identify whether recommendations can be made for findings and/or discipline (in some cases, disciplinary action still falls under purview of chief and/or sheriff); and
  • Address the role of officer legal representation.

Municipalities/counties should also meaningfully include diverse stakeholders as part of their needs assessment and decision-making processes related to civilian oversight systems and other issues relevant to community/police relations.

For more specific information about types of police oversight programs by U.S. jurisdiction, please see NACOLE's website.

Other Resources

Final Report of the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing (May 2015)

Established through executive order by President Obama in 2014, the Task Force on 21st Century Policing was charged with identifying best practices and offering recommendations on policing practices that can effectively reduce crime while building public trust. The Task Force published its final report of findings and recommendations as well as an Implementation Guide in 2015.

National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE)

NACOLE's website includes examples of ordinance/charter language, oversight policies and procedures, annual reports, special topics reports, complaint forms, outreach brochures, and other model documents that can serve as examples for new oversight programs.

Center for Policing Equity

The Center for Policing Equity is a research and action think tank that produces analyses identifying and reducing the causes of racial disparities in law enforcement using evidence-based approaches to social justice. Major initiatives include a policy plan for policing in America developed in collaboration with the Yale Justice Collaboratory, the National Justice Database, COMPSTAT crime data system, and research.

Police Assessment Resource Center (PARC)

PARC was founded to provide independent, evidence-based counsel and research on effective, respectful, and publicly accountable policing to law enforcement agencies, government entities, and community groups. PARC assists law enforcement agencies incorporate best practices, address problems, manage risks, and provide services with greater efficiency and accountability.