Can Professional Civilian Oversight Improve Community-Police Relations?


Professional civilian oversight of law enforcement agencies can transform organizational culture in a positive way. Changes in technology, widespread access to the Internet, smartphones, 24/7 access to continual loops of news, and organized activism are just a few of the factors nudging law enforcement toward the future of professional civilian oversight. These factors, combined with the complex societal issues with which the police are asked to deal, are creating an atmosphere ripe for change. Law enforcement agencies, though, have often resisted civilian oversight. Across the United States, however, policing has changed, and professional civilian oversight could be exactly what is needed to regain legitimacy, boost morale, increase the hiring of diverse candidates and improve public safety.


What Is Civilian Oversight and Why Do Law Enforcement Agencies Resist It?

Joel Miller at the Vera Institute of Justice explains civilian oversight as follows:

Civilian oversight involves people from outside the police taking a role in calling the police to account for their actions, policies and organization. Most civilian oversight mechanisms have been particularly concerned with complaints against the police. However, civilians can, and do, hold the police accountable in ways that extend far beyond individual complaints, potentially covering broad areas of police practice and policy.1


Currently, there are many different configurations of oversight boards with a lack of consistency for who sits on the board, how much education they need, or how much influence they may have in decision-making. The National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE) notes that


[o]ver the years, there have been multiple attempts to classify approaches to civilian oversight of law enforcement. The primary challenge in doing this is that almost no two civilian oversight agencies in the U.S. are identical. Each jurisdiction has its own political, social, and cultural tensions that influenced the development of each oversight entity’s legal authority and organizational structure, and practices vary widely.2


Professionalizing oversight could help in legitimizing these boards and creating trust and acceptance between the boards and the organizations they review. Oversight can come in many different forms, but most fit under one of five categories:

• Investigative, where the board conducts investigations into events

•Auditor, where the board reviews and evaluates police investigations

• Monitor, where the review concentrates on evaluating systemic issues

• Citizen Review Boards, who audit, investigate, monitor, hear appeals, facilitate community forums, and recommend policies and procedures

• The Hybrid, which shares functions of multiple models3


Thus far, the main argument from the police against civilian oversight has been that civilians just can’t understand what law enforcement does and why. According to Douglas Perez, former law enforcement officer and now college professor, “Although most cops do not like Internal Affairs, nevertheless, they defend its operations as necessary. They argue that civilian review is unfair because it is operated by individuals unfamiliar with police work.”4 The culture of policing is a guarded one. Officers and managers alike have a hard time believing that a civilian can understand the complexities of police work without having specific training in the field.

James Pasco, the national executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, stated in a 2015 interview with National Public Radio, “The fact of the matter is, an officer has to make a split-second decision involving life or death, and the civilian review boards tend to, by definition, be made up of civilians who have no particular experience or insight into what went through that officer’s mind, what the circumstances were and how desperate things can become in that nanosecond.”5

Despite that argument, many in law enforcement are at a crossroads in their organizations. Highly publicized events and a media culture that creates its own narrative have caused some to lose trust in the ability of agencies to police their own. In the report of the Department of Justice’s investigation into the Baltimore Police Department, the investigation revealed,

BPD’s accountability system is shielded almost entirely from public view, and the civilian oversight mechanisms that are currently in place are inadequate and ineffective. These flaws damage the Department’s legitimacy in the community.6

The culture of police organizations everywhere is facing a monumental change; for many of them, that means accepting civilian oversight so that they can maintain or regain legitimacy in the communities they serve.

The Current State of Civilian Oversight

The NACOLE is “a non-profit organization that brings together individuals and agencies working to establish or improve oversight of police officers in the United States. NACOLE welcomes people and organizations committed to fair and professional law enforcement that is responsive to community needs.”7 The organization provides annual training conferences to increase the knowledge and skills of staff members working in oversight, helps to identify best practices, and provides information to communities who support their advocacy of oversight. Although NACOLE was established in 1995, the movement toward civilian review has been slow.8

Most police organizations have managed to avoid the change to civilian review, but now many more politicians are being pressured to create these boards, especially in metropolitan cities. The will to gain the consistency needed to make the boards more effective is growing along with the demand. According to Priyanka Boghani, in an article titled “Is Civilian Oversight the Answer to Distrust of Police?”

One approach that’s gained popularity in recent years is civilian oversight boards, of which there are now more than 200 across the country, according to Liana Perez, director of operations for NACOLE. While that’s still just a fraction compared to the nearly 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the United States, the national conversation around police reform has helped prompt ‘a great deal of growth’ of oversight bodies.”9

The conversation around police reform, particularly within the United States, has been ignited by technology, the media, and the speed with which people get information.

How Did We Get to This Point?

The speed and easy access of information has been a game changer for law enforcement agencies. This change was first hinted at on March 3, 1991, with the Rodney King incident. A bystander videotaped the beating and arrest of Rodney King after a high-speed chase in Los Angeles, California.10 Because the images were captured on video, the media was able to play the event on a loop. And, even though it occurred in Los Angeles, due to easier public access to handheld camcorders, it was one of the first times U.S. law enforcement agencies could not separate themselves from another U.S. policing organization. Now, in 2017, with most people having affordable access to a recorder in the palm of their hands with smartphone technology, and the combination of social media, information is uploaded and spread easier and faster than ever with or without major media outlets picking up the story.

Access to smartphones and social media has spotlighted significant police use-of-force events especially since 2014. In Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014, Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by Officer Darren Wilson. On April 4, 2015, Walter Scott was shot and killed by a police officer in North Charleston, South Carolina, and then the officer appeared to plant a Taser on Scott as he lay motionless on the ground. And on July 6, 2016, the shooting of Philando Castile in Minnesota was livestreamed via Facebook by his girlfriend.11

One bad shooting or controversial use of force can cause a ripple effect across the United States, and law enforcement agencies everywhere are paying the price. Even if an agency has yet to experience its own controversial critical event, it is not immune to the growing demand for citizen review boards.

Amid a national push for greater police accountability, voters in several major cities have approved measures to create or strengthen civilian oversight of law enforcement. The trend reflects growing public demand for independent reviews of misconduct claims after deadly police encounters in cities such as Ferguson, Missouri, Baltimore and New York spotlighted police use-of-force and interaction with minorities.12

The fact that more and more major cities are voting for some form of civilian review of police is a great indicator that this is a path to improve police and community relations as well as build legitimacy. Along with citizen review boards, organized activist groups are demanding change in police tactics, particularly as these tactics relate to their interactions with the minority community.

Police and the Media

Ray Suerette, Professor of Criminal Justice at University of Central Florida states,

The trend toward media portrayal over reality is particularly powerful in crime and justice, where news, entertainment, and advertising combine with infotainment content and new media to construct our mediated crime and justice reality. From this reality, we create our crime and justice policies.13

Out of the millions of police-citizen interactions that occur over a year very few result in a use of force, and still fewer in an injury based on that force, but the media focuses on those few instances and “Monday morning quarterback” tactics based on limited facts and single camera lens angles. Combining this with the continually negative messaging by the media about African Americans as the typical criminal creates a false narrative of “us versus them.” The practice tells a compelling story for the nightly news, but raises several questions about what is real and what is perceived.

All African Americans are not criminals—and not all police officers are corrupt, heavy-handed authoritarians. According to journalist Kirsten Savali, “Media bias not only negatively impacts black America’s relationship with law enforcement and the judicial system but also extends to how African Americans are perceived in society at large.”14

Professional civilian review boards can help change this rhetoric on the side of law enforcement by providing trusted and legitimate oversight that is transparent and timely. The boards would in turn hold the media more accountable for their reporting as the boards could push back against the narrative from a less defensive stance than police organizations themselves.

Organized Activism

The police can’t ignore the power of grass roots organized activist groups who continue to advocate for civilian oversight. One prominent example of the power of activists is the efforts of “Black Lives Matter.” Bijan Stephen stated, “Since then it [#BlackLivesMatter] has become the banner under which dozens of disparate organizations, new and old, and millions of individuals, loosely and tightly related, press for change.”15 In urban areas and larger cities, these activists have expressed their desire for civilian oversight of police. Because of the erosion of trust—especially between minority communities and the police, activists want a hand in police oversight. They have become a powerful force and gained legitimacy through media outlets providing a platform for their ideas.

During an interview on National Public Radio in August 2015, Brittany Packnett spoke with Audie Cornish about specific policy proposals for stopping police violence.

Activists in the Black Lives Matter movement have answered critics who have asked for specific policy proposals. A group in the movement published a 10-point agenda to reduce police violence in this country. The plan is called ‘Campaign Zero.’ It calls for stronger guidelines limiting the use of force and banning police quotas for tickets and arrests.”16

One of the ten points on the agenda specifically addresses the need for civilian review.

Regardless of what one might think of these activists, there is no doubt they are becoming effective changing the culture of policing in America. Across the United States, the activist cry is for legitimacy and procedural justice in policing. According to Clare Foran in her article titled “A Year of Black Lives Matter,”

There has been political change in the past year. In May, Obama called for an end to transfers of certain kinds of military-style equipment from the federal government to police departments. In December, the Federal Bureau of Investigation announced a new effort to improve its tracking of fatal police shootings. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake fired their police chiefs amid protests over police brutality.17

The concept of procedural justice is at the forefront of most discussions surrounding police policy today. Police work is highly dependent upon public trust. Without legitimacy, police have more incidents of resistance, and uses of force, which again perpetuates the mistrust and overall feeling that police can’t police their own. The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing noted that, “law enforcement’s obligation is not only to reduce crime, but also to do so fairly while protecting the rights of citizens.”18 Growing numbers of activists believe that civilian oversight is a way to restore that legitimacy and ensure procedural justice, and the media plays a huge role in shaping that narrative.

Where Should We Go From Here and Why?

The officers on the street need to know that the civilian review boards are educated in police work, and are knowledgeable of equipment capabilities, police procedures, and law. Continued education and frequent ride-a-longs with the agencies they serve will be critical to help legitimize these boards with the sworn personnel. If civilian review is professionalized, law enforcement agencies will gain legitimacy and increase trust in the communities that they serve.

According to Priyanka Boghani,

The Washington, D.C. Office of Police Complaints is a model that’s won praise… The D.C. board’s effectiveness has been bolstered by successful outreach to the community…

Michael Tobin, who since 2014 has served as the executive director of the OPC, says that civilian oversight is essential to building community trust, which in turn makes cities safer.19

Civilian review boards can be successful if properly implemented, and once in operation, they can help build community trust with law enforcement, cooperation will increase, people will more readily engage in contacting the police with information, and neighborhoods will be safer.

NACOLE lists several ways in which civilian review boards can improve community relations including

• Oversight agencies can help improve community relations by fostering communication between the community and police agency.

• Oversight agencies can help reduce public concern about high-profile incidents.

• Oversight agencies can improve department policies and procedures. Policy recommendations can prevent issues by identifying areas of concern and subsequently offering options to improve policing.

• Oversight agencies can assist a jurisdiction in liability management and reduce the likelihood of costly litigation by identifying problems and proposing corrective measures before a lawsuit is filed.20

Although civilian review can be controversial, there are enough positives presented by the successful models that show it to be an essential tool for the future.

If law enforcement leaders focus on helping to create the change as opposed to fighting it at every turn, they can not only create oversight that is accepted by their agencies, but also help guide the organizational change. Officer morale will increase because public opinion will change. Most importantly, the police will have improved policies, procedures and organizational cultures that are accepted by the communities they serve.




1 Joel Miller, “Civilian Oversight of Policing, Lessons from Literature” (Vera Institute, Global Meeting on Civilian Oversight of Police, Los Angeles, May 5-8, 2002).

2 Joseph De Angelis, Richard Rosenthal, and Brian Buckner, Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement: A Review of the Strengths and Weaknesses of Various Models (Tucson, AZ: The National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, September 2016), 6.

3 The National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, “Oversight Models: Is One Model Better Than Another?” FAQs.

4 Perez, Douglas Werner. Common sense about police review. Philadelphia, Penn.: Temple U Press, 1994. Print.

5 Police Are Learning To Accept Civilian Oversight, But Distrust Lingers,” James Pasco interviewed by Martin Kaste, Weekend Edition Saturday, NPR, February 21, 2015.

6 U.S. Department of Justice, Investigation of the Baltimore City Police Department (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, August 19, 2016), 147.

7 The National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, “About Us.”

8 Ibid.

9 Priyanka Boghani, “Is Civilian Oversight the Answer to Distrust of Police?” Policing the Police, PBS, July 13, 2016.

10 Charles J. Ogletree Jr. et al., Beyond the Rodney King Story: An Investigation of Police Misconduct in Minority Communities (Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press, 1994).

11 “Philando Castile, Alton Sterling Shootings Are Latest in a Long List of Notable Police Brutality Deaths,” New York Dailey News, July 7, 2016.

12 “After Deadly Police Encounters, Voters in Some Cities OK Civilian Oversight,” Chicago Tribune, November 11, 2016.

13 Ray Surette, Media, Crime, and Criminal Justice Images, Realities, and Policies, 5th ed. (Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning, 2015), 26.

14 Kirsten West Savali, “Throw Away the Script: How Media Bias Is Killing Black America,” The Root, June 2, 2015.

15 Bijan Stephen, “How Black Lives Matter Uses Social Media to Fight the Power,” Wired (November 2015).

16 “Black Lives Matter Publishes ‘Campaign Zero’ Plan To Reduce Police Violence” Audie Cornish interviewed by Brittany Packnett, NPR, August 26, 2015.

17 Clare Foran, “A Year of Black Lives Matter,” The Atlantic, December 31, 2015. Web. 27 Apr. 2017.

18 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, 2015), 42.

19 Priyanka Boghani, “Is Civilian Oversight the Answer to Distrust of Police?”

20 The National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, “What Are the Benefits of Police Oversight?”


Please cite as

Pamela Seyffert, “Can Professional Civilian Oversight Improve Community-Police Relations?” The Police Chief Online, September 13, 2017.