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Citizen Oversight of Law Enforcement:Challenge and Opportunity

Joe Farrow, Deputy Commissioner, and Trac Pham, Research Specialist, California Highway Patrol, Sacramento, California


itizen oversight of police practices has long been a controversial issue in law enforcement.1 Basically, the concept is defined as a procedure under which law enforcement conduct is reviewed at some point by persons who are not sworn officers. In recent years, more and more law enforcement jurisdictions have involved citizens in their review systems, and highly publicized incidents of alleged police misconduct and their fallout have brought the issue of citizen oversight to center stage in the United States.2

The Debate

On one side of the debate, there are those who assert that internal review and control is the only way to manage the problem of misconduct. Basically, they argue that the involvement of citizens without intimate knowledge of law enforcement procedures and legal limitations will only muddle the review process. As professionals, law enforcement administrators must be held accountable for training and discipline to prevent misconduct. They must remain above the political fray in order to ensure their freedom from the vagaries of political influences. In any case, other avenues of review or redress, such as civil litigation, legislative investigative powers, and the mass media, already exist. In an era of fiscal conservatism, citizen review appears to be an expensive extralegal appendage to the existing system of internal investigations.

Yet those on the other side argue that under democratic systems of checks and balances, no one should be left to judge him- or herself. The wide-ranging powers and discretion of law enforcement officers and their vital position as gatekeepers of the criminal justice system make it imperative that members of the public have a means of redress if officers abuse their powers and seek protection from scrutiny behind the so-called blue wall of silence. As such, bringing an external, community-based perspective to the problem of law enforcement review will promote positive behavior, ensure greater accountability, and deter malpractice.

Each of these opposing arguments has a place in this important debate. The perspectives and experience of officers on the street should have some influence over review system decision making. Citizens may indeed have an important role to play in law enforcement review, particularly in assessing policies and procedures and how they are implemented in the real world. Those on the law enforcement side of the debate need to recognize the public's perceptions of the apparent inadequacies of internal review. After all, the public is constantly bombarded with seemingly endless media stories of alleged police misconduct. No amount of explanation will convince outsiders that abuses seldom occur and that misdeeds are dealt with sternly by internal systems.

Similarly, civil libertarians and liberal interest groups should appreciate the concerns that law enforcement has always had about substantive responsibility. Their laudable goal notwithstanding, they should recognize officers' general honesty and commitment to justice. They should also be aware of the negative impact on law enforcement morale of outside citizen investigations and external imposition of discipline.

This debate is an emotion-packed political reality in a number of jurisdictions. It is about the proper balances that are fundamental to any consideration of administrative accountability. Rigorous, autonomous review must be tempered with a concern for the counterproductive effects of overzealousness.

Similarly, the maintenance of administrative integrity and confidentiality must be weighed against the need for openness in the review process. The public's right to have input must be compared to the pragmatic, educated expertise of the professional. The crux of the law enforcement officer's problem is weighing the individual's liberty against the social and legal necessities of regulation. The most basic balance that a review system must strike is this: It must allow law enforcement great latitude and flexibility and yet require that it adhere strictly to the dictates of the formal legal system. It is neither an easy nor a particularly clear balance to maintain.

Striking a Delicate Balance

The issue of whether some form of citizen review is appropriate may have been settled from the public's viewpoint. Three-fourths of the largest cities in the United States have established some form of citizen law enforcement review.3 These actions represent a de facto public finding that the civilian oversight is an appropriate response to the problem of law enforcement malpractice.

Legitimate arguments about the limitations of citizen review cannot diminish the inherent importance of the idea. Even though research indicates that citizen review systems do not seem to deter law enforcement misconduct more than internal systems, citizen review systems are almost universally considered to have greater legitimacy in the communities they serve.4

Clearly, developing community-especially minority community-confidence that law enforcement will be held accountable for its actions is important in and of itself. It is a cold reality that many minority citizens lack confidence in internal review. Without trust in law enforcement accountability, racial tensions may rise, with tragic consequences for the community. Even a review system perfect in an administrative and legal sense would be problematic for its municipality if the community did not believe in its integrity. Civilianization of law enforcement review systems can be part of the larger effort of community policing, leading to greater acceptance of the legitimacy of the review.

Granted that some form of citizen review is probably politically desirable, the central question for law enforcement now essentially concerns the best type of citizen review board. Law enforcement departments range in size from one officer to thousands of officers while citizen complaint caseloads range from a few to several thousand a year. The accountability mechanisms that regulate law enforcement range from monitors established by federal consent decrees and highly politicized, autonomous review commissions to citizen-police advisory committees and the individual manager (as in most smaller jurisdictions).5 Given different local political realities, fiscal limitations, community size, and agency caseloads, it is clearly impossible to create a single system to accommodate such wide differences. Although many model variations operate effectively in practice, the selected system must strike a delicate balance among various competing interest groups.

Since one size does not fit all, there is no perfect review system and no one system can answer the concerns of all interest groups equally. Jurisdictions should take the time to pick and choose among a wide range of alternatives for designing their own review systems and to assess the benefits and limitations of each possible review component. Instead of rigidly following any one model or approach, jurisdictions can tailor the various components of their review system to the particular needs and characteristics of their populations, local statutes, collective bargaining contracts, and pressure groups. The choices they make will have important consequences on how much the review system will cost, how much it will be used, and how satisfied citizens will be with the complaint process.

Unfortunately, most review boards have come into existence as the aftermath of a highly publicized and emotionally charged incident of alleged police misconduct. These incidents usually relate to perceptions of police brutality or the conduct of law enforcement in volatile situations involving racial minorities. As such, these boards are usually put together rather quickly and with little thought as to their workability or with much consideration as to how they fit into the review systems already in place. Because of this, they can end up creating more problems than they solve.

As a result, some law enforcement administrators have been proactive in taking preventive steps to avert potential tension and conflict. By making this effort, they seek to ensure that any contentious debate over citizen review can occur under circumstances that are most conducive to the productive exchange of ideas. Others have quietly initiated some form of oversight system themselves so they can have an impact in its design, implementation, and ultimate success. Allowing government administrators, elected officials, and community activists to create a review board that serves their own needs will not necessarily serve the needs of law enforcement or the community it serves.

Still other police administrators become involved early in the citizen review planning process in order to exercise greater control over it and ensure the resulting system has realistic and well-defined objectives and carefully selected and trained board members. By demonstrating their initiative and desire to work cooperatively with the public and other stakeholders, law enforcement administrators can defuse potential hostility, reassure the public, and improve law enforcement's image.

The CHP Citizens' Oversight Committee

The California Highway Patrol (CHP) convened the Task Force on the Use of Force in April 1991, in the aftermath of the Rodney King incident in Los Angeles. Its objective was to evaluate department policies and procedures as they relate to the use of force by CHP personnel. The CHP commissioner also formed a citizens' ad hoc committee comprising six citizens not associated with the department in March 1992. Its initial mandate was to conduct an independent review of the findings of the CHP Task Force on the Use of Force. The committee was later named the Citizens' Standing Committee on the Use of Force in 1993, and it became the Citizens' Oversight Committee in 1996, when its purview was considerably broadened to cover citizen complaint investigation procedures, equal employment opportunity issues, supervisory and management practices, and selection, hiring, and personnel procedures. Committee membership was also expanded from six to nine members.

The best indicator of the success of the CHP Citizens' Oversight Committee is the quality and implementation of its policy recommendations (on the use of force, on equal employment opportunity policies, on hiring and training practices, and so on). Since its establishment, the CHP Citizens' Oversight Committee has made 30 recommendations, all of which were adopted and subsequently implemented by the CHP. As such, the citizen oversight serves as a check on the CHP by applying consistent pressure for improvements in agency policies and practices to ensure the agency is functioning to the satisfaction of the public. The committee also highlights trends in complaints or areas needing attention that may otherwise go unnoticed for long periods. Significant improvements in agency operation are possible because CHP management recognizes citizen oversight as an important tool for better law enforcement administration.

Any review process will necessarily concern itself with two different methods of behavior control: regulation and socialization. Formal regulation by an outside board may protect the organization from criticism and develop a perpetual legitimacy in the external environment. However, it may be quite ineffective in actually influencing prospective behavior since any formalized external process can conceivably be subverted by system experts. An external process is also too far removed from the individual officer's experience and too foreign to the police subculture to have a direct impact upon daily law enforcement behavior.

On the other hand, self-sanctioning, self-regulating control mechanisms may be more effective in controlling aberrant behavior. When social values, individual desires, professional standards of competence, subcultural expectations, and organizational goals are congruent, accountability can be internalized via a process known as "socialization."6 Officers usually go to great lengths, even risk injury and death, to cleave to principles they hold dear. They will do this because they subscribe to the organizational norm of conduct. Yet they will often rationalize rejecting the legitimacy of an imposed accountability scheme that is outside their peer group. Their balking at conformity illustrates the limitations of outside review and control and the inherent strengths of socialization as a means of positive, nonpunitive behavior modification.

Socialization processes, however, are difficult to manage, as individual personalities and collective behavior patterns can inhibit the inculcation of new values and norms of conduct. When self-sanctioning mechanisms fail-and sometimes they do-they leave law enforcement vulnerable to criticism and open to outside intervention. Law enforcement accountability, then, must develop from a compromise between externally imposed systems and internalized, professional norms of conduct. Law enforcement review systems must delicately balance the concerns of competing interest groups and weigh the expertise of the professional against the desires of the citizenry.

The Essentials of a System

The ideal compromise system should essentially leave complaint investigations to law enforcement professionals, subject to ultimate citizen review as needed. The system should allow great latitude to the law enforcement professional and subcultural structure for dealing with complaints. The final implementation of discipline should be left to the chief; that is his or her job, and it should remain so.

The police subculture, rapidly moving in the direction of professionalization, should be entrusted with much of the responsibility for behavior modification of errant officers. Through education, reeducation, and modern training systems, a new breed of officer is being developed. Yet it would be naïve to believe that there is no law enforcement abuse. Citizen oversight is important in allowing law enforcement professionals to receive feedback from those who are not part of the system and to educate the public about law enforcement work.

In the long run, no review system or rigid, formalized regulatory scheme could control all errant behavior. Human beings and social life are so complex that our existing control systems will usually fall short of actually ordering behavior. People, and not systems, must do that. They will control each other through action and exhortation. In the end, one must trust the integrity and competence of officers and the leadership of the chief. To depend too much on formal review systems, or focus on them as an end, is to be dangerously shortsighted.

Citizen review systems, law enforcement departments, or even governmental checks and balances will not be effective unless they are populated by honest and diligent people. People, with all their failings, will populate governmental institutions, and they will subject such systems to the same problems that the systems themselves are designed to monitor and control. Society must make realistic demands of our various review mechanisms and place a great deal of trust in the integrity of people. Any review system will always fall short of the expectations of some, but they can only attempt to balance the numerous competing interests.

Ultimately, law enforcement leadership is the primary key to police officer accountability. It is largely the articulated principles embodied in the organizational culture that engineer accepted behavioral norms. The chief can play a crucial role in influencing officer behavior, by setting rigorous selection standards to recruit and develop more intelligent, trainable, and restraint-oriented officers; instituting training programs relevant to today's community policing; and most importantly focusing on long-term implications by promoting the use of subcultural socialization to further organizational goals. The use of an objective review and input source, such as a citizen oversight committee, is just one of several tools that can be employed to help positively influence behavior patterns in a law enforcement organization. ■

1 Andrew J. Goldsmith, ed., Complaints against the Police: The Trend to External Review (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).
2 Samuel Walker, Police Accountability: The Role of Citizen Oversight (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Thompson Learning, 2001).
3 Walker, Police Accountability.
4 U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice, Citizen Review of Police: Approaches and Implementation, by Peter Finn (Washington, D.C.: 2001).
5 International City/County Management Association, Police Review Systems, by Douglas Perez (Washington, D.C.: 1992).
6 Robert Merton, Social Theory and Social Structure (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1957).



From The Police Chief, vol. 70, no. 10, October 2003. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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