Though they are less prominent in the public mind than accountability-enhancing measures like body cameras, police-focused civilian review boards (CRBs) have seen increased interest and adoption of late. In terms of recent history, this newfound focus on civilian oversight is consistent with other stretches of societal change and poor police-public relations. From Watergate to the Civil Rights Movement to smaller, more localized events, CRBs have historically found footing and “grown teeth,” so to speak, when the events of the day make Americans wary of their governance.

In this sense, the unprecedented 200-plus CRBs operating in the US today are simply a sign of the times. The boards carry measures of symbolic meaning and political power, making them an attractive response on paper in a time where smartphone cameras can propel any police misbehavior (real or perceived) into the national spotlight.

The potential problems come in the implementation. As a solution, modern takes on civilian oversight have seen a near-total lack of empirical review, making it difficult to ascertain their true effectiveness in the real world. The process of building an oversight body is also both highly delicate and highly dependent on the needs and makeup of the community implementing it. Without proper authority and investigative powers, review organizations can be powerless as accountability tools, or even viewed as a “rubber stamp” for misbehavior by the public.

Oversight models give communities structure to mimic, but challenges remain
Every CRB requires its own unique set of policies, powers, and best practices to effectively operate in the communities they are implemented in, but pinning down those factors has proven difficult thus far. This leaves communities to rely on intuition, context, and the sparse data that is available to attempt to make an informed decision. Even determining an end purpose for a review board can be a taxing affair. At high level, the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE) says there are three types of oversight models:

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  • Investigation-focused, in which appointed civilian investigators receive and investigate complaints levied against police.
  • Review-focused, in which overseers review “the quality of completed police internal affairs investigations” and make recommendations to police based on their findings.
  • Auditor/monitor-focused, which review larger systemic problems and are often brought in when a community is considering broad restructuring of police activity.

Though the investigation-focused agency is perhaps the best-known — and, in situations where the public calls for better civilian oversight, most-requested — model, all have unique qualities and benefits to offer. As noted above, the challenge lies in finding which one best fits the community’s need and adapting its core purposes to the situation the agency is formed to address.

Moreover, they must consider the drawbacks of each. As NACOLE notes, potential challenges have the potential to underscore each model. The powers and strengths of an investigative model, for instance, can come with a significant financial burden for the sponsoring body. Review-focused agencies, on the other hand, tend to be the least expensive, but also the least powerful due to reliance on volunteers and relative lack of political heft.

In recent years, municipal governments have turned to so-called “hybrid models.” These systems of governance combine aspects of the three main oversight models, helping communities tailor the oversight boards to their specific desires and react appropriately to the events that spurred the need. Though this model does grant a more granular level of control, municipalities run the risk of diluting the board’s purpose by taking this approach. Models without a focused, specific role could struggle with breadth of scope or lack the power they need to carry out all their stated duties.

What powers does a CRB need to function?
That said, a lack of power can make it hard for any CRB, hybrid or otherwise, to do the job it was created to do. As History of Citizen Oversight notes, America’s first CRBs, established in the 1920s, unilaterally dissolved over time for this very reason. Without the ability to make change or mandate repercussions, a board can do little but make recommendations and hope the police organization it ostensibly governs agrees with its findings.

Defining the power a CRB needs to be effective largely comes down to the purpose it will serve. In Seattle, a formerly “toothless” Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) was emboldened by measures that forced the chief to respond to their recommendations in writing. On the inverse, police in Newark sued (and ultimately succeeded) to remove DOJ-instilled subpoena power from the city’s CRB, claiming the move was too broad-reaching and in violation of New Jersey’s constitution and state law. Depending on who you ask, the move either righted an imbalance of power in the city or “crippled” a needed layer of oversight.

Of these two recent events, the latter may speak to a pending battleground for future investigative oversight associations: subpoena power. Though not every CRB needs the ability to terminate police chiefs or mete out punishment to officers — two increasingly common features among newer oversight boards — the ability to compel evidence and testimony is a powerful one for any fact-finding association. As NACOLE notes, this power goes beyond compelling officers under investigation to give testimony. Using subpoena powers, an organization may be better able to carry out a side investigation of an internal affairs case or force third-party actors (e.g., a store with a CCTV feed) to provide critical evidence.

Though more civilian boards are being outfitted with subpoena or similar investigative powers, the Newark situation alone shows obtaining and keeping them can be expensive and time consuming. While certain cities and states have retained the ability, or restructured to obtain it, cities like New Haven have struggled to follow suit. State law may outright prohibit civilian review bodies from having the power or limit when and how officers and their departments can be subpoenaed.

Implementation of CRBs fraught with fights, obstacles, and political manipulation
Naturally, police and their representative organizations represent a significant roadblock to CRB implementation. Beside the fact that few professionals want a job with more bosses or additional boxes to check, there is the idea that the implementation of civilian review tends to occur during times of intense public outrage. Fairly or not, implementation can feel like a not-so-subtle criticism or even a punishment.

Because of this, it is common to see oversight boards and police bodies scrapping over fundamental disagreements. As seen in Newark, police are understandably quick to react when they feel their powers have been needlessly limited. Other situations are more nuanced yet: as the Baltimore FOP’s recent lawsuit against the city’s police department and review board shows, a wide range of motivations (and even hard feelings) can emerge when civilian review boards are implemented or existing boards given enhanced powers.

However it happens, powerful people or organizations disagreeing with a CRB can cause a sort of “political neutering.” In turn, this can result in CRBs that exist to serve one function on paper but do little in real-world practice. For one example, inappropriate staffing, a lack of funding, and other political manipulation effectively rendered San Francisco’s Office of Citizens Complaints powerless for many years, despite it being one of the country’s longer-tenured organizations.

This lack of power can create outcomes that go beyond the organization’s inability to carry out its mission. CRB proponents — for instance, those who looked on as St. Louis considered and implemented its own civilian review processes — say an oversight entity with insufficient power can be worse than having no oversight capability at all. Citizens may believe they have recourse after a perceived problem or injustice, when nothing has truly changed. As in Seattle, a powerless CRB can also look like a “rubber stamp” organization to the public if perceived wrongdoings are not addressed by the organization designed to handle them.

A long road to acceptance for civilian oversight
Ultimately, it is challenges like these that will determine the effectiveness of civilian oversight organizations. With a highly-variable slate of potential services and little in the way of hard data to quantify their utility, it will fall on individual communities to decide whether outside investigation and input are the key to enhanced police accountability, and whether the initiatives they have put into place are worth keeping in the long-term.

In many ways, this puts CRBs in the same situations body cameras — studies of which are only recently gaining traction and credibility — were in several years ago. However, factors like the above show where these two accountability-boosting measures differ. Where cameras provide a somewhat objective view of the world they capture, regulatory bodies are fraught with the same complications any human-run service can encounter.

Combined with the comparatively strong resistance many boards are bound to face, this makes it hard to see civilian oversight as a cure-all in the ongoing struggle for better police-public relations. If anything, it seems the idea of civilian review has an image problem, or at least a problem with expectations: though wishing to apply a simple fix to an endlessly complex problem is basic human nature, the reality will undoubtedly require more work than that. Wherever CRBs fit into this challenge, it is clear their role has yet to be fully defined.

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