Urban Wire Are civilian oversight agencies actually holding police accountable?
Olugbenga Ajilore
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Within 24 hours after the shooting of Harith Augustus by Chicago police on July 14, the Chicago Police Department released body camera footage of the incident to the public. The video is less than a minute long and lacks sound, but the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, a civilian oversight agency for the Chicago Police Department that coordinated the release, said it would release the full video within 60 days, as is required.

The quick release of the edited footage is a good step toward transparency and best practices regarding body cameras. Before the 60-day policy went into effect in 2016, the Chicago police took more than a year to release footage of the 2014 shooting of Laquan McDonald. The civilian oversight agency at the time, the Independent Police Review Authority, lacked the independence and influence to ensure the video’s timely release.

These incidents demonstrate the important role civilian oversight agencies can play in holding police accountable and incorporating community voices in policing.

What are civilian oversight agencies?

Civilian oversight agencies are typically established after an incident of police misconduct and when a community identifies a need for such an agency. After a series of police shootings in Pittsburgh in the 1990s, the US Department of Justice issued a consent decree to establish the city’s Citizen Police Review Board (CPRB) in 1997.

The National Association of Civilian Oversight in Law Enforcement (NACOLE) says there are around 150 oversight agencies across the country. Although there is no strict definition of what encompasses an oversight agency, NACOLE breaks them into three categories:

  1. Investigation focused. These agencies, like the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, conduct independent investigations of complaints against police officers.
  2. Review focused. These agencies review the operations of police departments and aim to provide community input to internal investigations and procedures.
  3. Auditor or monitor focused. These agencies are typically started out of decrees from the federal government, with a focus on large-scale and systemic reforms.

What makes a successful civilian oversight agency?

Experts say that investigation-focused agencies are typically more successful at holding police forces accountable for wrongdoing or misbehavior because they focus on individual complaints. For any oversight agency to succeed, however, three factors are necessary:

  1. Independence. A civilian oversight agency should be independent from the police department so that recommendations can be trusted.
  2. Resources. Investigating complaints and issuing reports can be time consuming and expensive. A successful civilian oversight agency needs adequate funding to function.
  3. Power. Civilian oversight agencies need some teeth so that law enforcement can’t simply ignore recommendations from reports or investigations.

Independence is particularly important because civilian oversight agencies aim to improve the operations of police departments and correct mistakes. Without independence, it’s impossible to form nonbiased recommendations and implement reforms.

For example, the Police Complaints Board in Washington, DC, seeks to establish independence by requiring four of the five members to have no existing connection to the Metropolitan Police Department. These individuals are often retired police officers, while the fifth member must be a current member of the Metropolitan Police Department.

Striking a balance between those with policing experience and those with no ties to the police department can be difficult. What mix of expertise and independence can best support a civilian oversight agency? To find the answer, we need more research.

We need to know more about civilian oversight agencies

Many questions surround civilian oversight agencies, the answers to which research could illuminate. Are agencies with stronger enforcement abilities more effective? The recent homicide charges brought against Pittsburgh police officer Michael Rosenfeld, who shot Antwan Rose on June 19, provides an interesting case along these lines, especially considering that officers are rarely arrested after a shooting. Could the arrest be attributed to the work of the city’s CPRB?

On the other hand, Rosenfeld was hired despite previous incidents of excessive force at the University of Pittsburgh. Was the CPRB involved in his hiring decision? A study by the Washington Post found that 451 officers of 1,881 officers who were fired from 37 of the nation’s largest police departments were later rehired. What role might oversight agencies play in these decisions?

Civilian oversight agencies help communities have a say in how they are policed, but we need to know more about them and variations in their structure, reach, and effectiveness to enhance law enforcement accountability and reduce police misconduct.


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Research Areas Crime, justice, and safety
Tags Corrections Policing and community safety
Policy Centers Justice Policy Center