Police oversight: civilian oversight boards and lessons learned from our neighbors to the north.

AuthorBriggs, William

    In recent years the United States has witnessed a growing divide between its citizenry and police force. (1) Recent decisions declining to indict white police officers for the killings of two unarmed black men in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York have acted to further widen this divide. (2) These events have called into question the trustworthiness of the police and are raising questions about the transparency of internal investigations within police departments. (3) With each state having its own policy towards handling police investigations, the time could be coming for the United States to adopt a more uniform policy. (4)

    This Note explores police internal investigation policies of various U.S. cities and compares those policies to Canadian policies. (5) Part II will briefly discuss the history and development of the police force in the United States and Canada. (6) Part II will also look at the history of civilian oversight. (7) Part III of this Note will focus on civilian oversight in Riverside, California, New York City, New York and finally in Ontario, Canada. (8) Part IV will compare and contrast the civilian oversight agencies of the United States with those of Canada to determine what we can learn from Canada and how we can effectively implement a working system of civilian oversight. (9) Part V of this Note will conclude with suggestions to improve our system such as obtaining more resources, gaining greater political support, and implementing effective legislation. (10)


    1. The United States

      The origins of the police system in the United States began with community based policing modeled after the English system. (11) This system was comprised of a night watch, constables, and a sheriff. (12) The night watch was both informal and communal, comprised of volunteers whose primary job was to warn of any potential dangers. (13) Constables served as "official law enforcement officers" and performed duties such as serving warrants, and supervising the activities of the night watch. (14) Finally, the sheriffs were in charge of serving legal documents, collecting taxes, and making appearances in court. (15)

      This early system of policing was in force for many years until the 1830's when the idea of "centralized municipal police departments" emerged. (16) Boston was the first city to establish a police force in 1838, followed by New York in 1845. (17) By the 1880's a municipal police force would be in place in all major U.S. cities. (18) These newly formed municipal police forces shared several common features, including: being publically formed and bureaucratic, having full-time employees with departments that developed rules and procedures, and securing a central government authority that was accountable for the police departments. (19)

      Police officers always have and continue to play a central role in the law enforcement system. (20) One of the main duties of a police officer is to "protect and serve." (21) This duty involves both controlling crime and contributing to the public order. (22) Police are allowed to "legally use force to deprive citizens of their liberty," a characteristic which generates the possibility of abuse. (23)

    2. Canada

      The origins of the Canadian police force date back to 1651. (24) For many years, different ethnic groups, such as the First Nations people and European settlers followed laws rooted in religious and spiritual beliefs, which they reinforced with military type authority. (25) It was not until 1835 that the first police force formed in Toronto (26) The goal of the police force was two-fold: preventing crime and maintaining public order. (27) The primary objective of the police was to "preserve order between people within a community." (28)

      While most Canadians held a favorable view of police, attitudes began to change following World War II. (29) Factors leading to this change included "increased sense of pride" amongst citizens, consciousness of violence, ethnic tolerance, desire for individual rights, and the expectation of a sophisticated approach. (30) These factors led to a belief in the importance of increased citizen participation in the criminal justice system. (31) This was the start of interest into the "internal operations] of police departments." (32)

      Today, the Canadian police force is broken down into three levels: federal, provincial, and municipal. (33) As of May 2014 there were 68,896 police officers in Canada. (34) That is a rate of 194 police officers per 100,000 people across the country. (35) The Federal Police, or Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) have jurisdiction across all of Canada. (36) The Provinces of Ontario, Quebec, Newfoundland, and Labrador all have their own provincial police officers. (37) Finally, the most populous is the Municipal Police Force delegated to the municipalities within the provinces. (38)

    3. Civilian Oversight in the United States

      In numerous cities across the country, civilian review boards of police practices have grown increasingly popular. (39) These boards typically help to build trust and legitimacy between the public and the police force. (40) They provide an alternative against "police investigating complaints against police" at a time when many citizens question the effectiveness of the internal affairs approach (41) Civilian oversight has many benefits, including the ability to bring a complaint against law enforcement outside of a law enforcement agency, to improve a department's internal investigations of misconduct, and to increase transparency in the disciplinary process, and improve community relations. (42)

      The first civilian oversight board was formed in 1970 in Kansas City, Missouri and was called The Office of Community Complaints (OCC). (43) Over forty years later, the OCC still exists, dedicated to its mission of "encouraging] members of the community to file complaints when they feel they have experienced police misconduct." (44) After a complaint is received by the OCC it will be reviewed; if the complaint is legitimate it will be referred to the Internal Affairs Unit which investigates the complaint. (45) Once completed, the results of the completed investigation are reported to the OCC who will then contact the Board of Police Commissioners with a recommendation, followed by a final step of disclosing the results to the public. (46)

      President Obama has expressed concern for policing and in early 2015 delegated a committee known as The President's Task Force On 21st Century Policing to address the issue. (47) The purpose of the task force was to identify and offer recommendations of how police can reduce crime effectively while earning the public's trust. (48) Their report identified six pillars to help mend relations between police and the community; they were as follows: Build Trust & Legitimacy, Policy & Oversight, Technology & Social Media, Community Policing & Crime Reduction, Training & Education, and Officer Wellness & Safety. (49) Under the second pillar, Policy & Oversight, the task force recommends, "establish civilian oversight mechanisms" within the communities. (50) For the first time, the Federal Government has actually recommended civilian oversight as an effective tool in repairing community, police relations. (51)

      The National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE), developed in 1995, is "a non-profit organization that brings together individuals and agencies working to establish or improve oversight of police officers in the United States." (52) NACOLE works towards promoting accountability of police through civilian oversight agencies. (53) They find the benefits of civilian oversight to include: holding police departments accountable, increasing the transparency of the discipline process, improving community relations, and helping to improve understanding. (54)


    1. United States

      1. Recent Events

        Recent events have brought to light "profound fractures in trust" between communities and police departments. (55) These events including most notably, the killings of Malissa Williams and Timothy Russell, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Mike Brown, and Freddie Gray by police officers, have captured national attention and have citizens calling for change. (56) Part of this change comes in the form of building trust and respect between citizens and the police force in charge of protecting and serving the citizenry. (57) This trust goes deeper than just police, community relations--it is also present in the investigations and reviews themselves of citizen deaths involving police. (58) If the public believes that police agencies are not held accountable, their legitimacy becomes questioned. (59)

      2. Examples in U.S. Cities

        1. Riverside, California

          Some cities find the origins of their civilian oversight committees as a response to tragic events in the community that caused tension between police officers and community members. (60) The Riverside Community Police Review Commission (CPRC) was developed after the death of a nineteen year old black woman, Tyisha Miller, who died at the hands of four white police officers in 1998. (61) The CPRC, which was created in 2000, was designed to "promote effective, efficient, trustworthy, and just law enforcement in Riverside." (62) The CPRC investigates cases involving an officer-related death and other citizen complaints by conducting independent reviews. (63) This completely independent commission is made up of nine members of the city of Riverside who do not receive compensation during their four year terms. (64)

          Citizens of Riverside can file a complaint against the police in one of two ways: by contacting the CPRC directly or by filing a complaint directly with the Riverside Police Department (RPD). (65) After the complaint is received it then goes to the RPD internal affairs, who investigate the allegations in the complaints before...

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