Social Accountability and Institutional Change: The Case of Citizen Oversight of Police

Published date01 May 2019
Date01 May 2019
Social Accountability and Institutional Change: The Case of Citizen Oversight of Police 411
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 79, Iss. 3, pp. 411–426. © 2019 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
DOI: 10.1111/puar.13055.
Abstract: This article examines the ability of social accountability to spur gradual institutional change at the
municipal level, using the case of citizen oversight agencies (COAs) for police agencies. Using the gradual change
framework and the social accountability framework to guide the empirical strategy and data collected through an
original survey of COAs, the authors test the impact of COAs on institutional outcomes in policing. We find that,
in accordance with the gradual change framework, the degree to which a COA reduces racial disparity in policing
outcomes depends on its scope of authority and the degree of discretion afforded by existing institutions to police officers.
In general, the wider the scope of authority, and the broader the discretion afforded by existing institutions, the greater
the likelihood of change in institutional outcomes.
Evidence for Practice
Investigative citizen oversight agencies (COAs), which conduct independent investigations into citizen
complaints and have the authority to recommend discipline to police officers found guilty of misconduct,
were found to be associated with a reduction in racial disparity in disorderly conduct arrest rates and a
reduction in racial disparity in police homicides of citizens.
Monitoring COAs, which focus on trends in police misconduct and recommend changes in police policies,
procedures, and training, were found to be associated with a reduction in racial disparity in disorderly
conduct arrest rates.
COAs that were led by a board of citizens appointed by the municipal district were found to be associated
with a reduction in racial disparity in disorderly conduct arrest rates.
Since most impacts of COAs become more evident over time, such agencies likely require an ongoing
commitment from local governments, especially in terms of financial and human resources.
American policing is said to be suffering a
crisis of legitimacy. Since the August 9, 2014,
shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson,
Missouri, the public’s attention has been captured
by police brutality incidents, including numerous
instances involving police homicides of citizens. The
overrepresentation of black victims in such incidents
has led to calls for institutional reforms, including
demands such as ending broken windows policing
(see, e.g., ACLU 2016), appointing independent
prosecutors for cases involving police violence, ending
overpolicing of minority communities, racially
diversifying law enforcement agencies, revising use-
of- force policies (see President’s Task Force on 21st
Century Policing 2015), as well as fundamentally
rethinking the goals of policing (see Vitale 2017).
These calls have also included demands for creating
citizen oversight agencies (COAs), which are a type
of social accountability mechanism (President’s
Task Force on 21st Century Policing 2015). Social
accountability refers to “actions by civil society and
citizens to push officeholders to report on and answer
for their actions” (Brinkerhoff and Wetterberg 2016,
275). COAs are institutional arrangements by which
citizen complaints against police are reviewed at some
point by people who are not sworn officers (Walker
and Bumphus 1992). In this article, we examine
the effectiveness of COAs as a means of changing
institutional outcomes in policing—in this case,
racial disparities in arrest rates and homicides of
citizens by law enforcement officers—in the United
States. We do this by combining the gradual change
framework (Rocco and Thurston 2014) with the
social accountability framework (Fox 2015) to guide
our empirical strategy and model building.1
We take a historical-institutionalist perspective,
viewing institutions as political legacies of historical
struggles that persist over time because they help
maintain power imbalances favoring certain
actors in society. According to the gradual change
Mir Usman Ali
Maureen Pirog
Indiana University Bloomington
Social Accountability and Institutional Change:
The Case of Citizen Oversight of Police
Maureen Pirog is Rudy Professor
Emeritus of Policy Analysis in the School of
Public and Environmental Affairs, Indiana
University Bloomington, and Distinguished
Visiting Professor in the Department of
Governance, University of Johannesburg,
South Africa. She is a national expert
in policy analysis with a focus on social
welfare programs and policies. She served
as editor in chief of the
Journal of Policy
Analysis and Management,
the top-ranked
policy analysis journal, from 2004 to 2014.
Mir Usman Ali received his PhD from
the School of Public and Environmental
Affairs, Indiana University Bloomington, in
2019. His research focuses on citizen-led
accountability, institutional change, and
the ways public managers shape social
equity outcomes in response to institutional,
organizational, and behavioral cues. He
holds a master’s degree in statistics from
Texas A&M University, has worked in
managerial roles in the public and private
sectors, and teaches policy analysis and
research methods.
Research Article
412 Public Administration Review May | June 2019
framework, any set of rules or expectations, formal or informal, that
structure action will privilege certain actors over others in terms of
distributional consequences. We believe that this is plausible for
certain policing practices even if they are defined in ostensibly race-
neutral terms (e.g., “zero tolerance” policing and the use of stop,
question, and frisk tactics; see Eterno, Barrow, and Silverman 2017;
Fagan et al. 2010; Gelman, Fagan, and Kiss 2007; Weisburd and
Majmundar 2018).
As an antidote to the patterns of discrimination in policing,
COAs are agencies that are intended to enhance accountability
and transparency in policing and build community trust through
citizen oversight. In most police agencies in the United States,
when a citizen makes a formal complaint about a police officer,
that complaint is investigated and adjudicated by other sworn
officers. This internal investigation process is problematic because
it creates a conflict of interest that tilts, or can be perceived to tilt,
the accountability process in favor of the police. COAs attempt
to address this accountability deficit by opening insular, internal
police investigations to the scrutiny of citizens and/or professionals
who serve on the COA. In theory, COAs deter police misconduct
by performing functions such as reviewing findings made by the
police agency’s internal affairs division, assessing whether such
investigations were conducted in a thorough and fair manner, and
even conducting independent investigations and recommending
discipline and changes in police policies, if that authority is
granted. As citizen-oriented accountability bodies, COAs can create
incentives for police to take preemptive steps to limit misconduct,
for example, by increasing supervision of rookie officers, voluntarily
changing policies pertaining to the use of force, and reducing the
level of engagement with minorities for minor offenses.
Notwithstanding these implications, research on the impact of
COAs, and on social accountability mechanisms in general, is
relatively thin in the context of developed countries (for empirical
social accountability studies in the context of developing countries,
see Altman 2002; Brinkerhoff and Wetterberg 2016; Ma 2012;
Schatz 2013). Little is known about the difference made by stronger
COAs relative to those with limited authority in terms of impacting
police behavior, especially in the United States. Our study attempts
to fill that gap in the literature.
Given the substantial evidence of the racially disparate impact of
policing institutions (see, e.g., Alexander 2012; Epp, Maynard-
Moody, and Haider-Markel 2017; Kochel, Wilson, and Mastrofski
2011; Menifield, Shin, and Strother 2019; Nix et al. 2017; Vitale
2017; Ward and Rivera 2014), we believe it is incumbent on
scholars to evaluate strategies intended to make policing more
responsive to social equity concerns. The President’s Task Force
on 21st Century Policing echoed the necessity of such research,
urging “evidence-based practices to implement successful civilian
oversight mechanisms” (President’s Task Force on 21st Century
Policing 2015, 26). This article highlights the institutional and
organizational characteristics of COAs that are likely to be most
effective at reducing the racial disparities in the aforementioned
policing outcomes. Our findings should be of value to public
administrators such as city managers, mayors, and police chiefs who
are interested in strategies and organizational interventions intended
to make policing in their jurisdiction more racially equitable.
We believe that this is the first study to evaluate the impact of COAs
on racial disparities in policing outcomes. While we use the gradual
change framework and the social accountability framework to guide
our model building and empirical strategy, our goal is to test the
impact of different types of COAs on policing outcomes, not on
institutional change, although we believe that changes in policing
outcomes reflect changes in the institutions and rules governing
police behavior. In short, we are concerned with the impact of
social accountability mechanisms, such as COAs, on institutional
This article proceeds in seven sections: First, we review the findings
from COA research. In the second section, we describe how the
gradual change framework, combined with propositions from the
social accountability framework, can serve as a blueprint to predict
the impact of social accountability mechanisms. In the third section,
we propose hypotheses about the conditions under which COAs are
likely to lead to socially equitable outcomes in police enforcement
activities that involve different degrees of discretion. In the fourth
section, we introduce our empirical strategy and data set. In the
fifth section, we present the results from the estimated models. In
the sixth section, we discuss the results and the limitations of this
study, and in the seventh section, we draw conclusions about the
effectiveness of COAs and the efficacy of the GCF in explaining
changes in institutional outcomes.
Literature Review
COAs are government agencies, predominantly at the local level,2
that are intended to serve as a source of external oversight over
police agencies. Since 1969, when the first currently existing COA
was created in Kansas City, Missouri, the number of COAs in
the United States has gradually grown, with around 145 COAs
nationwide as of 2017 (for a discussion of the history of citizen
oversight in the United States, see Walker 2001, 2006).3 COAs in
the United States operate in a variety of political and socioeconomic
milieus and exhibit considerable variation in terms of their formal
authority, level of professionalization, staffing, budgetary authority,
and style of oversight. They are often created through a local
government ordinance or an amendment to the local government
charter (De Angelis, Rosenthal, and Buchner 2016).
The simplest COAs consist of a board of citizens that can
review the findings of investigations conducted by the police
agency’s internal affairs division. Such COAs often have little
or no budgetary authority, with the board of citizens serving on
a volunteer basis. More organizationally complex COAs may
include a paid full-time staff of lawyers, investigators, and policy
analysts that reports to the citizen board. Such COAs often have
substantial budgetary authority, the ability to conduct independent
investigations into citizen complaints, and access to police
evidence records and electronic databases. Based on our survey of
COAs, while board members in most COAs are appointed by the
mayor or city council, the methodology for the appointment of
board members (i.e., by the municipal district or at-large) often
varies across jurisdictions (De Angelis, Rosenthal, and Buchner
2016). Finally, prior research has postulated that COAs are likely
to be created after an officer- involved shooting or incidents
involving racially disparate policing (De Angelis, Rosenthal, and
Buchner 2016).

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