Civilian police oversight across the country, a balance between investigative authority and avoidance of refoulements

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Across the country, efforts to have civilians oversee police services have surged over the past year, sparked by a distrust of law enforcement and a desire for more great responsibility.

The goals are the same in 10 cities and counties that established police review boards last year: greater transparency, greater accountability and better policing.

But cities differ in finding the right system, one that gives civilian councils a reasonable level of control and overcomes pushbacks from adversaries.

In Cleveland, a charter amendment that will likely be on the November ballot would strengthen the power of a civilian police review board created after Cleveland police killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014. Under the amendment, a new independent and more powerful community The Police Commission would have the power to entrust investigations to the review board, would have the final say on discipline, establish departmental policy and recommend candidates for a promotion to mayor.

The push for the amendment by Citizens for a Safer Cleveland is based on the belief that a federal consent decree governing police reform in Cleveland since 2015 has not been able to resolve all of the issues.

Prior to 2020, Cleveland was one of some 200 oversight entities in place across the country, said Cameron McEllhiney, director of training and education for the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement.

Over the past decade, the Department of Justice has consistently considered some form of civil review as part of consent decree settlements.

Forty-nine percent of civilian oversight bodies were created as a result of high-profile incidents, according to a 2018 report from the Ministry of Justice. In 2016, a Cato Institute report found that 79% of Americans preferred agencies outside of law enforcement to investigate allegations of police misconduct.

Interest in the civilian review has taken off following recent high-profile cases of people of color having died at the hands of police, including George Floyd in May 2020.

As of June 2020, more than 130 new jurisdictions have sought advice from the Association for Civilian Oversight, McEllhiney said.

At least 10 cities and counties have approved civilian oversight measures in the November 2020 election, according to Lawfare, a blog published jointly with the Brooking Institution.

Compare that to the 18,000 police departments in the United States, according to estimates from the United States Department of Justice. The Plain Dealer has reviewed existing civilian oversight boards, as the Clevelanders consider the amendment.

How well have these agencies worked?

It is difficult to assess the success of a civilian review in part because commissions vary so much – from commissions that review police investigations only after the fact or offer recommendations on police discipline to completely independent bodies that can discipline officers. as a result of their own investigation.

“The nature of civilian oversight and the fact that no two agencies are the same make it very difficult to quantify,” McEllhiney said.

The basis, however, is to have an impartial point of view.

“By acting as an independent and neutral body reviewing the work of the law enforcement agency and its sworn staff, civilian oversight of law enforcement offers a unique element of legitimacy that the mechanisms of internal accountability and review simply cannot, “according to a new study co-authored by McEllhiney.

The Justice Department said in 2018 that there was not yet enough information to determine the effectiveness of civilian oversight.

“There is little, if any, empirical research on the effectiveness of civilian oversight of police, and programs are not subject to any systematic evaluation,” the department said.

The ministry found that in communities where some form of civilian oversight exists, the complaint rate tends to be higher – 11.9 per 100 officers compared to 6.7 in other communities – probably because people are over willing to come forward.

McEllhiney cited Los Angeles as a city that has found a successful mix. Its police commission operates independently as a board of directors on the police service. Its executive director acts as a liaison between the council and the chief. Commission staff also conduct large volumes of research, promoting transparency with public reporting.

A Washington post Analysis of more than 30 civilian oversight panels praised the Denver Watch Office – an independent observer who works with a civilian board. The key to its success has been strong support from politicians and strong financial backing, The Post said.

What are the frustrations?

In many communities, civilian oversight was hampered by the limits of the review agency’s power.

Often, boards can only recommend disciplinary action to a chief of police or director of security. This is the case in Cleveland now.

And these recommendations are just that – recommendations.

In Seattle, for example, this city is The Community Policing Commission recently protested when the police chief overturned the recommendations for discipline for how agents handled protests in 2020.

The leader’s decision, the commission said, “denies justice to thousands of Black Lives Matter protesters who marched against police brutality to face indiscriminate police violence.”

The leader, who has the power to ignore the commission’s recommendations, defended his decision saying it was based on “fundamental fairness”.

As citizen oversight evolves, communities are identifying best practices and applying them elsewhere, McEllhiney said. But building a system that puts teeth behind the findings of a supervisory board can be difficult.

“It’s often a pretty controversial conversation at least when you’re talking about taking authority over an individual,” McEllhiney said. “It’s a process and it’s part of a larger reform process that requires people to work together.

The Cleveland plan would radically alter the balance of power. Under the current system, the civilian commission makes recommendations to the police chief. The new review board would be able to order disciplinary action, which the chief should apply unless it is shown to be inappropriate by clear and convincing evidence.

But this shift in power – shifting executive power into the hands of an appointed committee – is precisely why several Cleveland mayoral candidates – Basheer Jones, Kevin Kelley, Dennis Kucinich and Sandra Williams – have come out against modification of the charter.

How was the civilian advice received?

According to the analysis of The Washington Post. It has reviewed more than 30 civilian oversight committees.

Lawsuits and unfair labor practices complaints have been used by police unions in an attempt to derail civilian oversight efforts in places like Portland, Oregon, Albuquerque, New Mexico and Newark, New Jersey.

In other cities, such as New Bedford, Mass., And Urbana, Ill., Police unions have secured clauses in their contracts to block civilian councils or prevent them from investigating complaints against officers. .

Police argued that civilians lack the expertise to conduct investigations and that internal investigative units are better suited to do the job.

Fraternal National Order of Police chief Jim Pasco likened it to a plumber investigating a plane crash. No matter how skilled the plumber is, it doesn’t mean the expertise is there to determine the cause of an accident, he told the Post.

How could this work in Cleveland?

The proposal of Citizens for a Safer Cleveland was inspired by ideas from Seattle and Los Angeles.

The Cleveland Civilian Police Review Board would operate like the one in Seattle, where community policing board staff investigate complaints against officers.

This independent commission is akin to the Los Angeles Police Commission, which was created in the 1920s. Reforms were recommended following the beatings of Rodney King in the 1990s and a Department investigation by the Christopher Commission, headed by future Secretary of State Warren Christopher. Among these, the creation of the post of Inspector General.

Police service deals with allegations of misconduct, reporting its findings to the independent commission.

If Cleveland passes the charter amendment, it will take a culture change before its effectiveness can be assessed, said Subodh Chandra, a civil rights attorney who wrote the language.

“It will take a new generation of dedicated constitutional police officers,” Chandra said. The police chief and the director of security will adapt to meet the demands of the new system, he said. The question is to what extent the base will accept the change.

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