« Community Control

Policy 8: Community Oversight

More than 100 jurisdictions across the country have some type of civilian oversight commission or board, but few communities feel they have true control over their police departments. In recognition of the reality that community oversight is fundamental to the legitimacy of local law enforcement, many communities have renewed their call for meaningful community oversight. Traditionally, civilian or community oversight boards provide communities a say in the disciplining of officers accused of misconduct against community members.

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However, a number of jurisdictions, including Seattle, San Francisco, St. Louis and Newark, have started to advocate for review boards with a wider scope—including the power to investigate departmental practices, impact hiring decisions, and help identify policing priorities. Seattle’s Community Police Commission includes both the power to investigate individual cases and address system wide issues. Whatever the scope of the commission or board, community oversight is only meaningful if boards are independent, actually represent impacted communities, have adequate funding, and have full investigatory and disciplinary power.

In Practice

The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department is the fourth largest local policing agency in the country, operates in nearly 90 municipalities and oversees all LA County Jails, which have an average daily population of nearly 22,000 people. Organizers and advocates have been working to end widespread abuse, corruption and discrimination within the Department for decades. In 2002, the Department of Justice pressured Los Angeles officials into issuing some reforms to address the heinous mistreatment of those incarcerated in LA County Jails, but little changed. Over a decade later, ACLU began a lawsuit accusing the Sheriff’s Department of using excessive force in jails. The levels of abuse documented in county jails were horrific, and very few were paying any attention. The report galvanized an art project, which powerfully expressed the cruelty of the Sheriff’s department and galvanized community members and local artists. Organizers and community members from the art project created a coalition called “Dignity and Power Now/The Coalition to End Sheriff’s Violence in LA Jails”.

Over the course of two and a half years, the coalition published a comprehensive community based research report and engaged in direct action to push for an appointed civilian oversight body with subpoena power and the ability to track violence in jails. They held a series of workshops and focus groups across the county to get a sense of what residents wanted out of an oversight board, organized those most impacted by the lack of oversight to lead the campaign, and corralled a group of UCLA law students and lawyers to research best practices and do other legal and policy research based on community priorities.

After years of organizing and advocacy Dignity and Power Now garnered the support of the County Supervisors on the issue of civilian oversight. In December 2014 the Board of Supervisors voted to create a civilian oversight system. The campaign demanding oversight of sheriffs is unique and important, because across the country sheriffs have been involved in countless acts of misconduct and police thousands of towns and unincorporated areas and control county jails. By insisting on oversight of the sheriffs the campaign will have an impact in numerous cities and jails across Los Angeles County.

San Francisco has one of the strongest civilian oversight boards in the country with significant disciplinary power. In their model, the Citizen Police Commission determines all disciplinary action beyond 10-day suspensions and is the appellate body for all officer appeals. Additionally, San Francisco uses a model that does not rely on internal divisions within the police department to conduct investigations. Allegations of excessive force, civilian harassment, and other infractions by police while on duty are investigated by the Office of Civilian Complaints, rather than a unit within the police department. Many civilian oversight boards are forced to rely on the investigations of internal departments or units, which can limit their access to information. In San Francisco, the Office of Citizen Complaints (OCC) receives complaints from community members and has the power to investigate any allegations brought forth by residents.

Seattle’s Community Police Commission (CPC) is an example of a hybrid oversight commission and civilian review board. It was established in 2013 as part of a consent decree with the Department of Justice. The fifteen member commission represents diverse community interests, including two police union representatives. The CPC provides system oversight for the civilian-led accountability process conducted by an independent civilian Auditor and a civilian Director of the Office of Police Accountability. In addition to its role overseeing the accountability system, the CPC, which includes police reform advocates, comments on police policies that affect community trust and fairness, and works with the Seattle Police Department training section to revise training curriculum in key areas including bias-free policing, stops and detentions, crisis intervention training, and use of force.

Best Practices:

Community oversight boards or commissions, which give communities a say in the discipline of officers, can be enacted at the county or municipal level. Due to state law, some communities may not be able to create a board with subpoena or disciplinary power without changing state law and/or the city or county charter.

  • The commission or board should have full investigative powers—including the power to subpoena or compel testimony and documents.
  • Local law enforcement and any other oversight bodies should be mandated to give complete access to internal affairs and relevant files to the commission or board.
  • The commission or board must be fully funded and staffed—including an investigative staff.
  • The commission or board should reflect the communities most impacted by police surveillance, abuse, and brutality. Legislation should mandate a majority of the board be made up of community members appointed or elected in a democratic way. Additionally, many communities have chosen to push for boards without membership from any law enforcement or former law enforcement, in order to avoid conflicts of interest.
  • The commission or board may also require that all policies affecting community trust and fairness be submitted to the board for review and comment before passage.
  • The commission or board should have a meaningful say in the discipline of officers. Ideally, these boards would have final say in discipline but this may be complicated by state or local law or by contracts between the city and law enforcement unions.
  • The commission/board should make its disciplinary recommendations public regardless of barriers to disciplinary action due to state and local laws. This allows for public knowledge of any discrepancies between the commission/board’s recommendations and the departments actions, allowing for more transparency and public scrutiny.
  • Community oversight boards or commissions should accept anonymous complaints as well as complaints by third parties (including organizations) on behalf of individuals.