« Independent Oversight

Policy 12: Inspectors General or Oversight Commissions

Subjecting law enforcement agencies to external oversight can provide some transparency and may help monitor the practices and policies of local police. Unlike community based oversight Inspectors General or Oversight Commissions refer to oversight of police departments by third party government agencies or officials.

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The establishment of an Inspectors General or Auditor’s Office or Oversight Commission by no means guarantees effective oversight, but may help the public access information about police abuses, ensure effective implementation of reforms, and proactively identify issues in the operations, policies, programs and practices of police departments. While the powers exercised by such an office will depend on state and local law, oversight bodies are most likely to be effective if they are not controlled by law enforcement, empowered to monitor police department practices related to civil rights and civil liberties, able to exercise subpoena power, and able to issue binding policy changes.

In Practice

Inspectors Generals, auditors and oversight agencies and commissions are not a silver bullet, but they can be an important part of the landscape of oversight necessary to ensure police accountability. Oversight agencies or commissions can often investigate systemic issues of misconduct and are well positioned to monitor reforms and provide information to the public about how effective reforms have been. Reports and recommendations from oversight agencies or commissions can be useful advocacy tools and can help persuade local elected officials (and sometimes law enforcement leadership) to make changes to policies or procedures. A number of cities have active Inspectors General Offices, which through reports and recommendations have unearthed problematic departmental practices. For instance a report by the recently created Inspector General in New York City documented the illegal use of chokeholds by NYPD officers and the flawed NYPD disciplinary system. A report by the Los Angeles Inspectors General highlighted the lack of data around use of force by the Sheriff’s department, gaining a lot of media and community attention in late 2014 and early 2015. In New Orleans, a series of reports conducted by the Inspectors General Office throughout 2014 resulted in ten federal indictments and three convictions of officers involved in misconduct. While there are a number of examples of strong Inspectors General Offices, the effectiveness of the Office depends on the priorities and allegiances of whoever is appointed.

The Seattle Community Police Commission provides another model. Rather than being headed by a single person, who may be vulnerable to political pressure or just not be effective, the Community Police Commission is a fifteen member body representative of different community interests and appointed by the Mayor. Unlike most other civilian police commissions, it does not review individual misconduct cases; rather, it reviews the civilian oversight and accountability system, as well as police policies and practices of public significance. Seattle champions this approach because they believe the representative nature of the Community Police Commission ensures that the Office does not become bureaucratized and/or disconnected from community priorities or concerns. While information provided by oversight bodies has been helpful for advocates across the country, there is no clear evidence that these oversight bodies alone are effective in obtaining meaningful reforms.

Best Practices:

Oversight agencies, which review law enforcement policy and practices, are normally instituted at the city or county level and can help make the public aware of systemic police misconduct and abuses.

  • Oversight agencies or commissions are most effective if they are fully independent and have the freedom and power to choose what they investigate. City or state law may limit the ability to create truly independent bodies, but it is normally possible to ensure that oversight agencies are not controlled by law enforcement.
  • Oversight agencies or commissions should be charged with monitoring and investigating patterns and practices of police interactions with particularly vulnerable populations, including: women, LGBTQ people, youth, homeless people and people living in public housing, immigrants, and people with disabilities, as well as specific forms of police misconduct including sexual harassment and assault and discriminatory treatment against LGBTQ people and other populations.
  • Oversight agencies or commissions should be charged with regularly analyzing data on a range of police department practices to determine if there are disparities based on race, age, gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation in enforcement practices.
  • Oversight agencies or commissions should have full access to all information needed to complete their investigations. To ensure access, they should have: subpoena power, ability to compel testimony, and access to all relevant internal documents, systems, and personnel of the police department and related departments or bodies that may have access to complaints against officers and departments.
  • There should be legal protections from retaliation for people who provide information about potential abuses or misconduct to oversight agencies or commissions.
  • Communities should have input in determining the priorities and topic of investigations. Oversight agencies or commissions should be mandated to report all of their findings to the public and consult communities most impacted by police brutality and incarceration in the development of their priorities.
  • The budget of oversight agencies or commissions should be adequate and consistent.
  • There must be various accountability mechanisms, including mandated annual reporting and/or open public hearings.
  • Oversight agencies or commissions should be responsible for monitoring and reporting on the status of prior recommendations.
  • Police departments should be required to respond to and acknowledge the recommendations of oversight agencies or commissions.
  • Oversight agencies or commissions should have public websites that include past reports, recommendations, and opportunities for community members to submit questions, complaints, or recommended investigations.