Police oversight boards, also known as civilian oversight boards or police accountability boards, have gained popularity in recent years, with a tremendous surge in the last month-and-a-half. Citizens and activists are demanding major cities across the United States implement their own accountability boards as a direct result of the inexcusable misconduct by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin that resulted in the death of George Floyd.
We can see the appeal of the idea of oversight boards. Theoretically, oversight boards should increase accountability and provide a bridge between law enforcement and their communities. They should create an atmosphere of greater transparency, respect and trust between citizens and police with the idea that this entity would balance the power dynamics between police and civilians and hold them accountable for any wrongdoing.
Realistically, however, civilian oversight boards are riddled with the same issues they are tasked with solving, namely, a lack of accountability and transparency. This has created entirely new problems for law enforcement and for their communities, while solving very few.
The major issue with civilian oversight boards today is that there is little to no consistency on what an oversight board should look like and how it should operate. There are few, if any, regulations in regards to qualifications of board members, how they are elected/appointed, processes for reviewing complaints or misconduct claims, relationship with the police commissioner or department, the list goes on.
And what does exist does not transcend beyond their own microcosm — there is no national standard or assumption of cooperation between boards. Board powers and regulations vary from city to city, and it is unclear even to those that are advocating for them how to set these oversight entities up for success.
A case study on the potential bias of civilian oversight boards that is worth noting is recent news about a board member of the Rochester oversight committee in New York. In May, a news story came out that a police accountability board member (PAB) joined a rally against police on Wednesday. Are police departments really expected to work with and trust oversight boards that have board members blatantly working against them?
“Here is a member of this PAB board then we are supposed to have faith in, believe in, and believe that he is going to review police officers work with an unbiased and informed review … I think his actions show what our concerns were, and are,” a representative of the Rochester Police Locust Club police union noted.
In addition to clearly biased board members and a lack of due diligence or qualifications in selecting citizens to serve, we have also seen oversight boards create even further schisms with their lack of cooperation with local police departments. A New York Times article from 2018 touches on the contentious relationship between their oversight board and the police commissioner, and highlights how being at odds creates a hostile and ineffective environment for both parties. Needless to say, not much has changed since then.
With civilian mistrust of police and law enforcement coming to a head in many cities with questionable officer conduct, civilian oversight boards were created to bridge the gap and help build that trust relationship up again after it had been damaged. But without consistency, regulations and qualified board members, this will only be a pipe dream that cannot be realized. Civilian oversight boards as they are now can (and probably will) cause further damage to the already wrought relationship between officers and their communities.
Is it possible to build a strong, successful oversight board that benefits all? Yes, but it will take more than the haphazard knee-jerk assembly of these boards that we are seeing now. It will need to be driven not by political interest, but by sincere interests in restoring police-community relationships and building a better system for all.
• Daniel Stuebs is executive director of American Police Officers Alliance.