The shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., and the police department’s bungled response has renewed cries for police reform.


The slaying of Brown, who was unarmed, spurred protest among residents, who saw it as the latest in a string of injustices perpetrated by Ferguson police officers against the mostly-Black community.

The police department’s heavy-handed response—enforcing an information blackout, deploying K-9 dog units, armored vehicles and SWAT officers clad in bulletproof vests and military-grade rifles, some of whom were calling demonstrators “animals”—only exacerbated tensions and further highlighted the frayed relationship between police and the community.

Federal officials, lawmakers, social scientists, civil rights activists and other experts have contemplated several solutions to Ferguson’s problem. A civilian review board has been one of them.

“The Ferguson Police Department is in need of a wholesale re-evaluation of how it does its work…. Policing must be done in a way that meets the community’s needs and does not abuse their constitutional rights. I do think civilian oversight of police is part of the solution,” said Ari Rosmarin, policy director, ACLU of New Jersey.

According to Brian Buchner, president, The National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE), the concept of civilian oversight of police departments developed around the middle of the 20th century.

“The history of civilian oversight is deeply rooted in the Civil Rights Movement, when communities of color who were suffering from harsh police tactics, discrimination and abuse began to call for increased oversight over police practices and for having a voice,” he told the AFRO.

But the idea really took off, Rosmarin added, when the so-called “War on Crime” unleashed by President Nixon spurred clashes between police and communities of color that prompted an outcry for aggressive oversight of police departments.

“For any democratic society it is a basic tenet that there needs to be checks and balances for any part of government,” Rosmarin said. “By law we give police more power than we give anybody else. We believe that with great and tremendous power must come equally robust accountability.”

Today, as communities continue to figure out how to police the police, civilian oversight has evolved to the point where you have different models, sometimes with different goals. And, there are more than 200 civilian oversight entities throughout the United States, according to Buchner.

Some civilian boards, for example, may investigate and offer findings on individual complaints of police misconduct, while others may concentrate only on big-picture issues, such as framing police policy. Oversight also varies in terms of the powers given to that board—some have subpoena power, for example.

“Whatever model of citizen review a critical is that everyday people have the ability to be heard,” Rosmarin said.

Buchner agreed. He added that while no civilian review board is perfect, there are some factors that can make them more efficient.

“Access, making sure the oversight board has access to police officers and records of the agency,” said Buchner, who sits on a civilian oversight board in Los Angeles. “It’s critical for oversight boards to be independent in thought and action, and oversight needs to be careful to avoid overidentification with the community or with police. They are to be advocates for the law and standards and not any particular group.”

A major criticism of oversight boards is that they often seem to over-identify with police and just “rubberstamp” police findings or the police account of an incident/issue.

Buchner said from his experience, an oversight board’s investigation may veer away from the police’s in terms of approach, prioritization of evidence, evaluation style, etc. and still come to the same decision as the police.

“But all the community knows is that we have the same conclusions,” he said.

“In some ways that is not problematic because it can prove to the community that they can have faith in the department’s investigation and that it was thorough, fair and objective,” Buchner added.

Rosmarin pointed out that while citizen review boards have varying levels of independence, none has independent disciplinary power. As a result, too many times CRB findings and recommendations for disciplinary measures/change are not acted upon by police commissioners and other relevant authorities.

In New York, for example, the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) in 2012 received 5,741 complaints, 258 of which were substantiated and processed by the NYPD, according to a report by WNYC, New York’s public radio.

The CCRB recommended—from the most serious to less serious penalty—charges in 175 cases, command discipline in 70 cases, and instructions in 12 cases.

Of the 175 cases in which CCRB recommended an officer should be charged, the NYPD only sought charges in seven.

Similarly, according to {The New York Times}, in the first six months of 2014, the NYPD has chosen not to impose sanctions in 25 percent of the cases for which the CCRB found cause for discipline.

“It raises many serious questions when the people charged with implementing accountability may have been your squad car partner a few years before,” Rosmarin said, then added, “That’s why people lose faith in review boards.”

Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO