Civilian Oversight’s Important Role in Police Reform

It should be about changing dysfunctional law-enforcement cultures, not just busting rogue cops.
January 19, 2016
By Samuel Johnson Jr.  |  Contributor
Senior managing director for Mangfold Group LLC and a former Baltimore police officer

Across the nation last year, 986 people were shot to death by on-duty police officers, according to a tally by the Washington Post. If that statistic weren't alarming enough, the Post's data-tracking project also found that police killed blacks at three times the rate of whites when adjusted for the population where the shootings occurred. Since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014, the nation has become intimately familiar with the stories of people like Tamir Rice, Walter Scott and Laquan McDonald as evidence of what many have come to view as a lack of institutional control within the profession of policing.

The media, academics and politicians have tended to discuss these incidents as if they were a new phenomenon. But members of minority communities have rejoiced as technology has finally caught up with the reality that they have been reporting for decades, with visible images substantiating lawless behavior and abuses of power.

What can be done to help erase the pervasive "us-versus-them" mentality within minority communities and foster the better police-community relations that we need more than ever? One critical component of the solution is civilian oversight of police. Efforts to implement or expand the powers of civilian oversight usually meet strong resistance. In Philadelphia, for example, when a city council member introduced a plan to strengthen the city's existing Police Advisory Commission the head of the Fraternal Order of Police adamantly objected, saying Philadelphia police didn't need more second-guessing of officers' split-second decisions.

But support for increased civilian oversight is building. Last May, President Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing -- co-chaired, incidentally, by Philadelphia's then-police commissioner, Charles H. Ramsey -- cited it as one important ingredient of police reform. "Some form of civilian oversight of law enforcement is important in order to strengthen trust with the community," the commission wrote in its final report. "Every community should define the appropriate form and structure of civilian oversight to meet the needs of that community."

The structure of a civilian oversight body certainly should model the needs of the community. But for that to succeed, civilian oversight should be approached as a partnership. It should focus not only on the agenda of the community, or politicians, or of law enforcement and its unions, or of activist groups. Such a partnership, within a structure of independence, would establish an impartiality that would garner greater respect and legitimacy from each group so that recommendations for reforms are not viewed as biased.

Many associate civilian oversight bodies only with the narrow role of policing the police by going after rogue cops who subscribe to their own systems of justice. While that is an important component of the work these bodies do, they should be viewed in a broader perspective as a resource for fostering systematic change not only within police organizations but also within the communities they serve. True police reform lies in the ability to change the patterns and practices of dysfunctional organizational cultures that contribute to a lack of institutional control and exacerbate social problems.

The rift in police-community relations we face today all across the nation requires a new normal. Many citizens no longer believe in the process of police effectively policing themselves and are calling for a system that allows their voices to be heard. Civilian oversight is the right approach for progressive localities that value the health and safety of their citizens.