One of the most important and defining concepts of civilian oversight of law enforcement is independence. In its broadest sense, it refers to an absence of real or perceived influence from law enforcement, political actors, and other special interests looking to affect the operations of the civilian oversight agency. In order to maintain legitimacy, an agency must be able to demonstrate the extent and impact of its independence from the overseen law enforcement agency — especially in the face of high-profile issues or incidents.
An oversight agency’s jurisdiction and scope of authority are crucial to its success and effectiveness. While expectations regarding civilian oversight can vary significantly, having adequate jurisdiction and authority are fundamental in achieving organizational goals and ensuring the oversight agency can be responsive to communities. An agency that is not given sufficient authority and jurisdiction to perform its mission simply cannot be effective. While there is no “best” oversight model for all contexts, stakeholders must ensure that the level of authority an oversight agency has in relation to its core oversight functions permits the agency to successfully perform its duties to the greatest degree possible and without limitation.
Unfettered access to the subject law enforcement agency’s records is vitally important for effective civilian oversight. The ability to review all records relevant to an investigation or other matters within the scope of a civilian oversight agency’s authority in a timely manner is essential to providing effective, informed, and fact-driven oversight. Similarly, agencies performing correctional oversight must have unfettered access to facilities and staff. Without timely and reliable access to department records, information, and facilities, oversight practitioners and volunteers cannot make decisions that meaningfully address areas of concern.
The effectiveness of civilian oversight can hinge on an agency’s ability to effectively communicate with law enforcement officials regarding matters of concern identified throughout the course of the oversight agency’s work. Sustained dialogue and communication between law enforcement and oversight stakeholders promotes cooperation and ensures that those involved can develop mutual understanding and support for each other’s role in promoting greater accountability. Legislation establishing civilian oversight should require that law enforcement agencies provide timely, written, and public responses detailing why a particular recommendation was either accepted or rejected. These responses are crucial to informing the public of how, if, and why or why not issues identified by the civilian oversight agency will be addressed
In addition to having access to relevant records and department executives, effective civilian oversight requires the full cooperation of all officers and department staff throughout the course of its work. Full cooperation is necessary for conducting thorough investigations and obtaining sufficient information for any work performed by the civilian oversight agency. The conditions of such cooperation must respect due process rights and an individual’s constitutional right against self-incrimination. Cooperation with civilian oversight should be a condition of employment for all officers and staff within the agency’s jurisdiction.
Ongoing engagement with and support from stakeholders regarding local public safety and law enforcement-related issues is an important component of effectiveness. An otherwise well-designed civilian oversight mechanism can be undermined over time by a lack of meaningful support from those who can contribute to an agency’s success. While establishing and supporting civilian oversight may be politically expedient in times of crisis, successful oversight requires the sustained support and interest of stakeholders who value independence, accountability, and transparency.An agency’s ability to maintain this support may be a function of its outreach to those stakeholders. Maintaining productive relationships, even in times where disagreement and conflict may be unavoidable, will be crucial to future problem-solving, cooperation, and collaboration on key issues.
Allocating sufficient resources to civilian oversight is a crucial determinant to effectiveness. To ensure that work is being performed thoroughly, timely, and at a high level of competency, adequate resources are necessary. Political stakeholders must ensure that their support for civilian oversight includes a sustained commitment to provide adequate and necessary resources. Providing adequate funding can signal a commitment to reform that may lead to greater cooperation by law enforcement executives and unions. Similarly, civilian oversight agencies must have the resources to retain experienced professional staff, provide staff and volunteer board or commission members with adequate training on a regular basis, perform community outreach, and disseminate public reports and other outreach materials in order to be effective.
An independent entity bringing transparency to a historically opaque process is a fundamental goal and component of civilian oversight. Civilian oversight provides a unique opportunity for the public to learn about misconduct complaints and other areas of the law enforcement agency that serves the community. As such, issuing regular public reports is critical to an agency’s credibility. A civilian oversight agency should, at a minimum, issue one written report to the public each year.Reports should be written in an accessible manner that allows the public to clearly understand the agency’s authority, purpose, procedures, and accomplishments. In addition, they should include as much information related to the agency’s mandate and operations as can be disclosed by law, including patterns and trends in complaints or discipline, the agency’s recommendations and activities for the year, and issues that may be of concern to the public. Sufficiently resourced oversight agencies should seek to produce more frequent reports and, where appropriate, issue special reports on specific matters such as the findings of a particular policy review, audit, or investigation.
Performing analyses of law enforcement policies and patterns in practice may be among the most critical functions a civilian oversight agency can perform. Such analyses have great potential to advance the goals of effective civilian oversight by addressing systemic problems of law enforcement agencies and by formulating recommendations that will improve relations with communities. By performing data-driven and evidence-based analyses of specific issues, oversight agencies can pinpoint areas of concern and formulate recommendations for improvement. To hold the overseen law enforcement agency’s executives accountable, timely, written responses to the oversight agency’s recommendations should be required and made public.
In many cases, civilian oversight is established amid community calls for greater accountability following a high-profile incident involving local law enforcement. As an institution representing the interests of the local community, conducting outreach to the community and local stakeholders is essential to effective civilian oversight. Outreach enables an oversight agency to build awareness of its existence, share reports and findings with the public, build relationships with stakeholders, recruit volunteers, solicit community input and involvement, facilitate learning and greater understanding, broker improved relationships, build coalitions, and develop a greater capacity for problem-solving. These functions are crucial to an agency’s transparency, credibility, responsiveness, accountability, and accessibility, and overall ability to successfully maintain public support and legitimacy.
Effective civilian oversight requires community involvement. Community and stakeholder input regarding how civilian oversight should function and which accountability issues it should address will result in the creation of a “best fit” oversight system that can meet community needs and expectations. Without sufficient involvement of those most interested in and impacted by local issues regarding law enforcement, it is unlikely that civilian oversight will be able to successfully accomplish its goals.
Effective civilian oversight must function with the same integrity, professionalism, and ethical standards it expects from and promotes for law enforcement. Stakeholders and the community must remain confident that civilian oversight will protect sensitive information as well as those who disclose it. An oversight agency cannot maintain credibility, legitimacy, and public trust if it does not or cannot respect confidentiality agreements, maintain the anonymity of those who wish to share information anonymously, and work towards creating an environment where those involved with or contacting the oversight agency can do so without fear of retaliation or retribution.
Procedural justice and legitimacy should serve as core principles guiding the work and processes of effective civilian oversight. Rooted in behavioral psychology, procedural justice typically centers on how authority is exercised. For entities whose authority is established by law, the recognition of their right to that authority and perceptions of how fairly that authority is exercised are crucial components of legitimacy. Research has shown that procedurally-just interactions between law enforcement and the community positively impact the public’s compliance with laws and willingness to assist in crime control efforts. The literature has also shown that officer perceptions of a procedurally-just work environment is associated with reduced misconduct and corruption, as well as greater endorsement of policing reforms, reduced mistrust and cynicism with the community, willingness to obey supervisors, and increased officer well-being.Though the literature on procedural justice and civilian oversight is relatively sparse, there is research supporting the notion that procedurally just complaint processes — where complainants report being satisfied with the quality of communication and the process — increase complainant satisfaction.