What are the steps a community should take in establishing effective police oversight?


1)    You must first have a core group of citizens who are sufficiently concerned about the issue and who are willing to unite and work together over an extended period of time.   This core group should seek out training and support resources prior to the establishment of a formal planning or advisory committee.  If not, the voice of the community risks being marginalized once professional stakeholders become involved in the process.

2)    Begin by framing the public discussion and inviting public input.  Emphasize that the purpose is to improve trust between police and the community by ensuring public confidence in the agency through accountability and transparency.  The end goal is to deliver the most professional and effective police services possible to the community.  Invite police officials and union representatives to be a part of the conversation from the start.  Get their input and make it clear to them that their suggestions and concerns are valuable to the process.

  1. Acquire/develop and publicize data that clearly demonstrates a local need for civilian oversight (costs of past lawsuits, history of injuries, high ratio of use of force to arrest, lack of public confidence in policing agency, etc.).

3)    Establish a planning or advisory committee composed of elected officials, legal advisors, police officials, police union representation and community advocates.  Begin to meet regularly to educate the group on the pros and cons of various oversight models, legal requirements, collective bargaining limitations, etc. 

  1. Identify sources of resistance and issues of contention and begin to address the concerns or neutralize the resistance.
  2. A skilled negotiator or professional mediator may be helpful if communication becomes difficult or begins to break down.

4)    Identify sources of technical assistance such as NACOLE, the Department of Justice, local bar associations and practitioners of civilian oversight in other jurisdictions. Visit oversight agencies in other jurisdictions to learn from their staff and observe their procedures.

5)    Identify the proposed agency’s objectives and scope. 

  1. What type of complaints will be accepted?  How many complaints do you expect annually?  Will the agency make both disciplinary and policy/training recommendations?  Who shall be the final decision maker for complaint disposition?  What should happen when there is a disagreement between the police department and the oversight agency?  What will be the public reporting requirements for the oversight agency?  Will the agency offer mediation?  Will the agency have subpoena authority?  How will the agency’s effectiveness be measured?  How will elected officials hold the oversight agency accountable?

6)    Based upon the agreed objectives and scope, select an agency structure:

  1. Citizen Review Board model with or without independent investigative authority and mandate for policy recommendations.
  2. Monitor, Auditor, Ombudsman or Inspector General model with or without independent investigative authority and mandate for policy recommendations.

7)    Determine whether the oversight agency will be created by ordinance or within the municipal charter.  Generally, it is better to have it created within the city charter, as a municipal ordinance is typically easier to overturn. 

8)    Identify staffing needs

  1. Decide on type and number of staff
    1.                                           i.    Administrator/ombudsman/monitor/IG
      1. How will the director be selected and what are the director’s terms and qualifications of employment? 
      2. How can the director be reappointed or removed?  
      3.                                         ii.    Volunteer board members
        1. If the agency will be volunteer based, how many volunteer hours per week/month will it take for a volunteer to perform competently?
        2. How will the volunteer board members be selected?
        3. What are the qualifications (and disqualifications) for being a board member?
        4.                                        iii.    Administrative assistant(s)
        5.                                        iv.    Investigators
        6.                                         v.    Legal counsel (Corporation Counsel or outside legal counsel)
  2. Consider how training and development will be regularly provided to agency staff and/or volunteers.

9)    Develop a specific and detailed budget estimate and work to secure political support of elected officials for full funding.

10) Present the proposal to the public and allow time for public input and feedback.  Work with community advocacy organizations to build public support for the proposal to ensure its passage. 

In the end, you should advocate for the most effective structure possible that can be created within the current local political context, but recognize that compromises may have to be made to secure its initial passage.  Revisions to the law that would strengthen the agency can be proposed at a subsequent point in time when the political context may be more amenable.