As the political environment varies wildly across the country, there continues to be a cry for citizen oversight of policing. A citizen review board (CRB) and a citizen advisory board (CAB) are two distinct entities that serve different purposes in relation to law enforcement. Let us look at both.
Purpose and function
A CRB is an independent body established to investigate complaints and allegations of misconduct or wrongdoing by police officers. The board typically consists of community members, legal experts and representatives from civil rights organizations.
By contrast, CABs foster communication and collaboration between the police and the community it serves. The purpose of this board is to provide a platform for citizens to voice their concerns, provide feedback and make recommendations to the police regarding policies, procedures and community policing efforts. The advisory board acts as a liaison between the police and the community, promoting understanding, trust and cooperation.
Authority and decision-making
CRBs usually possess investigatory powers and the authority to make recommendations based on their findings. It can conduct impartial investigations into complaints, gather evidence, interview witnesses and determine whether an officer’s actions were appropriate or violated established protocols. The board’s recommendations may include disciplinary actions, policy changes or training improvements.
CABs, while influential, typically have an advisory role. However, they lack the authority to independently investigate or discipline officers. It primarily focuses on providing input, advice and recommendations to the police department based on community perspectives and concerns. The board’s suggestions can influence department policies, community outreach programs and strategies for addressing public safety issues.
Oversight and independence
CRBs are to maintain independence from the police department they oversee. CRBs operate as an external oversight body, ensuring that investigations are conducted impartially and free from bias. This independence helps to foster public trust and confidence in the review process.
In contrast, CABs often work in collaboration with the police. While it aims to represent community interests, it typically maintains a cooperative relationship with law enforcement officials.
It is important to note that the structure and functions of CRBs and CABs can vary between jurisdictions. Local laws, regulations and community needs determine the specific roles and powers of these bodies.
Civilian oversight first took the form of police commissions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They initially focused on decreasing the influence that politicians had on local police forces. This failed, as politicians with little expertise in the field of policing infiltrated these commissions.
The first recognized CRB was established in Washington, D.C., in 1948, known as the Complaint Review Board. However, this board was weak and ineffective. The movement for citizen oversight exploded into a national issue in the 1960s as the civil rights movement challenged police misconduct with a new wave of civilian oversight, which included enhanced resources and more authority.
The number of CRBs rapidly increased after the videotaped beating of Rodney King by the police in Los Angeles in 1991. CRBs further evolved to include legislated authority, lawyers and staff. There were less than 40 civilian oversight boards or agencies in 1990, over 100 by 2001 and 144 as of 2016, according to the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement.
Problems that face CRBs
When looking at CRBs, law enforcement has been wary when non-experts in police operations, the law or current case law, and employee rights open shop to “police” the police. There is also the actual cost involved in maintaining a board once empaneled. Issues CRBs face:
- Hostility, resistance and obstruction by rank-and-file police officers, police department leaders and police unions
- An inadequate framework by which to hold officers accountable
- Overreach in applying harsh standards that are not supported by common sense labor management guidelines
- A lack of understanding of living within the framework of a union contract
- The ability of police departments to routinely ignore recommendations made by civilian review agencies
- Limited resources (funding, limited labor management expertise, access to case information, etc.)
Research indicates that 45% of oversight agencies do not have enabling statutes/ordinances that explicitly require that law enforcement employees cooperate with these boards.
Some 54% of oversight agencies reported that police officials did not implement their recommendations very frequently/frequently.
About 6% of oversight agencies can impose discipline on police departments and the officers they oversee.
Fast-forward to CABs
Democracy is a core value of U.S. society, and citizens have a fundamental right to participate. It has been argued that citizen participation in governmental policy-making promotes trust in governmental operations. Historically, the value of CABs has not been uniformly embraced by law enforcement in a meaningful manner.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, CABs started to surface to improve upon the one-way flow of information that takes place in the public meeting forum.
The President’s Task Force on 21st-Century Policing emphasized the importance of citizen involvement in policing as a strategy to improve trust between law enforcement and the public. According to the report, CABs and community outreach were identified as action items for local law enforcement.
The establishment of CABs within police departments is not a universal practice. Factors that contribute to the limited implementation of CABs include:
- Lack of awareness or understanding
- Resistance to change
- Resource constraints
- Political challenges
- Lack of community engagement
- The excuse that there’s not enough time to devote to a CAB
These same factors would be obstacles for an agency to evolve into a community-oriented policing model. It is crucial for police departments, community members and policymakers to engage in dialogue, evaluate local needs and work together to determine the most appropriate mechanisms for enhancing police–community relations and accountability.
To be clear, CABs will not be effective unless they are created in a thoughtful way. A CAB must have an operating model specifically tailored to the community it intends to serve. Without sufficient thought and effort, a CAB will, at best, be a waste of people’s time and energy and, at worst, will provide window dressing for something that is not actually happening.
CABs occasionally are seen by policing agencies to disseminate accurate information in crisis situations about an incident or subsequent investigation. When CABs are highlighted during a crisis, they often are portrayed as a legitimizing presence for the policing agency’s response.
The structure of CABs varies widely. Usually, they are convened by and communicate directly with the chief law enforcement officer (CLEO) of a policing agency. CABs are restricted to a small number of individuals representing the interests of the public.
Recommendations for CABs
Effective government is based on trust. Thus, a central tenet of a CAB should be to build trust and two-way communication between the police and the community.
Once the purpose and mission of a CAB is established, membership selection should take place. The agency head should retain authority in the appointment of the board, accomplished through an established and transparent search process. Each applicant should pass a litmus test prior to becoming a sitting member of the advisory board.
The size of a CAB should be large enough and diverse to represent the community yet small enough so decisions do not get bogged down. Establishing a term limit should be considered, and having the members approved by elected representatives is another consideration.
To be effective, the advisory board cannot be political. Because board members volunteer their time, the agency head must ensure that the board does not become dominated by partisan members or overpopulated with participants who have the economic means to donate time.
Evolution of CABs
CABs are becoming important components of most law enforcement organizations, and when managed appropriately, will result in more democratic and effective organizations. A successful advisory board demonstrates that it is interested in listening to the community and that officers care about finding the best way to serve them.
If an agency fails to be proactive in building bridges with its constituents in the current era of social media, demands for transparency and growing cries for accountability, then a legislatively created review board system may be in your future.