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Civilian Review Boards Gain Popularity Among Police Reformers. How Effective Are They?

Lion statue in front of Columbus Division of Police Central Headquarters.
David Holm
Lion statue in front of Columbus Division of Police Central Headquarters.

The killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis Police officer sparked protests across the world and calls for change in police practices. Some activists are calling for severe measures such as defunding or abolishing police departments, while lawmakers are seeking more incremental reforms.

One such change that city leaders are considering for the Columbus Division of Police is the creation of a Civilian Review Board, to conduct oversight in cases of officer misconduct, bias, or excessive force.

An independent review board was one of dozens of suggestions in a January report from the Columbus Community Safety Advisory Commission. In the wake of recent protests, the idea gained momentum among Mayor Andrew Ginther, City Attorney Zach Klein and members of the City Council.

However, details of what this Civilian Review Board would look like, and how it would function, have not yet been determined. Even the commission’s recommendation is intentionally vague.

Up For Negotiation

The Community Safety Advisory Commission's 119-page report states that the purpose of a Civilian Review Board would be to “increase the sense of accountability of CDP” and “build trust with the community." But leaves out specifics.

"It was clear that the complexity of creating a board that serves the needs of our community in a just, equitable, and legally permissible manner requires intensive research, dialogue, and negotiation," the report reads. "As a result, the Commission does not prescribe the specific form or function of a civilian review board.”

Those details will likely be negotiated soon as part of the next contract with the police union, which historically has opposed review boards. Since the 1980s, public officials in Columbus have periodically pushed for review boards, but the idea has never materialized amid union opposition.

That’s fairly common, according to Sam Walker, a policing policy expert and retired professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

“Police unions are–and have been from day one–the leading opponents of Civilian Review Boards,” he said.

Police vehicles parked in front of Columbus Division of Police headquarters.
Credit David Holm / WOSU
Police vehicles parked in front of Columbus Division of Police headquarters.

Today, the momentum for reform appears stronger after a weeks of protests and national outcry over police violence. Ginther announced that the city will establish a working group to help create a Civilian Review Board by July 1 and appoint members to that board by the end of 2020.

On Wednesday, Ginther also called on the police union to join the reform process, but said the board would be created with or without union support.

"To the FOP: Be part of the solution. Be part of the reform our community is demanding, starting with the formation of the Civilian Review Board," Ginther said. "The entire community has rallied around this reform."

In the meantime, Columbus Police Chief Thomas Quinlan recently announced plans to appoint a less-formal advisory panel to increase transparency.

“I didn’t want to wait for a negotiation with the FOP for whatever comes out of a citizen review,” Quinlan told City Council members on June 1. “I wasn’t going to wait for that. I already have a plan for a chief’s advisory panel, I already have it completely spelled out and laid out with what my vision is there and how that will operate and function.”

Quinlan and Ginther have since appointed 14 members to that panel, which plans to hold its first meeting next month.

What Review Boards Look Like

If Columbus forms a Civilian Review Board, it will join the majority of big U.S. cities that already have such oversight bodies.

Research published in 2016 found that of the country’s top 50 largest cities, about 80% have review boards. There are approximately 200 such boards in the United States, but their form and function vary widely from city to city, which makes it difficult to evaluate their success.

Several factors will indicate the type of review board Columbus ends up with: Will it be made up of volunteers or a paid professional staff? Will it have a budget and how much? Will it have the power to launch investigations? Will it have access to police records? Will it make recommendations on disciplinary action? Will it make policy recommendations?

Traditionally, these types of oversight boards are either review-focused or investigation-focused, according to the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement. Each type has its advantages and disadvantages.

In the review-focused model, boards look at completed investigations, make recommendations to police leadership, hear community input and are generally staffed by volunteers. Experts say these boards give the public a voice in the complaint process and can foster more trust between communities and police, but they have limited resources and power.

In the investigation-focused model, boards can launch their own probes into complaints and are staffed by professional non-police investigators. While these boards have more independence from the police departments, and potentially less bias, they are more expensive and complex to run and are often strongly opposed by police unions.

According to Carol Archbold, police oversight expert and professor at North Dakota State University, examples of effective boards are the Washington D.C. Office of Police Complaints and the San Francisco Department of Police Accountability. Both of those are investigation-focused.

“These groups have been successful because they all have subpoena authority, authority over discipline, and policy review authority over the police agencies in their jurisdictions,” Archbold said. “The more authority the board has, the better they will be able to provide appropriate oversight of the police.”

Columbus Division of Police Central Headquarters.
Credit David Holm / WOSU
Columbus Division of Police Central Headquarters.

A third option for oversight is the auditor or monitor agency, which came up in the 1990s. These are often “Inspector General” type offices that look at broader policies and patterns in police departments, rather than individual cases.

Walker believes this type of oversight is the most effective at changing a police department.

“They have a free license to investigate anything,” Walker said. “So they could audit Internal Affairs, for example. They can look at the department’s handling of homeless people. See the policy doesn’t exist or is inadequate, and recommend a new policy. That really helps change the organization, which is crucial.”

Walker pointed to an example in New York City where the Office of the Inspector General did a report finding that the department's use of force policies were unclear.

“There was no common understanding among rank-and-file officers over what actions had to be reported as a ‘use of force,’ which means that the department had no clear picture of the number of use of force incidents each year,” Walker said.

While these auditor agencies may be better at systematic change–and are generally less expensive than investigative boards–they are sometimes criticised for not ensuring decisive action on individual cases of misconduct.

The National Association For Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement report concluded there is not enough evidence to suggest that one model is best for all. Instead, cities should look for what is the best fit for their situation.

“Every jurisdiction has its own social, cultural, and political issues, and every police agency has its own unique organizational history, traditions, and sub-cultural characteristics,” the report states.

While no Civilian Review Board is perfect, and all require adequate funding and resources, Archbold said they are worth the effort.

“Given recent events involving police misconduct and the social unrest that has followed, it is critical that citizens have some way to be involved in how their local police agencies function,” she said. “Civilian oversight boards are one way that the community can have their voices heard when it comes to policing the police.”

Columbus' police union, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 9, did not respond to requests to comment.

Michael De Bonis develops and produces digital content including podcasts, videos, and news stories. He is also the editor of WOSU's award-winning Curious Cbus project. He moved to Columbus in 2012 to work as the producer of All Sides with Ann Fisher, the live news talk show on 89.7 NPR News.