Police Civilian Oversight: An Overview of Four Top Models

Sydney Roberts

If you’re considering police civilian oversight as a strategy, the following are the 4 most common civilian oversight models

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Many cities in the United States use civilian police oversight entities to conduct independent, unbiased investigations of civilian complaints lodged against law enforcement. Most common in larger cities, these entities may work with an agency’s internal affairs department, and in some cases, take the place of internal affairs altogether. Citizens often appreciate the additional avenue to voice their concerns and the supervision of police by individuals independent of the agency.

If you’re a city leader, policy architect or community advocate, and you’re considering police civilian oversight as a strategy that could bring value to your city, police and neighborhood, the following are the four most common civilian oversight models.

1. The Review Model

As the most common approach to police civilian oversight, this framework involves having a group unaffiliated with the police agency examine how the police executed its investigation of a complaint. According to the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE), this model accounts for 62 percent of review boards in the United States. The authority granted to these entities varies widely. Some can request a more thorough investigation, while others can receive complaints from civilians and forward them to the department. Some entities can recommend outcomes or state how well they believe the department investigated the complaint.

Advantages

  • Ensures independent review of the department’s actions
  • Represents the least expensive civilian oversight model

Drawbacks

  • Includes limited authority to institute consequences or drive change
  • Depends on staff who are often part-time employees or volunteers

2. The Audit Model

Entities that follow the audit model evaluate different aspects of the agency to ensure personnel adhere to the agency’s policies and procedures. They also generally have more autonomy and authority than review models. According to NACOLE, civilian police oversight models structured as auditors “promote broad organizational change by addressing systemic issues, analyzing patterns and trends, and addressing deficiencies in policies and procedures. Their work may cover virtually any aspect of the overseen law enforcement agency such as complaints, discipline, training, staffing and recruitment, use of force, and crime prevention strategies.”

Advantages

  • Results in thorough and thoughtful audits
  • Staffed by full-time employees
  • May allow contemporaneous observation of the agency’s investigation of the complaint, rather than post-investigation review

Drawbacks

  • Costs more than the review model
  • Includes limited authority to institute consequences or drive change

3. The Investigative Model

This model involves a completely independent investigation by the oversight entity. In some cases, it replaces the internal affairs investigation altogether. Staff members interview witnesses and officers, review documents, consider all evidence, and announce their findings. As they have high authority and autonomy, staff members must have professional training in investigative techniques and appropriate knowledge of the inner workings of law enforcement agencies, as well as their policies and procedures. Some investigative oversight bodies can recommend or enforce disciplinary action.

Advantages

  • Offers the greatest independence from the agency under investigation
  • Provides the strongest assurance of a bias-free perspective
  • Staffed by full-time, trained employees

Drawbacks

  • May not include extensive or unlimited access to all necessary resources
  • Represents the most expensive civilian oversight model
  • Law enforcement agency not afforded the opportunity to police itself or hold its officers accountable directly

4. The Hybrid Model

As the name suggests, this model combines various elements from the above models. According to NACOLE, the hybrid model is increasing in popularity. Cities can customize staffing, duties, access and enforcement authority to meet the needs of their agency and community while taking into account their objectives, collective bargaining constraints, operating environment and financial resources. While some cities establish a single body with many responsibilities, others create multiple police oversight entities with discrete responsibilities. For example, Chicago has established four external entities and one internal affairs unit, all with discrete yet overlapping responsibilities.

Advantages

  • Represents a highly customizable solution, one that may help the municipality conform to state and local laws

Drawbacks

  • May not deliver the full benefits of the first three non-hybrid models

Five Critical Elements, Regardless Of Model

Each city’s government will decide which model is best for them. Critical elements influencing the format, structure and outcomes of the police civilian oversight entity include:

  1. Agency: Authority to carry out their duties and deliver findings viewed as credible and legitimate by all stakeholders.
  2. Autonomy: The independence to act, investigate and affect change in a meaningful way.
  3. Access: The resources, persons, and tools necessary to complete their reviews, audits, and investigations thoroughly and completely.
  4. Assistance: Collaboration from all relevant agencies with consequences for not providing adequate cooperation and support.
  5. Transparency: Openness and clarity in communicating or otherwise sharing information relating to the entity’s priorities, procedures, operations, activities and outcomes.

What makes the most sense for your agency? We can help you be more effective in how you investigate public integrity issues and ensure your law enforcement agency’s operations meet the highest standards. Click here to learn more about our law enforcement consulting services.

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About the author

Sydney R. Roberts, JD
A proven leader in police accountability, Sydney has provided insight and guidance on civil and human rights matters impacting law enforcement, including illegal search and seizure, denial of counsel and officer-involved shootings.

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