Police Violence and the Sham Promise of Civilian Oversight

March 4, 2020

Communities besieged by humiliating, oppressive, abusive, and outright brutal treatment at the hands of law enforcement often call for civilian oversight of police misconduct complaints. They reason that public scrutiny is essential to justice, which is invariably denied by the obscure workings of internal affairs and by prosecutors whose cozy relationships with police officers leave them reluctant to press charges, even for the most horrific offenses. What activists fail to realize, however, is that civilian review boards (CRBs) are inherently flawed—and purposefully so—engineered by the political elite to preserve the status quo. On the one hand, CRBs are typically starved of the resources, authority, and autonomy needed to hold officers and departments accountable, while on the other, their veneer of citizen participation acts as a safety valve to release outrage that might otherwise explode into a full-on rebellion. It’s a lose-lose situation for the people, a win-win for the police state. 

Take, for example, Baltimore City’s CRB. The Baltimore City Police Department (BPD) has been under a Department of Justice consent decree since 2017, although the City has had a CRB for nearly 30 years. The CRB is unique in that it was created by state law, not city ordinance because the BPD is itself a state agency, removed in 1860 from the control of a municipal government that used it to enforce a viciously corrupt, racist regime. That means the City may not interfere in any way with how the BPD operates, but it does approve and funds the Department’s budget—and, notably, is on the hook for lawsuit payouts against miscreant officers. 

The Baltimore CRB, composed of nine volunteer city residents drawn from the community, was given authority over five allegations of misconduct—excessive force, harassment, abusive language, false arrest, and false imprisonment—and seven local police agencies, including the BPD. It was granted the power to receive complaints lodged by members of the public against police officers, conduct independent investigations, issue findings recommendations, and propose discipline. While it could not enforce disciplinary action, the police chief had to consider its recommendations before making a final decision. So far, so (mostly) good. But the law left out a budget and staff to do the job. That made the CRB vulnerable to political influence by a city with a strong interest in hiding or minimizing police misconduct to limit its financial and reputational liability. 

The City, seeing both the threat and the opportunity, effectively seized CRB authority for its own from the outset. Without the consultation of CRB members, the City wrote standard operating procedures, hired investigators, hired administrators, took charge of the files and web presence, represented the CRB in public meetings, and worked with police agencies to develop policies for complaint handling. City employees managed CRB member communications with legislators and decided what, when, and how much information CRB members were allowed to access—based on self-serving and highly irregular statutory interpretations produced by the same Law Department that defends the City and BPD officers against lawsuits. Frequently, the CRB was only given completed investigations to adjudicate after the 1-year statute of limitations had expired, the BPD had already acted, and its judgment was irrelevant.

For most of its history, CRB members were unable or unwilling to challenge the City’s power grab. For one, they were volunteers who had jobs and responsibilities outside the CRB. Second, they had no real training on principles of civilian oversight or how to judge cases, and no contact with colleagues from other review boards across the country because it was City employees who got to go to the national training conferences. Third, they put their faith in the “expert professionals”—City staff and stakeholder groups—who provided the initial orientation to their roles and ongoing advice on how things should work. And finally, they feared (and were encouraged to fear) that if they balked, the City would shut down the CRB by withdrawing its funds. The irony is that if Baltimore’s CRB did shut down, the sham perpetrated on the public—all the more insulting because taxpayers are footing the bill, to the tune of $675,000 in 2020—would be exposed and political leaders held to account. 

Sadly, Baltimore is not unique. Its story is replicated across the country: the details may vary, but the plot remains the same. Recently, a Baltimore CRB member resigned after being censured by colleagues for her incessant criticism of the poor quality of investigations by City staff, City staff sitting on completed investigations until the complaints had expired sight unseen, failure by City staff to maintain CRB files, attempts by City staff to restrict what members could say to lawmakers or the public, and refusal of City staff to address the blatant conflict of interest in hiring an investigator supervisor who belonged to a professional association of law enforcement officers. Her experience, if anything, speaks to the impossibility of changing systems from the inside. 

At bottom, civilian oversight can never be the answer to police misconduct because violence—to dignity, psyche, physical integrity—is integral to policing. Without violence, law enforcement could not accomplish its function in a capitalist economy: protection of assets, preservation of the power structure, and suppression of dissent. The notion that police violence can be “tamed” by giving civilians a voice in discipline fundamentally misconstrues the nature and role of policing. That does not mean all is lost, or that we have to allow entire populations to be traumatized and loved ones killed while we organize the revolution. Communities can sideline the police to some extent by taking independent control of public safety. There have been large and small examples of this throughout history, from groups formed to protect fellow strikers from hired thugs and safeguard the welfare of affected families, to the volunteer Guardian Angels patrolling New York City subways to keep riders safe, to the Black Panthers who defended against police brutality in their neighborhoods and provided vital social services to those in need. The challenge is in defining “community” and then for a critical mass of people to remain actively engaged. These are no small tasks. But there is no alternative—and the organizing in and of itself might bring the revolution a little sooner. 

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