Eyes wide open
What should citizen oversight of law enforcement look like?
Particularly since Michael Brown’s death at the hands of police in Ferguson, Missouri, a national dialogue has been taking place regarding the creation of citizen oversight boards to monitor law enforcement. In this, the fifth installment of Fatal Encounters, the Reno News & Review’s series on issues of deadly police violence, we’ve assembled a panel of people who, for various reasons, have reached the national stage with regard to police violence.
Our panel includes Brian Buchner, president of NACOLE, National Association of Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, which has engaged with the city of Ferguson to develop a new citizen oversight committee in that community. Pete Eyre is co-founder of Cop Block, a national decentralized project that focuses on police accountability. Pamela J. Meanes is president of the National Bar Association and active in the recent actions in Ferguson, Missouri. Jonathan S. Taylor is a professor at California State University, Fullerton, who’s been active in issues of police violence, particularly following the brutal crackdown on the Occupy Movement and the killing of the mentally ill man Kelly Thomas in 2011.
This conversation, due to technical problems, took place in two instances, which were combined. All the participants were asked five questions, of which they were informed in advance.
RN&R: What are the benefits to civilian oversight of law enforcement?
Buchner: There are a number of benefits to civilian oversight of law enforcement. Civilian oversight helps support effective policing. Civilian oversight helps build bridges between the police department and the community that it serves. It ensures greater accountability and transparency in policing. It helps manage risk inside an agency and within the jurisdiction. And related to building trust and building bridges, it helps increase confidence in the police department.
Eyre: My initial thought is that I would think that we would all have a shared end goal, which is to live free. I could use civilian oversight to maybe have less corruption or double standards applied to people who violate the rights of others who happen to be aggressive with badges and things like that. The thought I had was, Why do we want to build a bridge to this institution? Essentially, we’re just changing the deck chairs on a boat that’s sinking. It’s the institution that needs to change. I’d just advocate that we move past the institution and build something different altogether that would bring about the desirable conclusion.
Meanes: I don’t know what the benefits are of police review boards, because of the ones that we’ve taken a look at, the citizens have complained that those have become an extension of the police department. Sometimes, there is an appearance that the police still are unable—even through the review boards—to police themselves. I think it’s better to have some type of independent federal oversight and an independent evaluation. Or if there is a police review board or some type of citizen oversight board, that that board is really represented by the citizens and not necessarily by individuals who may be somehow connected to the department.
RN&R: Jonathan, would you respond to the question? What are the benefits to civilian oversight?
Taylor: Accountability, of course, that’s the goal, but I think we have to look beyond that. We have to look at the big picture, the long-term goal. I think the goal should be to end or reduce police violence as much as possible. Civilian oversight is one tool that can be used to help reduce police violence, but I also think it’s insufficient in and of itself. There are many issues involved with police violence, and civilian oversight will only go so far. Where I live in California, civilian oversight is only as useful as the law permits it to be. In California because of laws that protect police officer confidentiality, it’s just not that useful. So, yeah it’s much better to have a police oversight committee than to not have one because any sort of civilian control over the police is preferable to none. But there are a bunch of structural obstacles to having it really work.
RN&R: Didn’t some changes come about in your neck of the woods after Kelly Thomas?
Taylor: No, not really. There were no substantive changes. There’s probably a lower level of blatant police violence in the city of Fullerton itself, but that’s more the result of the protests and the fact that the community sort of had an uprising. There still is no civilian oversight board or authority in Fullerton at all. There’s a committee that’s been trying to get civilian oversight, but there is no civilian oversight yet.
Buchner: I’m going to push back on that just a little bit because the city did contract with an organization called the Office of Independent Review Group, OIR Group. I think they’re calling it an independent auditor—and that independent auditor is charged with a number of things, including use-of-force investigations, samples of complaints, and conducting independent audits of police department investigations and activities. There was a committee of concerned citizens called the Police Oversight Proposal Committee, and they were pushing for something other than was ultimately adopted, but as a result of that discussion, the city did contract with this OIR Group for that independent audit function for a couple of years, actually using asset forfeiture funds, which is kind of unique in the world of civilian oversight.
Taylor: I was at the City Council meeting when Michael Gennaco gave his report and presented the findings. The general take on that in the city of Fullerton from the community was that was a whitewash, and that his office is essentially contracted in order to prevent meaningful oversight, so it’s a sort of a smoke screen. Of course there are going to be different takes on this—it’s just a matter of perspective—but the people that I know who are critical of the police in Fullerton did not view the hiring of the OIR Group as true oversight in any sense. We feel that that’s just kind of window dressing, and there really haven’t been very meaningful changes.
RN&R: Pete do you want to respond to the original question? What are the benefits to civilian oversight?
Eyre: I would just add to what I initially stated. I personally have issues that we would be likened to a citizen because a “citizen” implies that there are two classes of people—the citizens and the non-citizens, and then inevitably there are then two sets of rights that apply. I believe that each person is equal no matter where on Earth they were born, no matter what color, no matter any of those arbitrary characteristics. As Jon noted, yes, it is preferable to have one than not to have one, but I don’t think it’s a worthy allocation of resources. I think that law enforcement exists ostensibly to provide effective safety or security, and I think that those, like in any other good or service, could better be provided through consensual interactions. Instead of trying to put Band Aid on this corrupt system, I would rather we just move past it and create something better.
Buchner: One of the things that we see across the country is that people have different understandings of what civilian oversight of law enforcement is and what it looks like. And so some people think of civilian oversight as a civilian review board or some kind of police commission, and maybe it would be helpful to start off either with a definition or some kind of common understanding.
RN&R: We could address that in the next question, which is, what should civilian oversight look like? For example, should oversight primarily focus on after-the-fact things like misconduct or officer-involved violence, should it be more concerned with more proactive ideals like transparency and policy setting, should it be entirely independent to investigate anything it chooses, or are there better strategies?
Buchner: The definition that we use is one that’s being kind of adopted from Dr. Sam Walker who’s one of the noted scholars on civilian oversight, probably over the last 20 years. We define it as “an agency or procedure that involves participation by persons who are not sworn officers. They investigate, audit or review internal police investigations or processes including citizen complaints and use of force in incidents. And they conduct ongoing monitoring of law enforcement agencies, policies, procedures, training and management supervision practices.” So it’s a pretty broad definition that really means non-law enforcement officers have some role in overseeing the conduct operations or activities of a law enforcement agency.
RN&R: You included all the three parts of that second question in that blanket statement of what civilian oversight is. Do you have a preferred method for that?
Buchner: Our position is that civilian oversight needs to reflect the needs of the community. We know that there are over 200 different models of oversight currently in existence around the United States, and they each look different. They have different names, different scopes of authority, and different placement in their governing structure. That’s because the needs of each community are different. You can’t just take the Inspector General model for the LAPD and put it in Ferguson, Missouri, and expect that it’s going to work. It’s not necessarily built to address whatever issues Ferguson is having. It was built specifically for the issues that came out of Los Angeles. Our position is there are certain similarities between some of the different approaches, but to say that there’s one ideal model or some best practice, I think isn’t necessarily reflective of the fact that it needs to be responsive to each individual community.
Meanes: I think citizen oversight would have to be a combination of a few of those things in order to return some credibility and some trust back to the community. I think the oversight or the individuals doing the oversight need to have the freedom to independently issue opinion—similar to how you have attorney review boards—to determine whether or not a violation has occurred. That opinion should have some weight within the department to review and evaluate an officer. The review board should have the independent opportunity—not the same weight and force as Internal Affairs—but it should have some process to evaluate and monitor police misconduct investigations. It should not be looking just when misconduct happens, but it should be looking at the causes that may contribute to what happened and making some recommendations to the law enforcement agency, the community and the political officials: “Here are some things that we can do to be proactive instead of reactionary to things,” because if the police review board is limited to just responding to issues that are raised about an officer or the department, then we’re not going to get to a place where there is trust built between the citizens and the police force. The police review board becomes almost like a police entity within itself, and you don’t want to create that. You do want the board’s job really to be to create trust back between the community and the officers.
RN&R: Jonathan, in your idea, what should civilian oversight look like?
Taylor: I think it needs to have to teeth. I think it needs to have power, and I think it needs to be able to make the sort of decisions or make recommendations that are binding. So in other words, if you have a civilian oversight board, and you have a one officer who has had numerous complaints in terms of excessive force, and the department is not taking action, then I think the civilian oversight board has to be able to recommend that officer be terminated, and that recommendation has to be taken seriously. I don’t know exactly how you give these committees teeth, but if they don’t have teeth, then what ends up happening is they’re just used by the police departments as a way of saying, “Oh look we have a civilian oversight board so there’s no problem” or “Don’t worry, it can be handled by the civilian oversight board.” And that’s potentially worse than not even having one. So, however they work, the most important thing to me is that they have to be composed of people who are not, have no vested interest in law enforcement, are not connected with law enforcement, and who have some kind of power to make decisions.
RN&R: Pete where do you come on this? What’s should civilian oversight look like, and you’re welcome to talk about your idea of how to move past the civilian oversight board.
Eyre: I heard a couple of terms like “civilian,” “communities” and the need for them to have the ability to essentially check these law enforcement employees who may act out of line. I guess I would just take what was implied to its logical conclusion. Instead of saying, “What does a community want?” and then, “What is a community?” It’s a group of people, but how is it defined? Do you set up boundaries at a block level or a town level or a city or region level? Ultimately, it’s individuals who act—we’re talking about police employees who individually choose to act in the wrong. Instead of looking to communities to oversee them, individuals could choose to vote with their wallets and to choose who they employ to keep them safe, if anybody. The fact that police employees subsist off stolen money [asset forfeiture funds] means that they have no incentive to actually be accountable. Their own courts have ruled that they have no duty to protect their customers, so you’re never going to get accountability out of that system. The best oversight would be that the service or protection is treated like any other good or service, and it could be provided through consensual interactions. Then this conversation of having an oversight board becomes mute. We don’t have an oversight board for shoe manufacturers, because we know that if a shoe manufacturer tries to initiate force, no one’s going to go to that shoe manufacturer. That should be no different from policing.
RN&R: So you’re talking about a private entity that we contract with? That this is like market-driven policing. Is that what you’re saying?
Eyre: Sure. I would say it should be up to the individual. Some people might conclude that they don’t live a risky lifestyle. They live out in the country. They’re pretty competent with firearms. They have few risks. Maybe they need to pay nobody. Maybe they choose to allocate zero of their funds to somebody else, whereas somebody who transports a lot of money, they’re in a high-risk situation. They might employ a person or get with people, and there might be organizations who help provide coverage for free to people that aren’t as well off economically or people who just volunteer their time or they train each other. Today, because there’s a centralized, so-called authority that has a monopolistic privilege to provide this kind of service, it disincentivises you and me from actually looking out for our neighbors. Instead we’re told to call 911 and report trouble to the so-called authorities. We need to move past that and look out for ourselves and look out for each other. That will go a long way instead of trying to continue to legitimize a system that’s based ultimately on force. You can’t get something good or accountable or transparent out of a coercive centralized structure.
Buchner: I think one of the interesting things is that we’re seeing an evolution in the way that civilian oversight approaches its responsibility. It’s moving away from being reactive, so it’s moving away from being a complaint-driven process. It’s moving toward being proactive, where it’s focused on things like organizational change, looking at policies, trainings, so it’s looking beyond just the disciplinary process, and it’s looking at the overall operations and activities of the police department and the police department employees. And so its system’s change. There’s a greater presence of data being used to analyze police practices, and so that’s kind of a big revolutionary shift in the field of civilian oversight. I think oversight, ideal oversight anyway, should be able to be proactive and identify problems in advance and do broad-based investigations, systemic investigations, collect and analyze data, do things like that.
RN&R: So that’s the upfront set-policy type, as opposed to go in and punish afterwards.
Buchner: Yeah, there’s an argument to be made for actually doing some of that work in partnership with the law enforcement agency. I think it’s not an absolute. You wouldn’t say it should always be the oversight agency that does this kind of investigation, but I think you would make a case-by-case assessment to determine where it’s best and most appropriate to have [a citizen oversight board] lead an investigation and where it makes sense to partner with the law enforcement agency. But I think that there’s an argument for oversight having a robust role in playing that sort of proactive role in overseeing the police.
RN&R: What are the obstacles to having citizen oversight?
Taylor: I see a lot of obstacles. First of all, I see cultural obstacles. I think the police view themselves as a special protected class, different than the rest of the us, and with that kind of mentality it’s very difficult to establish oversight over them because they view it as an us-against-them framework. I think they’re sort of indoctrinated to feel that the people that they’re dealing with are — they use the words like thugs and scumbags—and that people who are on drugs are always criminals. They have all these preconceptions based on the dominant model of police in the U.S. historically, and so I think there’s a huge cultural obstacle to civilian oversight coming from within the mentality of police officers.
Then I think there are various political obstacles. I do think that cities and municipalities—all sorts of government—use police as revenue generators and so for civilians to come in and say, “No we don’t want them to do this anymore,” which is what I would do if I was on a police board, we’re talking about cutting off their funding stream. Things like asset forfeiture, which I’m completely against in almost capacity, that’s their bread and butter, so there are economic motivations. There is a lot of organized power. Police unions are major lobbyists. Politicians are afraid to cross police unions, and therefore legislators write policies that benefit police unions that are essentially scripted by police unions. So you have these very major bureaucratic legal obstacles to civilian oversight. I view it as being almost impossible. I don’t maybe go quite as far as Pete does in what he was saying before, but I think he’s kind of heading in the right direction, which is that some of these institutions are not amenable to just tinkering with at the edges to correct them. We need some major changes here, and the obstacles are really structural. My point is there are cultural, political, legal and economic obstacles. These are formidable obstacles. They’re structural, and it’s not going to be easy to overcome them.
Eyre: I would echo a lot of what Jonathan said about the legal protections, such as sovereign immunity, which essentially equates to impunity. Ultimately, the biggest obstacle is ideas. The existing paradigm says that a certain group of people has a legal right to steal from others in their area and to then protect them. I think better ideas are assured, and those bad ideas will get shed in favor of better ideas. So currently the biggest obstacle is the bad idea that says that some people are authorities based on where they work instead of authorities based on having earned that authority. To me someone who claims to protect you, if they first steal from you, that doesn’t grant them any authority in my book. Jonathan used the word “indoctrination” to apply to police employees, but I would also say that the folks who seek to control others have for decades used public school systems to essentially help shape the mindsets of the people that they seek to control. Likewise the corporate media—you know that 95 percent of it is owned by six corporations now—it’s much easier for these self-proclaimed leaders to have their messages peddled through those outlets. You almost never see a mainstream media source question police employees. They just quote them verbatim as if they speak the truth, and they afford them as authorities. So again, it’s the ideas that have to change.
RN&R: OK, Brian, what’s your idea of obstacles that exist to establishing civilian oversight?
Buchner: Jonathan said the obstacles are political, economic and social. I think those are some big points. I would just add that obstacles to establishing oversight and building and maintaining effective oversight include a failure to engage the community in a meaningful way. To get true public participation in the oversight of police, I think is a real obstacle. To say “community,” in some ways is disingenuous because it implies that there’s a unified community. We know that that’s not the case.
There are different groups within every community and not every one of those groups is going to support police reform or to support oversight. I think to the extent that any community or city or county or jurisdiction is able to really get public participation and public input so that the model of oversight or the approach to oversight reflects and tries to maximize public interest while also realizing that there are other interests at play, I think is probably a big obstacle.
Quite frankly, it’s an ongoing obstacle because I think establishing oversight isn’t the end of the equation. I think that oversight has an obligation to continue to engage their community, continue to try and build trust in what it’s doing in the role that oversight plays in the overall process. The public support is important, but it also can be a fairly significant obstacle. I think also limited resources for oversight sometimes can be a big result of a lack of commitment on the part of any jurisdiction that’s establishing that oversight. Failing to adequately resource an agency can really hamstring what it’s able to do from the very start. In fact, resources are probably a big one, but that plays into what Jonathan was saying about the sort of economic and structural obstacles and limitations.
RN&R: What’s going on with trying to build civilian oversight in Ferguson?
Buchner: Well, some of you may have seen that my organization, NACOLE, has been engaged by leaders in Ferguson to work with them on building their model of civilian oversight at the Ferguson Police Department. We weren’t brought in at the very beginning, but just last week, we met with the mayor, the police chief and the city manager and encouraged them to listen to us and to engage with us so that we could provide them some support and guidance on working to improve upon the model of oversight that they initially proposed about two weeks ago. [This interview was conducted on Sept. 24.] We’re really not any farther along than that. It’s clear that there’s a disconnect between the city, the Ferguson community, and the people outside of the Ferguson community who are interested and engaged in matters inside Ferguson. One of the things that we kept telling their mayor and chief and city manager that had to happen was, that they can’t just put a proposed ordinance out there to create a citizen review board—I say “citizen review board” because that’s what they named it—and then not try to get public participation and input on that model. And so we encourage them to reach out to the general public, which is going to include parts of the community who are not supportive of the Ferguson Police Department or necessarily engaged in civic affairs in the city and would also include some of the groups who we identified as groups that they have positive working relationships with. You can’t just go to your friends and expect that you’re going to get the true and honest input into what oversight needs to look like in that city.
RN&R: Do you have a feeling for how long this system will take to create a board? Is there some kind of timeline that you could suggest?
Buchner: They wanted to move pretty quickly, but we keep telling them that it’s important to get it right, and you don’t want to do something just in the interest of doing something but that if you do something too quickly, and you really don’t get through public participation and input, you’re going to spend time later on trying to fix and undo what you did. They’re not going to support it from the very beginning, and so you’ve already lost the public, and you’ve lost community support for oversight. And so whether it’s going to be weeks or whether it’s going to be months, it’s really unclear, but I think until they’ve exhausted all their efforts to get community input and engage different groups in the community, I think that they should not rush to implement something. They were looking at weeks, but we advised them to slow down and to take a little bit longer and be thoughtful about it.
RN&R: It’s easy to feel a sense of urgency when the whole country’s looking at you. Pete, what methods have been successful in establishing civilian oversight in areas around the country? And I think of you as kind of a civilian oversight board in a way since the whole point of your organization is civilian oversight and recording, right?
Eyre: Yes, and that’s actually the direction I was going to go to respond to this question. As I said earlier, I don’t like the word “civilian.” I think it’s divisive, and it creates categories—not just from so-called civilians but from the non-civilian’s perspective. The successful oversight of people who choose to initiate force is quite simply transparency and reputation. We’re fortunate to live in a time when technology has proliferated, where are a lot of folks now have access to smart phones and recording devices to document their interactions, so it’s no longer their word against the so-called authorities. They’re able to put that content online, and it can be seen by anyone with an internet connection. The court of public opinion is powerful, and that’s what we’re seeing at Ferguson.
Just to touch back on the responses just given for that last bit of commentary, why does the Ferguson Police Department deserve authority? Essentially, they now have a bad perception. People might question whether they deserve authority. They’re just circling the wagons, and they’re trying to maintain that perceived legitimacy. Shouldn’t a group that failed to provide good service—in this case security or protection—shouldn’t they be allowed to go under if they fail to provide it? Why should we try to work with them to shore up their perceived legitimacy? I don’t think organizations like that are deserving.
To go back to this question of oversight, yes, I would say the cameras filming the police, it’s passed through the culture now, it’s happening. You see instances now, there are multiple people who don’t know each other, who film an interaction, they look out for each other, and that’s very empowering. The traditional gatekeepers of information, the people who were the editors at newspapers, they used to just be able to deny access to that medium, but now anybody can share their experience online. We can connect with each other around these centralized systems and along with that go to the sharing of information. Dictators, historically throughout the world, have sustained themselves by quashing views that question their perceived authority. That means burning books and burning people, and today, because of the internet and other technologies, information has been shared past them. A lot of people have been pulling back that curtain, and they’re realizing, “I don’t need somebody else to run my life, and in fact it makes more sense for me to govern myself.” And so, it’s an ideas and technology thing that’s happening, and I really think it’s very empowering, and it’s an evolution in a sense.
RN&R: So Brian, you know as well as anyone, what methods have been successful in establishing civilian oversight around the country?
Buchner: We get a question like that a lot, and there really is no perfect script for how oversight is established. It really just comes about in a number of ways. But in a lot of places, it really does require continuous pressure on the decision makers. It’s pretty common for oversight to be created in the wake of a police-use-of-force incident or allegations of misconduct, and then the community will call for increase in accountability and transparency, and one of the ways to accomplish that is by establishing civilian oversight. And by no means do we say that civilian oversight is the be all, end all. We think it’s an important part of the process to help ensure a greater accountability and transparent police departments. Community organizing certainly is an important part of it. Community groups really need to put continuous pressure on the decision makers to establish oversight because city council members or county officials are initially reluctant to implement any kind of additional layer of accountability or oversight over the police department.
It takes either a controversy or a scandal or a controversial use of force where suddenly they’ll realize that it’s something that they now have to do rather than thinking proactively and deciding to put something in place before that happens. In a lot of places, the press, the media picks up a narrative, that’s another source of pressure; that’s something that we’re seeing in Pasadena right now. Local Pasadena press and the LA Times are really packing a coalition of community groups’ call for increased oversight of the Pasadena Police Department. We’ve been working with that coalition and others to encourage the city to adopt some form of oversight. Police unions are certainly one of the more powerful obstacles to oversight, and so that’s why continuous pressure is necessary because it really has to overcome significant obstacles, sort of countervailing forces that don’t want oversight to be a part of the overall process of increasing accountability and transparency in law enforcement.
RN&R: And then that pressure—even if something is created—then the pressure has to stay on. My feeling is that some places had oversight that was diminished when people stopped feeling a pressure to use it, right?
Buchner: Right. What we’re saying is oversight is a process, just like policing is a process. And there are some places that do it well, and there are some places where it’s not working so well. Establishing oversight isn’t the end goal. It’s a part of the ongoing work to ensure accountable and transparent police departments, and so once oversight has been established in any community, it’s really incumbent upon the members of that community to make sure that oversight is accomplishing what it’s designed to accomplish, to make sure it’s meeting the community’s goals, to make sure it’s following its commitments. It requires oversight of oversight really. That’s one thing that we continue to tell people that we work with around the country: “If you are skeptical that an oversight entity will be able to hold the police department accountable, whether it’s individual officers or the agency itself, then it’s incumbent upon you to make sure you’re scrutinizing the work of the oversight agency.
Oversight should not be immune to criticism from the public or from law enforcement or from anyone because part of its role is to be the eyes and ears of the community and to shine a bright light on what has been opaque internal processes of the police department. Certainly, there are structural restrictions and legal restrictions—someone mentioned the strong protections against personnel matters in California and other states around the country—but even in that framework, there are certain things that oversight can do to shine a light on what’s happening in the police department. So it’s all of our responsibility to make sure that oversight is meeting our expectations.
Taylor: It’s interesting to hear Brian and Pete talk on this because both are coming from completely different directions. I really have to commend both of you, Brian on your efforts to work within the system to actually create these police oversight boards that actually have some kind of power through the political process. But at the same time, I love what Pete’s been doing with Cop Block, and Cop Block and other organizations like that are making this incredible difference. In the last three years, I’ve seen incredible public awareness growing of police violence and police brutality. I attribute it to a bunch of different things but mainly to these efforts on the internet that publicize these cases—to take pictures, to take video, to get the video up online, to embarrass and humiliate and shame the officers that are responsible and the institutions that protect them. I think this is a truly great stuff that’s happening. And so to have these things working in both directions, both through official channels and through nonofficial public awareness, I think this is the way forward. This is a big enough problem that we need to throw everything we can at it so whether through creating actual review boards or having people create new use-of-force regulations as well as just public outrage and people saying, “Hey you guys have shot this guy for no reason. You guys just beat this person for no reason. We’re going to publicize it, and we’re going to shame you, and we’re going to call the department, and we’re going to write letters, and we’re going to bother people until something happens here.”
I think this is all really tremendously important work, and I’m just glad that there are people doing it because here in Fullerton, after Kelly Thomas’ death, we started kind of a protest movement informally. This was a completely grassroots thing that just sprouted here. It’s just completely bipartisan. It doesn’t have any political affiliations; just liberals and libertarians and conservatives and leftists all together. We were always looking like, “Where is this on a national level?” And now it’s very apparent that it is national, and when Ferguson happened, it’s like, there were organizations going, “Yeah, yeah, see this is what we’ve been telling you. It’s going to happen in your city before too long.” So I commend both of you, I’m just happy there are people doing this really important work.
RN&R: Do you want to address more the question? You basically answered at least part of the question: working inside and outside the structure that exists. Do you have an idea of what other methods have been successful?
Taylor: No, I can’t answer that question because I don’t think we have been successful. If we had been successful we wouldn’t have the incredible epidemic of police violence that we have right now. We have not yet been successful. We are in the very beginning process of trying to create something here, and we are not successful at all yet. Let’s not kid ourselves.
Meanes: I think that one of the things that has been successful is the point the federal government has come in and actually taken over and implemented some of its programs—similar to what St. Louis County has done, to agree to actually do some of the training programs and adhere to some of the policies and procedures that are in place. I don’t know that I could point you to a successful oversight board that has some real teeth to it that has been utilized. For me, success would mean that there’s been a reduction in misconduct cases, and I don’t know that I can point you to that yet. I would say that the best thing that I see that has been working is when the federal government has come in and really laid out the facts and procedures that have been utilized to say, “This department is really out of control.” Putting in those restraints where there have been these watchful eyes. That’s when I see it working.
And it’s not that we haven’t had a lot of success [in different ways]. I don’t know that we have aimed at targeting at reducing misconduct or if it’s just been spotting misconduct because those are two different things. Spotting misconduct is very different from reducing and eliminating misconduct. You’re very right in what you said in the beginning: In order for the second to happen, there has to be some weight and some teeth there. So the question becomes, what is the real mission for establishing the oversight board? Because they can be successful, if all it’s doing is spotting the issue. But the real solution that will stop lives from being wasted, that will stop women from being raped, and that will stop good cops from being sullied by bad cops, will be there being some direct action and some targeted things that are tracked and monitored with there being some consequences to actions.
That’s one of the pieces of legislation that we are looking at the National Bar Association to introduce on a federal level. Citizens don’t realize that there are two factors that contribute to officers not being indicted. I mean many people were shocked and surprised that the officers in the Wal-Mart shooting in Ohio were not indicted by the grand jury. I was not. Many will be shocked and surprised that the officer who shot Michael Brown will not be indicted. I don’t know that I would be because there are two contributing factors. One is, there is no real definition of limitation on what is constitutes excessive force, it’s all subjective. The law basically says that an officer has the right and authority to utilize any measure of force that he believes is sufficient to save his life. That’s real broad and open.
And so we have two pieces of legislation that we’re going to be offering on a federal level: You need to put a definition to what constitutes excessive force, and there needs to be required training in these departments to deal with that issue. Number two: There needs to be a definition and some limitations put on when you can elevate force, and what kind of force that can be elevated too, because an officer has many weapons at hand. He has a billy club, he has the Taser, then he has a gun. Should you go to three before you go to one or before you go to two? And circumstances and training should be around it. I don’t want an officer to feel endangered. I want them to protect the community, but I don’t want an officer to immediately go to the worst form possible. The definition is so broad and is so subjective that a grand jury is sitting there thinking, “Can I really put myself in an officer’s place in the heat of the moment and make a quick rash decision of what I should do?” That’s what a grand jury and a jury is faced with deciding because they have no real parameters to go on.
RN&R: So Pete what kind of authority—I have a feeling where you’re going to go with this—but what kinds of authority should oversight boards have?
Eyre: It’s kind of tough for me to answer the question as it’s stated again because I’m not really for oversight boards per se. I think that each individual owns themselves, and they have a right to govern themselves, and so everybody should have an inherent right of pursuing their happiness so long as they respect each other’s ability to do the same. If there’s damage to a person or property caused, then I think that the aggressor should be held accountable. To me the issues of police accountability and civilian oversight boards, we’re talking about an institution that has a monopoly on violence. It’s institutionalized violence. Our projects and each of us have sort of tried to minimize that from happening. If that’s in fact the case, then it seems to me that we should try to deconstruct, de-legitimize the bad ideas that allow for that institutionalized violence, that perversely accepted violence. I would just say that each of us has the authority to act so long as we don’t infringe on each other, and if there’s any aggressor then they should be held accountable. I don’t foresee a violent community without the police. I think in fact, there would be fewer episodes of this unaccountable violence and this pattern of violence. Again, people would have an incentive to look out for themselves and others.
Meanes: I think there has to be some either ordinance passed by the city or there has to be some state ordinance that gives it some power. If all it’s doing is rendering opinion that has no impact on either termination or hiring of officers or helping to set standards, then it’s just going to be a board that issues a feel-good opinion. There has to be some legislative action either done by the municipality, by the county or by the state, or there has to be some piece of federal legislation that would take into account some of the issues—whether monitoring devices going on or that refers those issues back up to the Justice Department. In places they do have [oversight], when we did our Town Hall meeting at our convention back in July, a lot of individuals, prosecutors too, were saying that the state oversight boards are good, but sometimes the real issues are whether or not you can get access to information, whether or not they have teeth, whether or not whatever recommendations they’re making really has any bearing on anything, or is it just some committee that’s created to issue opinion, but there’s nothing done with anything that they do.
RN&R: Brian, what kinds of authority do you feel oversight boards should have?
Buchner: I would just restate what I’ve said earlier. One, we wouldn’t say that it should look one way or should have a certain authority but that it should reflect the needs of the community. I would also say that it’s important to consider this evolution of oversight beyond just a complaint-driven or disciplinary-driven model—not that oversight should abandon its focus on complaints and allegations of misconduct, certainly it’s critical that there’s independent oversight or investigations into allegations of police misconduct, but that oversight really should include a more proactive focus and look at organizational change, systematic change and really looking at training, look at management supervision practices, and really look at all aspects of the operations of the law enforcement agency. Oversight should be flexible enough to be able to look beyond just a narrow slice of the police department but should have broad authority over the agency itself.
RN&R: Jonathan you talked earlier about teeth. What kind of authority do you think oversight board should have?
Taylor: Major systemic change is needed. It is hard to answer that question because authority is tricky. You give a bunch of people authority, and then they might misuse it. It would very much depend on who the board was. What I was saying about teeth, though, is it’s really not any good to give recommendations that are just ignored. So I guess that certain things that oversight boards would come up with like, let’s say they wanted to modify use-of-force policies within a department, then their recommendations would have to be adopted. It wouldn’t be like, “OK, thank you for your report. We’ll keep that into consideration.” That doesn’t do anything for anybody. That’s just the way for the police to deflect responsibilities. I think that if we’re going to create these things, they have to be able to have some meaningful effect. And again, I think we can look at a kind of utopian view, but I think we can also look at incremental change. So what can we do right away? And I think use-of-force policies need to be rewritten, and I think that complaints of violence against police officers need to be investigated by somebody other than the police department itself. I don’t believe that police departments can or will properly investigate themselves. But the problem is is that what we really need is police officers that are treated equally with everybody else, so that they don’t have special rights and privileges to inflict violence. I mean unless it’s in legitimate self defense and not just based on some of these arbitrary perceptions of threats, which are not even threats to begin with. So as far as what kind of authority do you give civilians over a system like that? You have to probably give them the authority to get police officers fired based on improper use of force or excessive force or misconduct.