Civilian review boards are touted as an essential piece of police reform. Are they?

Everything you need to know about the bureaucratic creation that has a surprisingly large role in police reform.

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In the last decade, multiple high-profile police killings, like that of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, and George Floyd in Minneapolis, inspired nationwide uprisings. Each uprising came with its own set of demands, but one constant was the question of how to actually eliminate police brutality. While calls for outright abolition are becoming increasingly mainstream, reform-based options came up time and time again.

Spend any time reading about police killings and you’ve probably come across the term “civilian review board.” Along with calls for body cameras, it’s one of the more popular reform options that gets brought up. These civilian review boards generally consist of at least three people, but they can fall under different levels of the government depending on how they are created. For example, Minneapolis’s civilian review board is actually a separate agency within the city called the Office of Police Conduct Review, while Los Angeles has a civilian review board at the county level, to oversee the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

Generally, civilian review boards are supposed to look into police misconduct. However, in many cases, they may not have the power to do much with their findings. That problem isn’t unique to boards overseeing policing, either. Third-party boards intended to oversee institutions are quite common; for example, Facebook has its Oversight Board, although it’s often critiqued for being fundamentally useless.

Which brings me to my point: Although civilian review boards are often framed as key to solving police brutality, there are many who say they may make things worse. At Wired, attorney and co-CEO of Free Press Jessica Gonzalez argued that Facebook’s Oversight Board “only gets in the way of actually fixing Facebook” and “provides ... a veneer of accountability.” Some say civilian review boards do the same for police.

So if civilian review boards aren’t the answer, what is? What powers do they even have? Could they be improved, or do they have to be eliminated for good? Let’s break down this bureaucratic quirk that is a defining part of the police reform conversation.

What is a civilian review board?

Civilian review boards are a response to the question of who should hold police accountable. Sure, a number of mechanisms are supposed to do so already. Internal Affairs, for example, deals with police that have broken the law or committed professional misconduct or even possible human rights abuses.

But as the name suggests, that’s all internal, which means it’s police reviewing police. You can imagine where any biases there will fall. In the United States, Internal Affairs is notorious for being absolute trash; in 23 states, you’re not even able to obtain records about an officer’s history of misconduct.

Rather than having police investigate themselves, civilian review boards put people who aren’t police in charge of oversight. These boards have a few models. As outlined by Olugbenga Ajilore on Scholars Strategy Network, there are investigator-focused models, where boards bring in outside investigators — often with specialized training — to look at complaints against officers. There are also review-focused models, where civilian review boards oversee internal affairs investigations, and auditing models, which are kind of a mix of the first two.

It’s easy to see why the concept of a civilian review board is appealing. After all, it should clearly be better for an external, unbiased third party to review police conduct. But civilian review boards haven’t been as productive as you might think. To understand why, we’ve got to go through some historical context.

When and why were civilian review boards first created?

It may come as a surprise, but civilian review boards have been around for some time. The American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut reported that reformers first proposed the idea in the 1920s, with the first one popping up in 1948. In the late 1950s and ‘60s, major cities like Philadelphia and New York City created their own. But the difficulties those early models faced are the same ones afflicting many civilian review boards today.

When it launched, New York City’s review board received over twice the complaints reported to the internal police review board in a single year. However, the police union somewhat predictably disagreed with having civilians involved in police oversight. Back when the board was first supposed to include civilians, John Cassese, the president of the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association, said, “I’m sick and tired of giving in to minority groups with their whims and their gripes and shouting.” New York City’s board would ultimately disband after four months.

What a civilian review board does with its complaints matters a lot, too — and in Philadelphia’s case, they didn’t do much. Between 1958 to 1967, Britannica reported, Philadelphia’s civilian review board only recommended punitive sanctions in 6% of cases it reviewed. And like in New York City, Philadelphia’s civilian review board faced intense police opposition. The local lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police even sued the board, winning a court case in 1966 that stopped the board’s work. Britannica explained that this pushback, along with a lack of staffing and funding, ultimately led to the board’s demise.

Today, it’s hard to determine the exact number of civilian review boards out there. In 2018, the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, which is part of the Department of Justice, reported that Liana Perez, the director of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE), estimated there are over 200 nationwide. Generally speaking, you’ll find them in major cities, but they often still face backlash from police unions and have to deal with insufficient funding.

So, what powers should civilian review boards have?

Part of the difficulty of putting together a civilian review board comes from ensuring it has enough power to be meaningful. There is no single model for civilian review boards, which means civilian review boards can look radically different depending on where you are. That by itself isn’t bad. Civilian review boards are meant to respond to community needs, and no one community is the same.

However, the lack of guaranteed power means many civilian review boards are quite weak. Look at the civilian oversight group in Louisville, which couldn’t investigate Taylor’s death because it was only able to review closed police shooting cases. ABC News reported that a new civilian review board has been created since Taylor’s wrongful death last spring.

These ineffective boards aren’t accidents. The ACLU reported that civilian review boards often face restrictions from both politicians and police that hinder them. For example, politicians may create civilian review boards that still give police control. In 2017, a new measure passed in Los Angeles to create a civilian review board — but it also let police accused of misconduct decide whether their case would be reviewed by that board or the pre-existing one mostly made up of police.

To be most effective, the ACLU recommended that civilian review boards have their own investigative powers, including the ability to subpoena, as well as the ability to offer transparency to their community; right now, police union contracts often block what information can be shared about officer conduct. The boards also need to have the power to discipline police officers: ABC News reported that a 2016 NACOLE report stated only 6% of civilian review boards are able to do so. It’s kind of useless to put together boards to seemingly hold police accountable, if they aren’t actually able to take any action to do that.

What more can we do to improve civilian review boards?

While civilian review boards are seen as a method of police reform, history shows that policing as an institution will always be resistant to it. Even looking into the present day, police unions are vocal about their anti-review board stances. On a podcast released just two months before Floyd’s murder, former Minneapolis Police Federation President Bob Kroll, who allegedly wore a white power patch on a jacket in the past, advised police to get friendly with local politicians because it’s “an effective way to shut these things down before they start,” in reference to civilian police oversight.

Time could be dedicated to reforming civilian review boards themselves. In addition to actually granting civilian review boards executive power, cities could step in when local police try to undermine the authority of these boards. It’s hard to write up rules for all review boards, like I said, because they are directly tied to their communities. But ensuring they have adequate funding to conduct investigations and no restrictions put into place by police unions is a good start.

Still, you have to wonder: What is the point of a reform if you need to reform that, too? You get into a rabbit hole of implementing policy after policy, like a dog endlessly chasing its tail. In a perfect world, civilian review boards would be unquestionably effective. But in a perfect world, there wouldn’t be killings like Taylor’s or Floyd’s or any other instances of police violence that necessitate the boards’ existence.

Ultimately, civilian review boards don’t answer for policing’s roots in white supremacy. Instead, they call for more time and money to be poured into policing, when the police could simply not exist. And as calls for abolition increase, that’s why demands for reform-based options like civilian review boards are becoming less and less popular.