Mimesis Law
29 September 2020

Citizen–Police Review Boards And Accountability

December 13, 2016 (Fault Lines) – The city of Saint Paul recently revised its city ordinance on its citizen – police review commission, changing the make-up of the commission from two police officers and five civilians, to nine civilians. In Oakland, on Election Day, the citizens created a new police commission to oversee the police department. It replaces the old police review board that had limited power with a new one that has been described as the strongest in the nation. In both cases, police officers are upset about this turn of events.

Lets look at the two commissions and the background behind them. In Oakland, citizens have dealt with all sorts of police scandals, including but certainly not limited to:

The citizens got tired of it, and passed a law with 82% of the vote that creates a civilian police commission that can fire the chief, can impose discipline on officers without the consent of the chief, and which can subpoena records, including records from the police department. It has been called one of the strongest civilian oversight boards in the nation.

The same thing basically happened in Saint Paul. The Philando Castile shooting was in a suburb located between Minneapolis and Saint Paul and follows other controversial police shootings in the area. In addition, the city had commissioned an outside audit by the University of Minnesota, which made 18 recommendations, including removing police from the oversight commission. It was the second study to recommend removal of police officers from the commission, the first one being in the study completed by Berkshire Advisors, Inc. for the city in 2008-2009.

Police union officials don’t like the idea, but citizens have been overwhelmingly for the change. Union president Dave Titus said that the change:

[R]epresents a complete and tragic disregard for our great officers who put their lives on the line every day.

That’s not exactly true. It means that the voting members are civilians, not police. It is an effort to increase oversight and transparency. It is a result of a lack of trust in police officers handling allegations of police misconduct by other police officers. I addressed this in the private comment section of the PoliceOne article on the Saint Paul commission, stating:

Y’all are blind to what’s happening. We have pissed away the trust of the public by not being transparent, by not taking care of bad officers, by allowing officers to be unaccountable. On top of that, we have taken an attitude that our safety trumps the safety and well-being of the public, that we at “war”  with the citizens we are supposed to protect.

And we work for them, the public. They are the ones that set the parameters that we work under, who set the restrictions on our powers, and who set up the disciplinary set up for police.

So now you’re surprised and upset that the politicians are listening to the public? Of course they are listening, they’re elected by the public. And the public is telling the politicians to rein the police in, so that’s what the politicians are going to do. But you don’t have to do what they say, to abide by the limitations that they set, the restrictions that they impose, or the oversight that they provide without police input.

You can always resign.

Or you can look at what the public is saying, and change your behavior. It’s your choice.

It’s probably needless to say that that my comments were not received well. Responses included this one:

Or…..The public could just comply with us, and if we’re wrong, be vindicated within the legal system and cut the use of force incidents by 85-90 percent… [explicative]…sorry…that would require people acting human rather than like animals….Stupid thought. You’re big on preaching at us, about what we should do, how we should change, that we’ve pissed away public trust…I call [explicative] on it. But, you never assign ANY accountability and responsibility to the public in general.  I did this job for 23 years. Sure, I’ve worked with a few “bad apples” but they were weeded out over time for the most part. I’ve seen good cops railroaded and disciplined, even fired, over [explicative] just to appease the public….Yet, you make it sound like agencies all over the nation routinely cover for bad officers on a daily basis. They, and you apparently, don’t want cops on these review boards because we can offer a different perspective from the popular narrative; ask uncomfortable questions of the complainant rather than just taking his/her statement at face value, explain the officers actions as only someone who’s been there can explain it to those who haven’t, can pick out key words and phrases a LIAR uses in making a bogus complaint because they’ve heard them all before.

This is probably the best statement of the bunch, and he makes a good point about officers giving a different perspective to the commission. He’s right, they do, but you can get that same perspective from testimony. My personal view is that officers should be on the board in a minority position, such as two or three positions out of nine, but I certainly understand the public not wanting any officers on the board.

Another PoliceOne commenter stated:

The problem is that’s exactly where we’re headed – people who have no idea about the job will soon be deciding the outcome in civil, even criminal, cases too. That’s the new trend of thought. So, as I said, so much for the reasonable officer standard.

This is a standard line, only police can judge police, though to be fair, this individual later stated that he’s in favor of joint civilian-police boards. He fails to recognize that in our court system, jury members who may know nothing about the job have been making these determinations for centuries.

This is a trend that will likely continue, and police will not like it. How it will work is another question.

2 Comments on this post.

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  • bacchys
    13 December 2016 at 5:53 pm - Reply

    Nice post.

    The complaint the public doesn’t understand is irrelevant. The public is in charge. Police have only the power they are delegated. When they abuse that, they should be held account.

    They aren’t the only corrupt institutions in our Republic, but they are the ones people have more direct interactions with. When prosecutors- the most corrupt part of the most corrupt profession in the Republic- engage in wrongful or unlawful acts, it’s within the genteel confines of a courtroom. It lacks the same punch in most cases.

    In the end, however, we have what we have because the people accept it. We don’t throw out legislators- who have both the authority and power to fix these problems- because we’d rather view those who try to do so as “soft on crime.”

    Hopefully, the large majorities behind these new civilian review boards are an indication that’s changing. We’ll see.

  • Ahcuah
    14 December 2016 at 10:44 pm - Reply

    But, but . . . if they’re not doing anything wrong they don’t have anything to worry about.