During the 1970s, civilian review boards (CRBs) were thought to provide a means to control police misconduct. In effect, CRBs permitted an appointed group of outsiders (nonpolice) to judge—exonerate or condemn—officers suspected of wrongdoing. The public credo was that police would not police themselves. Therefore, an autonomous body of adjudicators given the power to decide misconduct cases appeared to be the answer. More and Wegener (1990) state that the CRB concept began to flourish in the late 1950s. Most likely, the concept of citizen or civilian review of police antedated that time period. The reason for assigning an earlier date is because the impetus for CRBs is usually a flagrant, or even a shocking, instance of police misconduct. Long before the 1950s victimized and/or enraged citizens would have demanded a say in police matters and exerted pressure in some way.

If a police officer issues such orders to a percolating crowd as ”Move on” or ”Break it up,” citizens complain. If a police officer is not completely respectful of everyone involved, citizens complain. If a police officer appears to engage in discriminatory enforcement of minor laws and ordinances—causing citizens to cry ”Why me?”—citizens complain. Because these examples of perceived abuses of power are somewhat daily occurrences, any CRB would have its hands full hearing all citizen complaints. For that matter, any police internal affairs department would be so handcuffed by the same looping complaints as to be ineffective. More officers would sit in line for review than would be out on the streets to protect the public from itself. For a CRB to be responsible, it would have to concentrate on real wrongdoers, what used to be called ”crooked cops.” But even that mandate is dubious because an officer suspected of committing a felony should go to regular court, not to a citizens’ review board.

In the mid-1970s a survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center found that 45% of the respondents favored CRBs, 35% opposed them, and the remaining 20% were undecided. The less-than-half in favor is perplexing. During the late 1960s and into the early 1970s, police seemed to be barbarians. The televised mayhem in Chicago at the 1968 Democratic Convention and the Kent State killings did nothing to uplift law enforcement’s image. If at any point in recent history CRBs could have gained a foothold, the mid-1970s should have been optimal. Unified police resistance to CRBs and a good deal of persuasive talk, however, curtailed the movement. In an article written for Police Chief (1977), Gary F. Stowell posed the critical question:

Reaction to a CRB in police circles is clear: Almost any decision made by a police officer in a crisis situation could conceivably leave him open to charges before a CRB. How could a civilian sit in judgment on a police officer’s actions any more than he could sit in judgment on a doctor’s actions in an operating room?

New York Police Commissioner Vincent Brodrick added another dimension: ”It is vital that when a police officer’s action is reviewed, it be reviewed by one who has the capacity to evaluate the propriety of the action, but also to its complement, the propriety in the same situation with the officer having failed to take the action.” FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had long before made his opinion known. CRBs ”undermine the morale and sap the efficiency of the police. They deter officers in the proper performance of their duties for fear of having charges placed against them, which will be judged by individuals wholly unfamiliar with police work.” Also a decade earlier, Chief O. W. Wilson had warned, ”A review board in this city would destroy discipline in the Chicago Police Department. If we would have a civilian review board, it would create a situation where I, as the head of the police department, would be confronted by an adversary group, which the entire department would tend to unite against.” On-and-off the record most police alluded to CRBs as witch hunts of benefit to no one.

The Hartford Study

The Hartford Institute of Criminal and Social Justice published an influential study in 1980 entitled ”Civilian Review of the Police—The Experiences of American Cities.” The institute prepared the study in response to a proposal by the Hartford, Connecticut, City Council to establish a civilian review board. A shocking incident confirmed the council’s resolve. In February 1980 the council endorsed the concept of a CRB. But in March after Guy Brown, who turned out to be innocent, was shot by a Hartford police officer, public outcry forced the council to act on its endorsement. On October 17 the council passed an amendment calling for the immediate creation of a permanent civilian review board. To advise the council of what to do next, the institute surveyed literature on the topic and conducted interviews to determine how other municipalities set up their CRBs and with what success.

In all, the institute was able to collect information in detail from seven cities and on a limited basis from several more. The cities surveyed, the type of review board, and the date established were as follows:

1. Chicago, Illinois: Office of Professional Standards; physically within the police department but separate from the Internal Affairs Division; operated by three civilian administrators appointed by the superintendent of police; one black, one white, one Hispanic—all lawyers. Started in 1974.

2. Detroit, Michigan: Board of Police Commissioners; administered by the Office of the Chief Investigator; composed of five civilians appointed by the mayor with the approval of the city council; minority representation, including one woman. Started in 1974.

3. Kansas City, Missouri: Office of Citizen Complaints; five-person civilian staff appointed by the Board of Police Commissioners. Started in 1970.

4. Memphis, Tennessee: Police Advisory Commission; composed of no more than eighteen and no less than ten civilian members; appointed annually by the director of police and the mayor from a list of candidates provided by the commission; commission members represented both extremes, for and against police. Started in 1977.

5. New York City, New York: Civilian Complaint Review Board; located within the police department with seven members: three police appointed by the police commissioner and four community representatives assigned by the mayor; ethnic mixture. 1953 forward— police members only; after 1966— addition of civilians.

6. Oakland, California: Citizens Complaint Board; mayor appoints seven citizens to one-year terms subject to approval by the city council; cross section of the community. Started in 1980.

7. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Police Advisory Board; five, then eight civilian members appointed by the mayor with no fixed length of term; cross section of the community with two retired police officers to add balance. 1958-1969.

8. Baltimore, Maryland: Complaint Evaluation Board; unstated membership, all were government employees or elected officials with one active police officer as member. Started around 1965.

9. Miami, Florida: Office of Professional Compliance; four members with a director appointed by the city manager and the police chief. Started in 1980.

10. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Minneapolis Civil Rights Commission; unstated membership staffed by the city council; short lived due in part to the commission subpoenaing the president of the city council. 1965.

11. Rochester, New York: Civilian Review Board; nine members appointed by the city manager; disbanded when no longer funded. 1963-1971.

12. Washington, D.C.: Civilian Review Board; seven members including two attorneys, how appointed not stated. 1948-1965; in 1965 completely restructured, then oddly disbanded the same year; reproposed in 1980.

13. York, Pennsylvania: Police Review Board; city council appointed five York residents to act as a board and also to advise the mayor and other officials about police ”oppressiveness.” 1960-1962.

The civilian review boards also differed in the amount of authority granted them. Some of the boards had investigatory power and could issue subpoenas, while others subsisted as advisory only. Another prominent fact from the institute’s study is that either the boards were adversarial beyond normal expectations, or suspiciously agreed in nearly every instance with the police review. In conclusion, the institute listed arguments for and against CRBs.

In Favor:

• CRBs are a means to create more effective relationships with the public.

• Courts cannot handle every legitimate complaint leveled at police.

• Civilians are traditionally less strict in reviewing police misconduct.

• An officer exonerated by a CRB is less likely to be thought of as having been white-washed.

• CRBs are useful as public relations vehicles.

• Police have too much discretion in carrying out their duties and must be watched.

• CRBs are a safety valve for both police and citizens to get at the facts.

• CRBs increase respect for the law when reviews are handled promptly.

• CRBs increase public confidence in police departments by demonstrating police agreement to undergo civilian review.

• CRBs often aid in dispelling the belief that police are brutal and arbitrary.

• Police appear less isolated and more accountable.

• CRBs deter misconduct before it happens because police fear public review.

• Citizens want some form of settlement (an apology) even if the complaint does not merit court action.

• Police cannot deal fairly with complaints against their fellow officers.


• Only police know their business.

• Internal, not external, review places the responsibility for handling misconduct with those who best know how to cure it.

• CRBs destroy morale.

• CRBs are redundant to police review.

• Other adequate means are available to citizens with legitimate complaints, for example, the courts.

• Every profession should have the right to discipline itself.

• Criminals or anyone can harass police to get them in trouble.

• CRBs are unlawful; the police powers of a city cannot be delegated.

• CRBs fail to provide for procedural safeguards, for example, rules of evidence, protection against double jeopardy, and so on.

• CRBs entertain minor to frivolous complaints.

• CRBs by their very existence continue to polarize police and citizens.

• The history of CRBs is lackluster.

• Emotional catharsis takes place more often than dispassionate inquiry.

• Police job security hangs in the balance.

• Police are less efficient, knowing the CRB can call them in for anything.

Of the reasons for and against, the third “for” reason—civilians are traditionally less strict in reviewing police misconduct—stands out. If true, logic dictates the reason should be in the ”against” list. The whole rationale behind civilian review is to convene a group of citizens who will do a better job of reviewing police misconduct (more punitive) than the supposed buddy system does in the department. If police are harder on themselves than the public would be, then why involve citizens at all? This reason alone does much to defeat the CRB concept.

Current Accountability

Even though civilian review boards have not worked out well, the need for greater accountability external to police control is still a burning issue. The Rodney King beating incident in Los Angeles fueled the debate. Other King-type cases occur with regularity, whether the police are at fault or not. Any show of force by police usually guarantees citizen backlash and a cry for investigation—if not the head(s) of the officer(s) involved. Because an alert citizen videotaped Rodney King being beaten or subdued, depending on individual perception, no one could deny it happened exactly as filmed. The shock value of the incident and the lawless aftermath reinvigorated discussion of civilian review boards and other accountability mechanisms. The ombudsman or ”citizen advocate” is one such control. As a government official, the ombudsman investigates abuse and/or misconduct in the police department and elsewhere throughout city government. He or she is a grievance commissioner who chooses which complaints to investigate. With such a broad jurisdiction, the ombudsman oversees a general complaint office, not focusing on any single department. Therefore, police do not feel they are the only ones under scrutiny. The Hartford study credited a number of cities with adopting the ombudsman concept, though it could not obtain enough information from those cities to clarify types of operation.

A second external control combines the civilian review board with the office of ombudsman. Independent review panels, as they are called, investigate public complaints directed at any city department and/or employee. Thus all city employees, not just police, are held accountable for their actions. Naturally, many police officers and public employee unions dislike the panels and will resist them. Until one or both of these controls achieves success or a better concept arises, internal discipline administered by police to police will continue to suffice.

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