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How It Works

demonstrators
Protests: Santa Rosa demonstrators.

Photo by Michael Amsler



By Greg Cahill and Paula Harris

A 1994 UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA report, examining the prevalence of police review boards, found that citizen review of law enforcement increased 74 percent between 1990 and 1994, and has experienced steady growth over the past 25 years.

The report, Citizen Review of the Police: A National Survey by Samuel Walker and Betsy Wright, notes that the growth of citizen review in the United States parallels a similar trend around the world.

Civilian police review boards can have a wide range of powers, from the ability to investigate, adjudicate, and recommend discipline to a simple review of police internal affairs probes. Generally, law enforcement agencies resist any attempt to grant civilian review boards the power to investigate independently, subpoena witnesses, or recommend disciplinary action--principles that the ACLU says are paramount to effective civilian review of the police.

Under state law, a police officer has the right to appeal before any disciplinary action is taken. The city manager has the power to decide on action, but usually defers to the police chief.

There are three basic models for monitoring police actions (each of which can be given significant variations in terms of powers):

  1. Civilian review boards--such as those in Novato, Richmond, and Oakland--are composed of five to 11 appointed members and use the public hearing process. This model tends to make the most economic sense in a small community.

  2. Civilian investigative agencies--like the Office of Citizen Complaints in San Francisco--use professionally trained and paid investigators who interview witnesses and collect evidence.

  3. Auditors--like the San Jose independent police auditor--review the policies, practices, procedures, but don't have the power to investigate. Basically, the auditor simply reviews the police review, but can't do anything about the findings. It's the weakest model.

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From the May 29-June 4, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent

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