The operation of police oversite or internal review of misconduct complaints has been ongoing for several years. The debate started after the riots of the 1960s which were, in part, triggered by a use of force incident. This resulted in certain sections of those communities identifying shortcomings in who oversaw police accountability. The critics pointed out that the oversight was being conducted by high-ranking elected officials and in a lackluster fashion. Several civilian review boards were established at that time to conduct oversight of police. After the Rodney King verdict, there was a flare-up of demand for additional civilian oversight of the police. The critics claimed that the oversight boards were ineffective because of a lack of power to effect change.
The cries for reform continued to grow and additional methods of oversight were developed to address the perceived lack of oversight. These ideas included removing certain types of complaints from police internal affairs units and having them investigated by independent investigators. These independent investigators took several different forms. Some were composed of attorneys; retired law enforcement officers; or trained civilians. Even these types of oversight concepts drew criticism from several reform groups who had competing motivations.
The Michael Brown and Freddie Gray incidents rejuvenated the demand for increased scrutiny of police and increased demands for civilian oversight throughout the country. The activists also focused on changing existing legislation to deeply impact traditional law enforcement operations. This demand continued to increase over the last few years with an unknown impact on law enforcement operations across the country.
One of the largest and consistent calls for law enforcement reform has been civilian oversight in the police disciplinarian process. These demands have been diverse in their operational proposals. Some requests have been for Internal affairs to be a mix of police and civilian investigators. Others have demanded that there be a bifurcated investigation by civilian and police investigators. Additional suggestions have been like those in Austin, TX where police misconduct is investigated solely by civilian employees.
The advocates for this type of investigatory method claim that police are not able to avoid the conflict of disciplining their own. The belief is that police will cover-up and downplays citizen complaints to avoid any alleged impropriety for the organization. The advocates also contend that the citizens have lost faith in the police to the point that they believe all internal investigations or illegitimate.
An independently led civilian internal affairs system could disrupt the belief that the investigations lack legitimacy. If the investigative body was detached from the police agency and did not have any accountability to the police department then the public may be more apt to believe the investigation. The detached investigative agency could operate independently of any conflicts of interest and free from any familiarity with the person suspected of wrongdoing. This type of oversight would also reduce, in theory, the criticisms of law enforcement concerning transparency and accountability. These criticisms would be redirected to the civilian oversight body if the community is unhappy with the results of the investigation.
That proposition is a double-edged sword. The civilian oversight system would also be susceptible to political and community pressure to decide a case outside of the standards outlined by the agency. The civilian oversight does not have a vested interest in the development of employees. This would result in a narrowly focused investigation with the intent on discipline and not correction of future mistakes. The focus of the investigation would also be limited by the education and practical understanding of the investigator. A civilian investigator will miss other areas that need correction because they do not possess the prerequisite knowledge to identify training deficiencies that need addressing. This will open the agency up to liability because they failed to train employees on a deficiency, they should have known existed.
This would also cause additional issues with wrongful termination cases if the civilian investigator was not provided proper training in administrative investigations in relation to law enforcement. This problem would be compounded in collective bargaining jurisdictions because the disciplinary process would have to be bargained for. And because most contracts have binding arbitration clauses there could be problems with insufficient investigations to support recommended discipline.
These are only a few of the many issues that make the transition to a civilian internal investigative unit overly problematic.