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Police abuse remains a serious issue in the criminal justice system. Attempts to eradicate police brutality have not yielded any success. Moreover, Ferdik, Rojek, and Alpert (2013) consider police abuse a national problem in the sense that no police department in the US is completely devoid of misconduct. Despite the national nature of the problem, the solution to the issue must be local since all law enforcement agencies operate independently. Whereas some federal laws outline criminal penalties for intentional infringement of civil rights and plots to preclude contravention of civil rights of people, the United States Department of Justice has not been adequately aggressive in the prosecution of police officers accused of misconduct (Harris, 2012). The federal law also has its limitations it does not allow “pattern or practice” complaints. Therefore, the solution to police abuse lies at the local level, particularly through a civilian oversight committee. This paper discusses the contribution of a civilian oversight committee to the mitigation of authoritative powers abuse by employing policies, procedures, liability, economic factors, and discretion.
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Overview of a Civilian Oversight Committee
Citizen review of law enforcement activities emerged during the 1950s following the prevalent dissatisfaction that civilians expressed with the internal disciplinary mechanisms used in police departments. The majority of citizens were of the view that police officers ignored their complaints (Ferdik, Rojek, & Alpert, 2013). They suspected that police officers conducted superficial investigations and concealed cases of misconduct. The philosophy underpinning the establishment of civilian review is grounded on the independence of civilian investigations on issues involving citizen complaints. Civilian reviews are independent since they are not sworn by law enforcement officers. Initially, civilian oversight seemed an impossible dream to be fulfilled. However, there has been slow and steady progress over the years. Currently, at least 75% of the largest cities in the US have civilian oversight systems (Ferdik, Rojek, & Alpert, 2013).
Civilian oversight can take three forms. The first type involves non-sworn police officers performing initial fact-finding, after which they submit their findings to a board of non-officers who have the responsibilities of recommending an appropriate course of action to the head of the police department (Hryniewicz, 2011). Lamboo (2010) considers this form of civilian oversight the most civil and independent. The second form of civilian oversight involves sworn police officers performing preliminary fact-finding, after which they forward their findings to a board of non-officers who recommend the appropriate action. The third form of civilian oversight entails sworn officers performing primary fact-finding, after which they recommend the course of action for the head of the police department. Unsatisfied aggrieved citizens have the chance to appeal the action undertaken by the police chief. Lamboo (2010) considers this form of civilian oversight the least independent of the three.
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Civilian oversight of law enforcement is important for several reasons. First, citizen oversight plays a crucial role in fostering police accountability (Walsh & Conway, 2011). There is strong empirical evidence indicating citizens are likely to file their complaints when a complaint review mechanism is in place. Sen (2010) argues that the presence of a weak citizen oversight process is far better than having none. A citizen oversight committee is a crucial source of information regarding cases of police misconduct. Moreover, a civilian oversight board is more likely to gather and circulate information regarding police abuse when compared to an internal affairs board (Harris, 2012). The civilian oversight committee can inform law enforcement agencies of the steps to implement in order to reduce police abuse. Lamboo (2010) points that majority of well-intentioned law enforcement officials do not handle complaints because internal investigations do not offer them the facts of the case. However, the presence of a civilian oversight committee can play a crucial role in ensuring the implementation of the required reforms (Sen, 2010). Police departments can establish model policies that seek to deter and punish police abuse; however, these policies are useless in the absence of a mechanism to ensure aggressive enforcement of the policies. Civilian oversight is effective because it is a substantial improvement on the policing process. Evidence indicates that civilian oversight lessens citizens’ reluctance to file complaints, eases the procedural barriers associated with filing complaints, increases the probability of complete statistical reporting of complaints, and enhances the independence of the review process (Walsh & Conway, 2011). Other documented benefits associated with having a civilian oversight board include fostering confidence among complainants, enhancing scrutiny of law enforcement policies that trigger public complaints, and increasing the opportunities to reform law enforcement agencies.
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Role of the Civilian Oversight Committee
Citizen oversight acts as an “early warning sign” that highlights the presence of police abuse of authority as well as the need for police intervention. In this way, it unceasingly offers a mechanism for preventing police officers from abusing their authority. By scrutinizing the dealings of the police with citizens in relation to the treatment of citizens, citizen oversight is an effective tool to curb police abuse (Harris, 2012). An independent citizen oversight board has the role of monitoring the complaints filed by citizens and determining the need for conducting investigations taking into account the character of the complainant. The committee ascertains whether or not to forward the grievance to the police department for further investigation. In addition, the citizen review board has the power to demand the classification of a grievance within seven days after filing the initial complaint (Hryniewicz, 2011). Failure to comply with this demand requires the police chief to clarify the reason for denying classification. As a result, the review board has total accountability as well as power. Moreover, it has the authority to make recommendations in the event that the board is in disagreement with the police chief’s classification following the seven days waiting period (Harris, 2012). Furthermore, the citizen review committee has the authority to convene open hearings relating to citizens’ grievances, which members of the public can attend. Generally, the citizen oversight committee helps the police department to establish and maintain an early warning system that helps track complaints against officers who may require retraining or supervisory counseling.
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An allegation of police abuse passes through numerous chains of command in order to establish whether it was sustained or unsustained prior to making a decision, which is a lengthy process. In this respect, the citizen oversight committee, including the review process, is an effective mechanism to ensure that law enforcement officers comply with the rules of conduct during the investigation process (Lamboo, 2010). In cases when citizens file numerous complaints against police officers in a specific police department, there is the likelihood that the internal affairs will not conduct detailed investigations into the complaints. In this case, it is up to the civilian oversight board to perform an investigation to help uncover unethical practices and ensure that police officers are accountable for their actions (Hryniewicz, 2011). The responsibility to make decisions regarding the ethical behavior of police officers lies with the Office of Professional Standards and Police Conduct; however, the auditor of the civilian oversight board can take part in the investigations and make recommendations regarding the procedures and policies that can help promote ethical behaviors among law enforcement officers (Hryniewicz, 2011). In sum, the citizen oversight board plays an important role in investigating, auditing, and reviewing complaints filed by members of the public against police officers.
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Another role of civilian oversight committee in preventing police abuse is making recommendations regarding procedure and policy changes and improvements in police training. Sen (2010) asserts that this is the most crucial role of citizen review committees because it can help in improving services across the whole department rather than a few selected police officers. The review of policies and procedures by an oversight committee plays a preventive role through the identification of problems and making corrective recommendations that seek to enhance policing and lessen public complaints in the future (Ferdik, Rojek, & Alpert, 2013). Several administrators of the police departments indicate that citizen oversight committees have made crucial training and policy recommendations that their departments have implemented. The identification of policy recommendations can take place through various ways, including reviewing individual citizens’ complaints, closed cases, and general concerns expressed by citizens (Hryniewicz, 2011). The citizen oversight body can make two general kinds of recommendations concerning changes regarding the manner in which the police department performs internal investigations relating to alleged police abuse and changes with regard to procedures that specify the behaviors of police officers. Therefore, through making recommendations that focus on policy and procedures changes, the civilian oversight board plays a preventive role with respect to police abuse.
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Another role of the civilian oversight committee in preventing police abuse is that of mediation, which entails making arrangements for the selected complainants to redress their grievances with the officers under investigation (Harris, 2012). Mediation may be formal or informal. The mediation process involves the oversight board asking the complainants as well as the subject officers if they are ready to mediate the grievance (Harris, 2012). The benefits of mediation are diverse. Talking about citizens, mediation helps in encouraging them to file their grievances and offers them with an opportunity to learn the motivations for the actions of the officer in a manner that can facilitate an understanding of the job of the police officer. With regard to officers, mediation educates them on the consequences of actions, behaviors and attitudes and offers them an opportunity to understand the behaviors of citizens (Hryniewicz, 2011). Therefore, through mediation, the civilian oversight committee can help civilians and police officers understand their context and behaviors, while at the same time encouraging citizens to file grievances.
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The paper has outlined numerous roles of a civilian oversight committee in preventing police abuse, which include auditing, reviewing and investigating complaints; making procedure and policy recommendations and training improvements; facilitating mediation between complainants and officers; and acting as an early warning system that tracks complaints filed against officers. Through these roles, the civilian oversight committee is capable of fostering police accountability and encouraging members of the public to lodge their grievances, which in turn lessens cases of police abuse.
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