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Citizen Oversight, Essay Example

Pages: 8

Words: 2231

Essay

Introduction

It is an interesting dimension of modern culture that, as citizens consistently regard the police as a protective mainstay in a society increasingly prone to violence, those same citizens are making greater efforts to “police” these protectors. There can be no rational disputing that the police, as with any other mode of employment, is subject to incompetence, internal abuses, or inappropriate hiring. What renders law enforcement different is the inescapable fact that these civic employees wield significant authority, carry weapons, and are responsible for bringing order to the most disruptive and/or dangerous circumstances occurring within the society. This being the case, growing numbers of citizens are organizing to oversee police activity in their communities, and specifically address complaints made regarding police conduct. As will be examined in the following, these are organizations not entirely appreciated by the police, nor uniformly effective in achieving their goals. Citizen oversight, while certainly a reasonable and commendable strategy designed to expand police management within the community, remains a practice both controversial and of uncertain benefit. Only the emphasis on third party supervision, as will be seen, may render the process the valuable instrument it is designed to be.

Discussion

With some inevitable variations dictated by circumstance, civilian oversight exists to satisfy complaints made against the police, to deter potential police misconduct, to bring about the dismissal of non-compliant or deviant officers, and to improve the general relationship between the police force and the community it serves (Rice, White, 2010, p. 481). The concept as such is not precisely new, in that some measure of community interaction and response has traditionally been in place between residents and the police. The specific organization of such activity, however, is recent. Moreover, a national network was established to share resources, encourage other communities to create their own oversight boards, and maintain a consistent regard for the simultaneous attendance to police actions and the integrity of police departments. The National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE) acts as a primary advocate for oversight, and offers law review insights on subjects ranging from how an environment of terrorism affects police conduct to shifting parameters of police accountability (NACOLE, 2011). Membership is steadily growing, which may be taken as evidence of the increasing sense of empowerment in the citizenry.

This expansion of the NACOLE may also be viewed as pointing to a pervasive sense of dissatisfaction, or even suspicion, of the police. A case study of the 1990s clearly indicates how social perceptions regarding the authority of the police have radically altered, assuming a commonality of respect was traditionally in place beforehand. Complaints are consistently increasing, and in 2002 26,000 were issued by citizens asserting undue police use of force alone (Hickman, 2006). Multiple studies reveal that minorities and women in particular view the police unfavorably, and as prone to being abusive and/or negligent of their responsibilities. The same studies point to the widespread feeling that the police are primarily interested in “protecting” one another from accusations of misconduct, a feeling likely reinforced by modern media presentations of police corruption. A “blue suit generalization” has been documented, in that the uniform typically generates a response in a citizen of antipathy and mistrust, rather than relief (Williams, 1998, p. 97). It is important to reiterate that, for the society as a whole, any such misgivings or antipathy must be greatly exacerbated by the fact that the police have powers which may deny individual liberty and severely disrupt lives. It is then reasonable that citizens should be more concerned with the conduct of these public officials to a degree beyond that of the less directly influential, or potentially threatening.

What must be then noted, if there is to be value within the response of citizen oversight, is how the practice is having impact. The determinant here is the sustain rate, referring to those complaints made against the police which, upon investigation, are sustained as valid. With regard to the sustain rate, however, there are issues inherent with the information determining it. The sustain rate exists to record the percentage of complaints resolved in a manner favorable to the complainant, and this is ostensibly a rational instrument. The community wherein those residents who perceive themselves as having been incorrectly dealt with by the police, and who then attain some satisfaction through the complaint process, is the community in which citizen oversight is evidently proving effective. The issues, however, are many, and largely generated by the various dimension of complaint information itself: when the police do not report complaints made directly to them; when residents do not complain for fear of reprisal or of alienating the police force; and when the systems of categorizing and processing the complaints lack regulation or consistency, the sustain rate becomes too subjective to be relied upon (Goldsmith, Lewis, 2000, p. 91). Other factors impede in relying upon the instrument, as in the higher number of complaints generated in more densely populated areas (Hickman, 2006).

A first impression of a sustain rate table would seem to work in favor of the police, and indicate undue complaints. The figures released by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2006, reflecting national data accrued for 2002, indicate a sustain rate of only eight percent. In this year, when over 26,000 complaints were issued, the vast majority were set aside, and this appears to refute any perceptions of the police as consistently abusing their authority. A closer examination of the data, however, reveals more troubling factors. For example, 34 percent of the complaints – which, again, were only those reporting excess use of force and no other breaches of conduct – were dismissed due to insufficient evidence. A lack of proof of police abuse clearly does not inevitably equate to that abuse as having been fabricated, so this portion of the non-sustained complaint ratio is inherently suspect. The rational explanation is that, when abuse was committed, the complainant was visibly uninjured and the case rested only on contrasting reports of the citizen and the officer. Then, 23 percent of the complaints were disposed with the officer’s exoneration; the incident occurred as reported but it was judged that the officer acted within the parameters of their authority. While it would be unreasonable to assume impropriety or police bias as influencing these judgments, the reality remains that this is something of a “gray area,” and full exoneration is not necessarily proof that there is no cause for complaint from the citizen’s perspective. Added to this mutable percentage is the fact that nine percent of the complaints were voluntarily rescinded. Once again, implying no incorrect action whatsoever on the part of the police, it is entirely possible that citizen concerns over creating further police hostility, or even a disinclination to become more entangled in the process, lead to the complaint withdrawals. 25 percent of all the complaints were deemed unfounded, and this is important in affirming police integrity. Nonetheless, the eight percent sustained, along with the variables within the other percentages, indicate a precarious situation at best.

It is, in fact, largely accepted today that sustain rates are not a significant performance measure of citizen oversight, if only by the reality that the rate invariably reflects that of police internal affairs units (Walker, 2005, p. 99). This acknowledged, citizen oversight agencies are today focusing more on specific procedural issues and degrees of compliance with established regulations. This is a necessary redirecting of emphasis if the organizations are to be effective, but there remains the issue dominating the subject, and well before any determinations are made as to complaints. It is inevitable that civilian oversight incorporate within it civilian review of police procedure. As may be obvious, it is necessary for the civilian board to examine all police files and statements for a complaint to be thoroughly investigated. This has, not unexpectedly, generated resistance in police forces. Traditionally, the police are disinclined to accept civilian review because it translates to them as civilian interference, and in a manner utterly unwarranted (Lippman, 2013, p. 446). The police typically perceive themselves as performing work beyond the scope of the average person’s understanding. The job is dangerous; it is then all the more likely that those performing it would develop an organizational culture greatly removed from others.

This has been identified in reviews of police activity and citizen oversight in Albuquerque, New Mexico. More exactly, complaints made against other police departments typically reveal evidence of racial, gender, or orientation bias, but those in Albuquerque demonstrate more the likelihood of a fraternal mentality both enabling and concealing police abuses. Studies have determined that police subcultures are greatly variable; where the chief of police demands a high level of professional conduct, for instance, complaints are few (Goldsmith, Lewis, 2000, p. 86). Conversely, and as in the Albuquerque scenario, it also occurs that the officers themselves create a fraternal climate distancing themselves from the general parameters of behavior as deemed correct by the community. It is important to note, as in the investigations conducted following the Rodney King assault by the Los Angeles police in 1991 revealed no distinct racial bias as prompting the beating, there was all the more the organizational interdependence of the officers that instigated the actions (Goldsmith, Lewis, 2000, p. 86). Race may be a factor in a great deal of improper police conduct, but it is by no means essential in generating the subculture that distances the police from the community in an “us against them” mentality.

In purely common sense terms, it would seem that a police subculture encouraging self-protection is inherently inevitable, at least to an extent. Variations in perception aside, the reality exists that the job is unlike others, and that the degree of danger within it will likely promote an excess of entitlement and concern over the maintenance of the group. When this is then set beside the difficulties noted in civilian oversight organizations, there is then an opportunity to structure a more effective strategy. Such a strategy is, in fact, increasingly being implemented in communities across the nation, and no small part of this is the new emphasis on a proactive approach concentrating on regulations and adherence to procedures, rather than the reactive one of addressing and investigating complaints. Citizen oversight boards function differently, in that the authority granted to oversee and investigate is sometimes invested within police officials, sometimes with citizens working with the officials, and occasionally through third parties proceeding independently of either (Rice, White, 2010, p. 481). Many are mechanisms variously employing all the structures and with, as noted, no significant success.

The newer model of the third party agency or presence, however, holds the most promise, particularly in urban arenas where the communities and police forces are largest. Part of this is due to resources; the New York City Citizen Civilian Complaint Review Board, for instance, has an annual budget exceeding $10 million (Lippman, 2013, p. 446). At the same time, the smaller community may simply adopt a third party structure suited to its scale and which, as with the larger, is granted the powers to obtain from all concerned parties all relevant information. The evidence suggests that the police are more amenable to oversight and review when it is impartially conducted by third parties (Rice, White, 2010, p. 482). This alone validates the need for oversight organizations to move away from the community-involvement aspect and focus more on securing unbiased, third party review. If the citizens are the agents fueling the oversight process because the police activity so directly concerns them, they must accept that bias is not restricted to the police, and that impartial mediation is the only rational means of maintaining a proper law enforcement force.

Conclusion

It may be argued that the novelty of citizen oversight is matched only by the controversy it continues to generate. Certainly, facts regarding its efficacy are not encouraging, as the rates of valid complaints tend to be no higher when investigated by such organization than when merely conducted by police internal affairs. Much of this is likely due to the inevitable antipathy the police experience as being judged or reviewed by ordinary citizens who cannot comprehend the true nature of the work. What appears most evident in all of this, however, is that oversight success is more probable when the actual supervision is both proactive and entrusted to a disinterested party. Ultimately, the concept of the community as being actively involved with the conduct of its police is not merely sound, but warranted by the needs of a truly democratic society. To that end, then, both citizenry and police are obligated to accept that a third party agency, independent and empowered to impartially investigate and monitor police activity, is the most equitable means of exercising citizen oversight.

References

Goldsmith, A. J., & Lewis, C. (2000). The Civilian Oversight of Policing: Governance, Democracy and Human Rights. Portland: Hart Publishing.

Hickman, M. J. (2006). Citizen Complaints about Police Use of Force. U.S. Department of Justice: Special Report. Retrieved from http://bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/ccpuf.pdf

Lippman, M. (2013). Criminal Procedure. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE). (2011). Resources. Retrieved from http://www.nacole.org/resources/oversight-agencies

Rice, S. K., & White, M. D. (2010). Race, Ethnicity, and Policing: New and Essential Readings. New York: New York University Press.

Walker, S. (2005). The New World of Police Accountability. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Williams, B. N. (1998). Citizen Perspectives on Community Policing: A Case Study in Athens, Georgia. Albany: State University of New York Press.

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