Civilian Oversight and Community Policing, Research Paper Example
Words: 4837Research Paper
In a very real sense, the traditional paradigm regarding the police within the community has shifted in recent years. In the past, a certain order or ideology was largely in place; citizens understood that law enforcement existed to serve and protect, yet the police maintained an authority virtually unchallenged. If the public understood that they were agents of order supported by it, there was nonetheless a pervasive sense that police authority could not be questioned by ordinary citizens. This created in time a division in which the police were viewed as alternately adversarial, aggressive to undue extents, and ultimately exercising a level of social and legal control to which the public was required to adhere. The public servant and the public were typically distanced, and law enforcement was generally regarded as an entity unto itself, and one somewhat exempt from public censure. This is no longer the case today, as public awareness has generated a sense of “ownership” of the police. Law enforcement accountability, once a process reserved for only internal judicial arenas, is now very much in the hands of the people, just as the public is increasingly active in working with the police to enhance the public welfare.
All of these changes, which essentially reflect a blurring of the traditional lines between the police and the people, present immense challenges for the police, police managers, and law enforcement organizations in general. No matter the public intentions to assist and/or oversee as fully cooperative and compliant, there remains the reality that it is the police who must ensure that all ethics, laws, policies, and procedures are performed correctly, because they are the agents entrusted by law to do so. As the following will examine, a variety of modern circumstances ranging from civilian supervision – and often criticism – of the police, to community policing practices investing citizens with measures of authority, dramatically changes how the law enforcement agency today functions. More than ever before, police managers and law enforcement organizations must adapt to incorporate civilian activity and function in ways always mindful of the “public eye” as upon them.
That ordinary citizens should be to some extent involved in the police work of their communities would seem to be a natural extension of the social and legal order. As noted, the police are public servants, in place to guard and carry out a public trust. They exist to deter and prevent crime, apprehend offenders, and generally maintain a safe environment. As this directly goes to the interests of the people, it is reasonable to assume that the people would take an active interest in these matters. What has instead been the dominant reality, however, is that the public has distanced itself from police activity, as the police themselves have resisted any civilian efforts to monitor and/or engage with them. This resistance has been by no means based on suspect motives. In the past, and very much in place today, police organizations and officers oppose civilian oversight for the valid reason that the public, as far as the police are concerned, cannot properly appreciate what police work entails (Alpert Dunham, & Stroshine, 2005, p. 130). Ordinary citizens likely have only a minimal awareness of the complexities – and dangers – of law enforcement, and the police then feel that civilian oversight will translate to undue condemnation for actions misunderstood. The police usually feel as well that, as they are governed by internal affairs, civilian oversight is redundant, as they also tend to believe that such oversight will be biased against them. There is also the suspicion that oversight entrusted to citizens will be used to mask agendas of gathering information for civil suits (More, 2008, p. 68). All of this translates to significant barriers in place in both the past and today, in terms of citizen involvement and oversight. In a very real sense, interests are inherently contrary.
The history of civilian oversight in the United States, not unexpectedly, is then brief. The first civilian review boards (CRBs) were established in New York City and Philadelphia in the late 1950s, and the timing is not coincidental. This was the era of civil rights unrest in the major cities, and citizens increasingly believed that the police were operating with no check on their authority, and abusing citizens guilty of nothing more than protest. It was as well widely felt that misconduct by the police too evident to be ignored would be addressed leniently or covered up by police authority (Alpert, Dunham, & Stroshine, 2005, p. 129). Other CRBs were established in the following years and in major urban areas, but the results were not promising. The tensions between the police and the citizens were in fact exacerbated by the frustrations of the CRBs, as they typically had no real influence beyond that of an advisory capacity. These CRBs had no power to issue subpoenas, nor were they enabled to decide upon punishments or rule on cases. Then, the early models lacked cohesion. No uniform set of operational standards was in place for either CRBs or law enforcement agency interaction with it, just as the CRBs lacked the resources to conduct responsible investigations (Alpert Dunham, & Stroshine, 2005, p. 130). It seems that the first CRBs of the mid-20th century were motivated by extreme concerns, yet essentially achieved little beyond increasing police resentment and fueling further citizen suspicion.
In order to better comprehend how civilian oversight may be effective, it is helpful of examine a case of it where multiple issues defeated the purpose. By the 1960s, racial tensions in the cities had dramatically increased, provoking a rise in public mistrust of the police. To that end, a CRB was established in Washington, DC to address this growing conflict. The unrest had in fact been observed since the 1940s, as the Washington Post reported that over two-thirds of the citizens were familiar with stories of police brutality, and of a racially-based nature. By 1960, also, Washington became the first U.S. city with a majority-black population, in contrast to its police force in which over 80 percent of the officers were white (Goldsmith, Lewis, 2000, p. 46). The stage was most definitely set for civilian interaction. Unfortunately, the same factors generating the need went to negating any beneficial impact. On one level, and as rising protest emerged from the African American population regarding biased police practices, the Washington Chief of Police worked to create a biracial governing board of the CRB. When this board requested additional powers of investigation and determination, however, police resistance opposed any such measures. Attorneys were now a part of the CRB, and officers accused of misconduct now had representation and the right to question witnesses deposing against them, but the police refused to agree to more definitive powers for the CRB (Goldsmith, Lewis, 2000, p. 47). Throughout the 1960s, the Washington CRB essentially remained locked within the traditional restrictions separating the public from police authority.
There were somewhat conciliatory measures enacted by the Police Chief, indicating that genuine efforts were being made to cooperate. When, for example, increasing concerns were voiced that citizens did not file just complaints because they feared inaction or reprisal, the CRB requested that it be fully entitled to conduct investigations on its own. This was refused, but the Chief agreed to transfer the responsibility for investigating the issue to internal affairs. What followed, however, was nothing more than a lengthier delay process in inquiry (Goldsmith, Lewis, 2000, p. 47). No reforms, it seems, were effective, and the result was that the Washington CRB became so notoriously ineffective, there was a decrease in complaints made presumably because the public had no faith in the process. Ironically, the most intense criticism of the CRB came, not from the police, but from the citizens themselves, and arguably because the police had ensured that the CRB could be controlled.
More modern instances of CRBs in action are no more encouraging, and perhaps the most dramatic was the focus on police conduct, and the subsequent demand for effective oversight, following the Los Angeles riots of the 1990s. As is well known, media footage of the police beating Rodney King fueled intense public outrage, just as the acquittals of the four officers identified in the abuse precipitated further violence and unrest. What followed was not an active CRB, but a federal investigation emphatically insisting upon the need for oversight. The Christopher Commission cited multiple instances of police abuse or opportunities for misconduct, as in the police deployment of its Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums (CRASH) program, which gave broad latitude to police response to gang activity. The full investigation ultimately determined, and hardly surprisingly, that there was a pronounced absence of civilian oversight in Los Angeles, and that the police department as a whole suffered from consistently weak leadership (More, 2008, p. 64). If the determinations are to have been expected, the importance of the two pivotal factors cited cannot be ignored, More exactly, given the brief, turbulent, and generally unsuccessful history of civilian oversight, it very much appears that weak police management, certainly in terms of agendas in place to protect traditional police authority, is inextricably connected to the lack of authority invested in the CRB.
Given this history and reality, the question then arises: are the interests of the police so opposed to civilian oversight that an effective CRB is an unattainable goal? There is as well the ancillary question of just how much authority may be properly invested in civilians who, as noted, likely lack a necessary understanding of the nature and demands of police work. The questions are difficult, but the difficulty in no way lessens the urgency of seeking answers, and simply because the public sense that oversight is essential does not decrease. Added to this is the very real concern that, if oversight cannot be properly implemented, the society is essentially left with a police force unchecked. The potential is utterly unacceptable, but the scenario is not without possibilities. As the following will reveal, civilian oversight may be created as effective and simultaneously not in conflict with the police with whom it interacts.
Oversight Strategy and Reform
For civilian oversight to properly exist and function, two mutually inclusive elements must be in place, and this is a reality confirmed by how the absence of them leads to disruption and virtually nothing in the way of positive results. To begin with, the police management must accept that, if traditional models of police autonomy were once in place, this is emphatically no longer the case. Media alone expands the police presence far beyond any arena in which it may operate removed from public scrutiny, and it is inevitable that scrutiny trigger public response. This is an irrefutable fact of today’s society, and an ignoring of it only fuels public mistrust. Management must comprehend that working with the public in this regard is not a choice, just as it must recognize that acceptance of this reality need not translate into an adversarial situation. The process, in fact, very much relies on police cooperation, which in turn assures some measure of police control still in place.
As noted, there is a consistent element present when the civilian review board is considered and acted upon: police and citizens clash in a conflict over perceptions of authority. As civil rights advocacy groups and community activists are usually the forces initially seeking to establish the CRB, the police then react to protect their own interests, and are often resentful of the perceived intrusion. This typical commencement reinforces how crucial it is that multiple agents become involved in the process, and it is strongly recommended that elected officials, union leaders, community activists, and interested citizens less militant all combine to create the CRB (More, 2008, p. 76). In plain terms, the CRB that is established loosely, or with no agenda beyond inquiring into complaints against the police, is fated to fail. Structure founded on the legal and social components of the community is essential, for in such structure comes degrees of authority enabling actual intervention. The police manager dealing with contact from an angered collective of citizens is likely to dismiss their issues as uninformed; when the contact is supported by the weight of legal structure and the presences of respected individuals and organizations, such disregard is not possible.
Moreover, and importantly, the police management must understand that civilian oversight is in its own interests, as it affords the police the opportunity to educate the public and consequently eliminate unjust complaints and undue mistrust. Since the 19th century, police departments have generally held to an organizational theory antithetical to such a process: the bureaucratic. In this model organization inevitably becomes complex and hierarchical, in that rules and procedures are set in place to determine action apart from individual factors. The problem with such theory, certainly in regard to police management, is that the nature of the bureaucracy is to expand and become more complex, and this emphasizes all the more a rigid adherence to the policies composing the internal structure. There is as well the highly relevant issue of how informal bureaucracy evolves within the formal; in such organizations, individuals of similar belief systems tend to band together, and in the police this too easily generates an excess of “solidarity,” in which the public is viewed negatively (Dantzker, 1999, p. 45). This translates to the “blue line” mentality in which the police perceive that anything protecting their own interests is inherently correct. Perhaps even more importantly, however, the police management functioning under bureaucratic theory is a closed enterprise, one relying on a minimum of external influences in order to maintain its structural integrity.
Given the issues facing the modern police department, and quite apart from the ethical imperative to operate in a manner most effectively serving the public, it would appear that bridging, or open systems, theory of organization is mandated. In this model, the hierarchy of the bureaucracy is not discarded, but it exists to express flexibility as well. This is in fact a group of theories, yet all go to achieving the organization that encourages external input and is receptive to innovation (Dantzker, 1999, p. 28). An open systems model requires a simultaneous maintenance of policy with an awareness of the potentials for change, and it is difficult to conceive of a theory more suited to achieving harmony – and positive results – with civilian oversight. With active participation on the part of the management and the department, in that they openly address the civilian parties as agents requiring all relevant information, an exchange is enabled that does not threaten the department integrity and enhances the relationship with the community.
With such a process underway, the police “ease” their own burden regarding oversight because they are inherently presenting themselves as committed to just response as are the civilians. This is a significant responsibility, but it cannot be overstated how crucial it is for the integrity and maintenance of the department itself. It is in fact ironic that police resistance to civilian oversight, generated by the perceived need to protect the agency, undermines what it seeks to secure because it actually limits police potential. More exactly, the power to correctly interact, if not guide, the CRB lies with the police because they are the agents of concern. Complaints are in fact often misinformed, which generates mistrust of the police and which is a matter the police are capable of correcting. Similarly, the involved department must be wary of converse circumstances, as it happens that civilians will too eagerly “take the side” of the police in disputes (More, 2008, p. 72). In all of this, and promoting necessary strategy, lies the foundation at the heart of the police presence itself; it is the agency entrusted to, not only enforce the law, but understand it and convey that understanding to the public it serves. An open systems theory must certainly encourage such mutually beneficial processes. What also evolves is the further irony that police cooperation with the CRB is nothing more than an extension of the police presence itself. If new organizational theory entails altering departmental policies and structure, it also equates to enhancing the identity and the abilities of the police as they are perceived, and enabled to perform their duties, by the society. When police management adopts the expansive, bridging approach acknowledging the public sector as integral to police work, the oversight itself becomes a natural and unobtrusive component of the process as a whole. Equally importantly, and as police management must comprehend, a disclosing of police policies and practices, in general or in specific cases, by no means translates to a surrender of innate authority; on the contrary, and as validated by episodes of increased public mistrust due to perceptions of deliberate concealment, the unwillingness to disclose generates the suspicion likely to create challenges to authority.
Civilians are not exempt from significant responsibility as well, of course, and two theories or models reveal how oversight may be far more successfully carried out. In the past, and due to extreme cases of perceived abuse, CRBs have inclined to the deterrence theory. In this specificity is central; individual officers are targeted and investigated for specific abuses, the civilians seek to act as jurors, and it is expected that discipline determined as appropriate for the abuse will deter other officers from acting similarly (Lewis, 1999, p. 80). It is hardly surprising that this model usually generates resistance from the police, who feel it to be an unjust “scapegoat” process which is both fueled by a misplaced public desire for retribution and a usurpation of an authority not within the public sphere, the composition of the review board notwithstanding.
Far more effective would seem to be the evaluation theory. Here, it is policy, and not individual, that is questioned, and this has the enormously important effect of not challenging the power of the police (Lewis, 1999, p. 80). Then, the nature of such an approach demands that the civilians involved be educated as to the law, as well as conversant with realities of ;police work within the community. Perhaps even more importantly, the fact that the organization, and not the individual, is the object of investigation reflects a professionalism devoid of emotional agenda. The evaluation model appears to be the “adult” theory, in that the inherent pointlessness of assigning blame to an individual is discarded for the far more important concern for what policy or circumstances enabled the misconduct.
Consequently, and in regard to potentials for effective civilian oversight, a mutually inclusive scenario is dictated. It is as well one exponential in nature. The police management is obligated to accept the modern reality that, whether it prefers it or otherwise, oversight will occur because the public is both more keenly interested in how it operates and better enabled by media to witness this. With this comprehension comes the recognition that its own interests are served by participating in a credible and open manner with review boards, which process also provides it with the opportunity to educate the public overseeing its behaviors. This education in turn likely moves the CRB to appreciate the imperative to look beyond the individual complaint and address the true source of any issue: organizational policy which in some way enables misconduct. By focusing on evaluation and by dismissing retributive ambitions, the civilians then do not threaten the police management; rather, they authentically seek to improve, which must prompt further cooperation from the police. The key is, of course, willingness and honesty in equal measures, and from both sides. These components in place, the civilian oversight may succeed because it promotes the greater reality of its presence and the police presence as being ultimately synonymous in working for the public good.
Significantly linked to civilian oversight is the modern practice of community policing. The connection is obvious; as with oversight, this involves processes in which the public and the police directly interact. Then, and as will be discussed, community policing may well be a positive force in promoting oversight, and in a variety of ways. To begin with, no single definition applies to community policing because the process itself very much relies on the degrees of individual activity, and the extent of the police/community partnership. It is a highly mutable process that may be best described as a collaborative effort between citizens and the police to identify problems of crime and disorder. Beyond this, other elements are inherent to the process: it requires consistent and close ties between the civilians and the officers; committed engagement from the community, both in terms of the active participants and the general population; and its focus is on problem-solving (Miller, Hess, & Orthmann, 2011, p. 4). As is obvious, it is very much about mutual cooperation between law enforcement and civilians.
One link to civilian oversight in this regard may be seen in how community policing inescapably demands from the police a willingness to bring the ordinary person into the realm of preserving order. This alone presents challenges to police management, and perhaps the most significant is that of maintaining the crucial differences in authority between the parties. The civilian may be eager to help and respectful of the police, but this in no way absolves the police from the responsibility of ensuring that individual’s safety as well. Shared ethics and concerns for the well-being of the neighborhood are excellent things, but there remains the reality that police work is often dangerous, and that civilians lack the training and the status legally in place to enable the officer to perform their duties. This relates to a key component, if such cooperation is to be successful; that is, the police organization must expand its hierarchical structure to allow for the less rigid and non-professional presence of the community as an active agent in the work. The very nature of civilian participation in police work translates to a lack of traditional measurement instruments, and the police management must comprehend that each agency of community policing is essentially defined individually and by what function it is intended to serve; effectiveness here may be gauged by levels of satisfaction within the community, direct effects on crime and disorder notwithstanding (Green, Lynch, & Lynch, 2012, p. 294). In plain terms, community policing requires that any traditional structure within the organization be expanded, as well as consistently open to the processes of varying involvement intrinsic to the efforts.
With regard to civilian safety, civilian understanding of boundaries, and general community involvement, the organization must incorporate coaching, which in turn reflects the need for the department to demonstrate flexibility. In essence, community policing virtually demands that police management adopt transformative organizational policies, and this is typically an extended process in itself. When, for example, the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy was devised in 2002, establishing methods involving civilians in patrol duties, the process was monitored and the change demanded within the organization was only effected by a lengthy developmental period (More, 2008, p. 42). This equates, then, to the police as necessarily going beyond a commitment to revising their policies and structures; it demands as well an understanding that a very different, and inherently mutable, practice is to be incorporated. When this is understood, there is the parallel with oversight in terms of the necessity for an open systems, or bridging, approach.
Community policing evolved in the 1980s and 1990s when it was increasingly seen that citizens were alienated from the police, which of course reflects the coeval emphasis on civilian oversight. Varying degrees of success aside, it remains a practice viewed as having enormous potential. Law enforcement analysts have not been silent in criticizing community policing as a minimally palliative and largely rhetorical device, one essentially unable to address the real issues communities face. At the same time, studies reveal positive impacts, and impacts which may be seen as better promoting harmonious oversight policies. For example, it is established that police contact with ordinary citizens is typically of a negative nature; when the police are summoned, plainly, the circumstances are usually unpleasant at best, and this creates conflict between the parties. When the community policing model is in effect, however, the scenarios are open to positive interactions. The police are enabled to view, and call upon, the civilians as partners in resolving difficulties, just as the civilians are less inclined to perceive the police as an intimidating, if necessary, resource. As with open cooperation promoting effective civilian oversight, there is an exponential dimension to community policing, in that the officers more familiar with the neighborhoods and the civilians involved in the practice are more inclined to invest their best capabilities (Alpert, Dunham, & Stroshine, 2005, p. 100). That community policing, existing in its various forms from civilian patrols to exchanges of policy ideas, is a complex effort demanding full participation from all concerned, is inescapable. Nonetheless, it is a movement promising more benefits than any other police/civilian interaction, simply because it brings both elements together to achieve a common good, and this must in turn promote mutual understanding.
Personal Reflection and Conclusion
As I consider the presence of the police in our society, I find myself thinking in terms likely shared by many. That is, I experience a distinct ambiguity in reaction and feeling. On one level, I comprehend and value the police as a vital agency. This is not merely a reflex of appreciation; I believe that most of us could not literally conceive of an absence of the police, as the knowledge that they are there for an emergency is deeply ingrained within us. I further believe that it is irresponsible, if not outright dangerous, to dismiss this sense of protection, as people tend to do when reports of police abuses surface. It is one thing to correctly address the wrongs of any law enforcement agency; it is quite another to disregard the crucial importance of the agency itself, and I am sincere when I affirm my appreciation.
At the same time, and also likely in common with many, I have a visceral mistrust of the police. This is certainly enhanced by modern reports of abuses, but it is as well based on personal experience. I have encountered officers who were considerate and who behaved correctly, but I have also witnessed or interacted with officers clearly antagonistic to the public and seemingly determined to emphasize their authority unduly. This is to me a violation of a trust, even when the behavior does not go beyond arrogance or rudeness. It also indicates to me that, at some point in the past, the society has permitted the police to ignore its primary function of serving the community. We have as a culture glorified violence, and this has translated to glorifying the aggressive, entitled, and arrogant officer who has no real place in our society. Personalities vary, of course, and it is probable that police work will always attract more aggressive individuals, but such attitudes defy the ethics behind the actual service. They also create unsettling distances between the police and the public.
This being the case, I fully support both civilian oversight and community policing, and because I believe that, the more these efforts are made, the lesser opportunity there exists for the police to intentionally or otherwise deviate from their duties. Continued efforts here, and widespread, could in fact reshape police culture and direct it more to its basic foundation of service, just as police resistance to such efforts indicates all the more the need for them. There is as well another element here of great import; namely, oversight and community policing demand from us precisely the levels of involvement civilians are obligated to invest in their society. As recent history has made clear, it is blatantly unrealistic to expect that such powerful agencies may go unchecked and, if the police must better adhere to the values intrinsic to the career, so too must the public participate. The processes will likely be difficult, as police organizations are compelled to abandon existing structures and embrace a public involvement. Conflict, and on multiple levels, is inevitable, just as the most committed civilian has no more right to overstep their authority than does the officer. In the final analysis, however,
it is essential that police managers and law enforcement organizations adapt to incorporate civilian activity, and learn to function in ways always mindful of the “public eye” as upon them.
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Dantzker, M. L. (1999). Police Organization and Management: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow. New York: Elsevier.
Goldsmith, A. J., & Lewis, C. (2000). Civilian Oversight of Policing:Governance, Democracy, and Human Rights. Portland: Hart Publishing.
Green, R. K., Lynch, R. G., & Lynch, S. R. (2012). The Police Manager. Waltham: Elsevier.
Lewis, C. (1999). Complaints Against Police: The Politics of Reform. Annandale: Hawkins Press.
Miller, L. S., Hess, K. M., & Orthmann, C. M. H. (2011). Community Policing: Partnerships for Problem Solving. Belmont: Cengage Learning.
More, H. W. (2008). Current Issues in American Law Enforcement: Controversies and Solutions. Springfield: Charles C. Thomas Publishers.
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