(CN) — In the wake of the death of George Floyd during an arrest on Memorial Day, Americans took to the streets nationwide demanding police reforms. While those demands vary from city to city, one of the most common is a call for the creation of community-led oversight for police.
In a late June City Council meeting in Richmond, Virginia — called after weeks of nightly protests, often with police shooting tear gas and pepper spraying demonstrators — Mayor Levar Stoney added his city to the list of those seeking a civilian police review board.
“Richmond is ready for a new approach to public safety,” said the 39-year-old Black mayor, who faced the brunt of criticism for the police’s brutal response. He then asked the council to create a citizen-led body “charged with reviewing complaints and making recommendations following police department investigations.”
What Stoney put in motion will be no easy task. While civilian boards have existed since the early 1990s, they are by nature a reaction to something bad happening in the community — officer-involved shootings, protests gone wrong and the like.
“Communities recognize it's not a matter of if, but when there’s a major event,” said Liana Perez, director of operations for the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, or NACOLE.
Perez’s nonprofit group helps communities with resources to create civilian review boards, or CRBs, and she admits it's been a busy month between protests and the broader conversation of police brutality. While she said CRBs can help develop trust between citizens and police, certain qualities must be maintained.
“[CRBs] need to include something that requires the law enforcement agency to cooperate with them,” she said. “If it's not written into the document then there’s no reason for the agency to participate.”
This can often be the first huge obstacle blocking an oversight board’s path, and it's something Sarah Burke and others ran into while they spent a year helping to develop a CRB for the city of Charlottesville, Virginia.
“It was clear we had to look under the hood on how the process works, but how is the data collected and what might be missing that affects the way that data is interpreted,” Burke said, adding the city requested the creation of a CRB after years of claims of race-based mistreatment.
The Charlottesville effort was further energized in the wake of the Unite the Right rally in August 2017 that saw white nationalists and neo-Nazis descend on the small college town, leaving one counterprotester, Heather Heyer, dead.
That first year, Burke and the fellow members of the CRB creation team learned a lot by not learning much — state law does not require police to respond to her data requests and they were often ignored.
But ironically, the creation committee did find out one interesting bit of information: the police department had spent taxpayer money on new data collection software but refused to turn over the data it was collecting.
“Why spend millions on software that can’t make the reports that are needed?” Burke said.
The issues she’s running into stem from state laws, and those can change and improve to make the systems better. And while Burke said her fledgling CRB development crew lacked subpoena power to enforce data requests, other places like Los Angeles County have taken steps to specifically address that need.
In March, more than 70% of LA County voters approved Measure R, which grants such power to the county’s Civilian Oversight Commission, or COC.
LA County Sheriff’s Department policies, and their impact on the county’s 10 million residents, fall under the purview of the COC, which was created in 2016 by action of county supervisors, who also appoint its nine members.