(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.
And while LA might be ahead of the recent push for CRBs, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t faced problems already.
As the novel coronavirus began spreading in California this spring, the COC probed virus transmission in county jails but found little cooperation from Sheriff Alex Villanueva.
Villanueva, a self-described progressive elected on a reformist platform, refused to appear before the COC to discuss health conditions inside the jails, prompting the commission to vote on May 7 to subpoena him to testify.
But Villanueva refused to comply, saying in a May 20 statement the COC lacked the legal authority to subpoena him and that the California Constitution names him as an officer accountable only to voters. The COC then voted to sue the sheriff.
This type of legal snafu is one even the most successful versions of CRBs can fall into.
Perez said Oakland, California, has one of the strongest CRBs in the nation. Established in a 2016 voter referendum, the Oakland Police Commission wields limited power to change department policies and review officer misconduct. And it can unilaterally fire police chiefs for cause, or without cause if the mayor approves.
That vast authority has come under fire in recent months after the commission recommended that former Oakland Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick be terminated without cause.
In an administrative complaint filed in May, Kirkpatrick claimed the board recommended firing her in retaliation for her blowing the whistle on commissioners seeking special treatment from the department.
Oakland Police Commission Chair Regina Jackson said the board had cause to fire the chief, including for backsliding on compliance with 50 federal court-mandated reforms as part of a 17-year-old civil rights settlement. She said the commission would have gone through the “laborious” process of firing the chief for cause had the mayor not concurred with its decision.
“We unanimously as a commission based on our observations and engagement determined she was not going to be the transformational police chief we needed for Oakland so we took that route and the mayor joined us,” Jackson said in a phone interview.
Despite the ongoing legal struggle there’s been success stories in Oakland too.
In March 2018, after five officers shot and killed Joshua Pawlik, a homeless man found sleeping on the ground with a gun in his hand, investigations by multiple police-linked agencies cleared the officers of wrongdoing. But a federal court-appointed monitor overseeing the department’s compliance from that 2003 consent decree reached a different conclusion and recommended the officers face discipline.
By overriding the chief’s decision, the monitor created a disagreement between the department and independent investigators that had cleared the officers of wronging, enabling the commission to review the case and fire the five officers.
Jackson said Pawlik didn’t deserve to die, and the officers that shot him needed to be held accountable.
“There are going to be consequences for certain behaviors, and people will be held responsible,” Jackson said.
Beyond firing officers, Oakland’s CRB has been hailed for progress in other areas as well.
Last year, the commission enacted a new policy that bans officers from asking people if they are on probation or searching them or their property based solely on their probation status.
Rashidah Grinage, a longtime police reform advocate with the Coalition for Police Accountability in Oakland, said the policy has helped address the problem of racial profiling.
“What we know is the racial profiling of drivers is directly related to someone’s status in regard to whether they are on probation or parole,” Grinage said. “We know a disproportionate number of those people are Black or brown.”
The commission also passed a policy requiring officers to justify their actions in writing every time they remove a gun from their holster or point a firearm at someone.
Never finished in their oversight goals, they’ve now set their sites on an overhaul of the department’s use-of-force policy.
“If things never change, there’s no way you can grow, no way you can build that trust with the community,” Jackson said. “The commission is here because things have got to change.”
Barry Donelan, president of the Oakland Police Officers Association, said he supports civilian oversight of law enforcement, but he thinks the commission could benefit from more dialogue with officers.
“I think the police commission should have a better relationship with the officers,” the union leader said.
Jackson replied that she and other commissioners make efforts to engage with the rank and file by going on police ride-alongs and getting feedback from officers during shift-start briefings.
But that relationship needs to flow both ways, and at a time when a community’s police force is strained, experts say trust in CRBs needs to be reaffirmed.
During recent Black Lives Matter protests in LA County, that trust showed signs of eroding.
“Invariably they rubber stamp what LAPD puts before them and they treat people [who make public comments] with disdain,” Paula Minor, an organizer with Black Lives Matter-LA, told Courthouse News about recent efforts to communicate her group’s concerns with the CRB. “It’s a hostile environment for people who talk about change to public policy.”
The LA Police Commission, whose five members are appointed by the mayor, sets the policy of the LAPD. Activists have sued LA claiming commission meetings, which happen Tuesday mornings at police headquarters in downtown LA, are designed to stifle public comment on the activities of one of the nation’s largest police forces.
Jody Armour, law professor at the University of Southern California, said this hasn’t helped build trust in the system.
“I remember thinking how difficult they were making it to engage in the community process,” Armour said.
“This moment is urging us not to settle for incremental reforms because they’ve so spectacularly failed in the past,” he added. “But you’re always going to want some oversight, that’s what democracy is about…You want to make sure people affected by its exercise are in the room.”
Back in Richmond, a few weeks after the mayor announced his support for a CRB, 9th District City Councilman Mike Jones is optimistic about the future of the city’s program.
“I know we need something that’s independent of police; something with subpoena powers so the board has teeth and that the politicians are out of it as much as possible,” he said, expecting as much as 18 months of study and work before the Richmond CRB fully takes shape.
Often found at the frontlines of the city’s recent protests and marches, Jones has seen the protest-linked police brutality, but he was quick to note his experience as a Black man growing up in the area has informed his effort.
“I’ve lived it, not just the past 30 days but the last 40 years,” he said, noting police are often seen as harassers who drop in and make arrests rather than make positive impacts in a community. “[Police] are still holding onto a model that’s come out of the 30s and 60s, we need to evolve with the times.”
So how does Jones envision the future of Richmond’s police force?
“It’s an alliteration,” he said. “From harassment to help — law enforcement to public safety.”