Police officers who engage in misconduct must be held accountable, but by whom? In most places throughout New York, investigations into police misconduct and final decisions regarding discipline are internal police matters. In short, police departments police themselves.
What are CRBs?
A citizen review board – sometimes called a civilian review board, oversight review board, or community police review board – is a municipal body composed of citizen representatives charged with the investigation of complaints by members of the public concerning misconduct by police officers. These bodies may be independent agencies or part of a law enforcement agency.
Current Types of CRBs
Though exact functions vary, the most common models for CRBs are:
Investigation-Focused: Generally independent from the police department. Receives complaints of police misconduct from the public and investigates the complaints. Often has full-time paid staff.
Review-Focused: Police internally investigate complaints of misconduct and the oversight agency reviews the quality of the police-run investigations. Often staffed by volunteers.
Auditor/Monitor-Focused: Monitors the internal complaint investigations process, conducts evaluations of police training and codes of conduct, and ensures effective public reporting. Often has full-time paid staff.
What Holding Police Accountable Requires
In order to effectively hold police accountable, CRBs or other models of police accountability must include:
- Subpoena power: The ability to compel a witness to appear at a sworn proceeding
- Disciplinary power: The ability to set conditions or consequences in response to behavior
- Independent body: The body is independent of the police department and has safeguards against political interference
- Secure budget: Resources for effective implementation that are protected from political influence (i.e., funds should come from police budget not City Council budget).
- Ability to change policy: The body has authority to change internal rules, protocols and operations for the police agency
- Public discipline matrix for police: Allows the public to see expectations of police conduct and consequences when expectations are not met
Clear, trusted, and accessible mechanism for filing complaints: A process for receiving complaints that is understandable, easy, centers the experience and needs of the complainant, and protects them from retaliation by the police
Questions to Ask When Trying to Create a CRB
KNOW THE AREA
- Are you looking for a CRB to cover county, city, or other locality?
- Which law enforcement agency are you trying to impact?
KNOW THE REALITY
- What is the current process for filing a police complaint?
- Is there access to information/data on complaints received?
- What do law enforcement agency contracts dictate with regards to discipline and accountability?
KNOW THE AUTHORITY
- Is police discipline in your locality governed by the state Taylor Law and collective bargaining requirements?
- Was there a law already governing police discipline in your locality prior to 1967? If so, then it is not subject to police union collective bargaining.
- In your city/town/village charter- who has the authority to discipline?
- Can that power be transferred? To whom?
KNOW THE ROADBLOCKS
- Are there local/state laws that will inhibit implementation?
- Who will oppose creation of a CRB and how will you diffuse opposition?
- Is there a path for the board to be sufficiently funded?
Barriers to Effective CRBs
CRBs can provide a level of independent oversight when it comes to police misconduct and discipline, but to be effective, they must overcome a number of political and legal barriers. Below are some of the common barriers to establishing an effective CRB and proposed solutions.
Lack of Independence
Barrier: To function effectively, CRBs must be structurally independent from police departments they oversee.
Solution: CRBs must have full funding and independent staffing, including their own investigators.
Barrier: The composition of CRB leadership should reflect the communities, not police departments.
Solution: The selection of board members should involve community participation, and current or former law enforcement should be prohibited from serving on the CRB.
Little Investigative Authority
Barrier: Many CRBs are set up only to review and assess the sufficiency of completed police department internal investigations.
Solution: Instead, CRBs should explicitly have initial jurisdiction over allegations of misconduct, and CRB investigators should be the ones doing the investigation.
Barrier: Even with their own investigative staff, CRBs can still face resistance from uncooperative police departments who may refuse to provide access to crucial evidence or witnesses.
Solution: CRBs must have subpoena power in order to ensure that their investigators are able to do their jobs effectively.
Lack of Community Trust
Barrier: CRBs can only be effective when they are known and trusted by the public.
Solution: CRBs should commit to transparency through regular, detailed reporting to the public, including information on types of cases, decision making standards, penalties they pursue, and reporting on investigation outcomes.
Solution: Public, searchable databases of all investigated allegations, including officer information, allegation details, and investigative and disciplinary outcomes.
Lack of Final Disciplinary Authority
Barrier: Even with fully independent investigatory authority, most CRBs only make recommendations to the police department, which has final authority to accept, modify, or reject the board’s finding.
Barrier: Some laws, like N.Y. Unconsolidated Law § 891, limit whether police disciplinary hearings can be held before independent adjudicators like CRBs, and some police union contracts include provisions that relate to officer discipline issues
Solution: Laws like § 891 should be repealed, and there is a bill at the state level – S.268 – that would do just that.
Solution: The state legislature should also pass legislation to clarify that CRBs have the lawful authority to decide final disciplinary outcomes in police misconduct cases.
CRBs are a common approach toward reducing the harms individual officers commit. But there are other important steps that must be taken to transform policing.
Invest in communities. Defund the police and invest funds in services that meet the needs of underserved communities and promote community safety and well-being at its roots. This includes fully investing in – among other things – free education, free or at least affordable physical and mental health care, affordable housing, infrastructure and public transportation, youth programs, elder services, and assistance for disabled people.
Limit contact with police. A key way to reduce police violence and racism perpetuated against Black and Brown communities is to reduce contact between the public and police. To do that, we must shrink the size and power of the police force and re-assign responsibilities for social interventions away from police. Instead, we need non-law enforcement first responders with training and expertise, not officers with guns. We must be intentional about not recreating the system of policing in other sectors.
Demilitarize the police and end mass surveillance. We must ban the use of military-grade armaments that police use to terrorize communities, including tear gas, pepper spray bullets, long-range acoustic devices, grenade launchers, mine-resistant tanks, and bayonets. We must end state and federal grant programs that provide this equipment. Police must also stop using surveillance devices and programs to intimidate and violate the privacy of Black and Brown communities.
Put Black and Brown communities in charge. Black and Brown communities looking to defund the police and invest in their communities must be in equal partnership with the government in figuring out what services should be invested in. They should also be the leading voice when deciding what public safety models will work best.
For questions, contact your local NYCLU chapter.