What are Civilian Oversight Boards?
Civilian oversight boards, or COBs, are bodies of primarily non-police community members who oversee a variety of operations related to policing. These boards compare closely to school boards – a group of elected community members overseeing a public service that tax money pays for.
The earliest forms of COBs began in the the 1880’s when cities started began implementing police commissions to reduce the political influence in how police operated. Modern forms of oversight continued to evolve from the 1920’s until now.
In 2016, the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE) published a report that examined the 144 oversight boards across the United States. They identified three main types– review, investigative, and auditor/monitor boards.
Review boards focus on reviewing civilian complaints, internal investigations of law enforcement, and police policies. Ultimately, review boards offer suggestions to police executives like chiefs and sheriffs, but they do not have any power to force change if the suggestion is rejected.
Investigative boards are similar to review boards, but instead of merely reviewing complaints or reports, they are able to conduct their own investigations – ultimately serving as factfinders. Sometimes, investigation-focused board members replace internal affairs and are able to respond to critical incident scenes, such as instances of fatal use of force.
More recent forms of oversight have taken the form of auditor/monitor boards. These boards often receive complaints from the community; however, instead of addressing each concern individually, they are tasked with identifying common themes, where changes can be made on a systematic level, and what patterns they may see in the complaint investigation process. Ultimately, these powers allow auditor/monitor focused boards to determine the integrity of the complaint process as a whole.
While there are three general types of boards, many boards function as hybrid models that have a variety of goals.
Which Type of Oversight is Best?
Given that COBs aren’t new concepts, there are some best practices that are more influential in bringing about policing reforms. Because boards vary widely across the country, choosing one type isn’t necessarily the best way to build the most effective oversight board. However, identifying the goals and powers of the oversight board will result in the best working model.
One of the clearest indicators of a healthy COB is whether that board is independent from law enforcement. Boards that do not have police serving on them ensure that community members see the board as unbiased and willing to review complaints in the best interest of the public. While police may serve as an advisor to the board, power should be placed with non-police members.
Another imperative component of COBs is the ability to access records. This access should include all internal affairs documents, public complaints, body and dash camera footage, and policy manuals. Records are critical in obtaining transparency and accountability to the public and COBs.
Oversight boards must also hold themselves accountable to the community through outreach efforts. COBs should publish reports that are easily accessible and host public meetings to gather input from residents and report their findings. In the same regard, COBs must have financial and staff resources to have the capability to host public events and publish reports.
While choosing only one type of model may not be the best way to choose which oversight board is right for counties in Wyoming, auditor boards are more successful in having reforms implemented than other types of boards. NACOLE polled COBs across the county and found that 72% of auditor boards reported that the law enforcement agencies they worked with had implemented changes based on their suggestions. Only 42% and 34% of investigative and review boards, respectively, reported seeing police implementing their suggestions.
How We Make it Happen
Implementing an oversight board with the kind of power and resources necessary to invoke meaningful police reforms is going to require that Albany County takes its fight statewide.
But that doesn’t mean we are just packing our bags and heading to Cheyenne to get what we need done across the state. ACoPP is going to work to create our own oversight board here in this community, whether county or city officials want it or not.
While we press forward for statewide law changes to pave our path to civilian oversight, we are going to build the type of board we are calling for and use transparency and accountability to our advantage. We might not have legislative authority or subpoena power, but we do have the court of public opinion on our side.
Since Robbie Ramirez was killed 10 months ago, we have been looking for ways to ensure that our community doesn’t have to suffer another loss to police use of force.
We’ve found a way to help reduce that chance, but it’s going to take many more people like you to help us win this marathon.
Will you join us?