Citizen Oversight Committees


In democratic countries, police must function transparently and remain accountable to the law and not a law into itself. Police activities must be open to scrutiny and subject to oversight by outside bodies. They have to function as a professional group and governed by a code of ethics. Police in a democracy also have to be accessible and responsible to multiple mechanisms. Totalitarian states are called police states because not only the police enjoy unbridled authority but also remain vulnerable to extra-legal pressures and influence. In a liberal democratic regime, police accountability must encompass accountability to an independent judiciary and accountability to responsible executive. Police accountability also encompasses horizontal oversight by other governmental agencies such as, auditor general, service commission and independent statutory civilian bodies such as Ombudsman, national human rights commissions and Citizen Oversight Committees. Since the 1980s, in English-speaking democracies, notably Australian, Britain, Canada and USA, Citizen Oversight mechanisms and police complaint authorities have come to existence. In sum, police lost their monopoly in deciding whether the police officers were treating the citizen’s right. It has also been found that civilian oversight serves a demonstrative political function and is crucial to the legitimacy of the police in multi-ethnic democracies.


Whilst the courts have traditionally been used as the sole means of external control mechanisms, other approaches have arisen. One of the approaches is the use of Citizen’s Oversight Committees. Increasingly Civilian Oversight Boards have gained attention as anadditional approachto addressing the use of excessive force by the police outside law agencies. The scope of work of Citizen OversightBoards has been outlined as involving the public receiving, reviewing and analysing complaints against law agencies. This paper presents the concept of Citizen OversightBoards highlighting their benefits and disadvantages to police agencies and the community as well. It also presents my opinion concerning the setting up of a citizen oversightcommittee. Highlighting the strategies andresponsibilities that such a board should have so as to better address the needs of the community and police officers.

Citizen Oversight Committees

The involvement of civilians in police oversight remains a contentious and divisive issue in police work in the modern day. The concept has been described as a practise whereby external individuals who are not sworn officers evaluate law agencies behaviour. In many democratic economies, Citizen oversight bodies have been set up and they have emerged as one of the lawful and justifiable approach for checking the abuse of police power. The community’s demand for citizen review of law enforcers misconduct has emerged as a result of the perception that the ability of the police to oversee and control officers is inadequate and partial.

Benefits of Civilian Oversight Boards

Citizens oversight boards have been associated with several benefits, both from the community perspective and police officers perspective as well. Supporters of civilian review boards believe that it is impossible for the police to objectively review actions of their colleagues. They emphasize that the police culture demands police officers support each other, even if they know something illegal has occurred. It is assumed that police protect each other and cover up improper or illegal conduct. Citizens believe that this perpetuates abuses and sends a message to brutal officers that their behaviour will be shielded from public scrutiny(Schafer, Buerger, Myers, & Levin, 2012). However, a citizen oversight committee is viewed as a means for changing the police organization and consequently reduces officer misconduct and promotes proper conduct.

Law enforcement administrators have also identified positive outcome from having a civilian review board in place. According to Siegel(2010) these include improving community relations and bettering an agency’s image with the community. The author adds that it enhances an agency’s ability to police itself and improves an agency’s policies and procedures. They also recommend changes in the way a police department conducts its internal investigations into alleged misconduct and suggest ways to improve departments’ policies governing officer behaviour.

If police agencies and citizen oversight committees make a genuine and unrelenting attempt to work jointly, citizen oversight can assist administrators in law enforcement agencies function efficiently. This together with community support and validation is essential if the problem of crime is to be addressed.

Arguments against Civilian Oversight Boards

Opponents of citizen oversight committees emphasize that the public cannot understand the intricacies and convolutions of the police profession. They contend that it is demeaning and belittling to be reviewed and evaluated by external sources. Opponentsfurther contend that whilst theoreticallycitizen oversight boards are effectual and operative in identifying law enforcers misdeed and settling them to the approval of the public, in reality they are ineffective.According to research, they often fail to operate objectively, lack impartiality or specialized agents to conduct essential investigations. Furthermore, the people who volunteer to serve on the board are not representative of the community. In many cases, are “vocal rabble rousers” who wish to impose their values on the community. Opponents of civilian review boards cite such shortcomings as reasons to do without these entities.

Additionally, police maintain it is unfair to allow people who are not involved in police work to judge their actions. This is because only police officers understand the complexities of their job and, in particular, how and when they must use force. They stress that few citizens understand such concepts as “command presence” and “verbal force” so often necessary in high-risk encounters (Miller & More, 2014). Opponents also argue that police should have full responsibility for managing their own conduct just as other professionals such as physicians and lawyers do.

My Opinion and Strategies for Setting up a Citizen Oversight Committee

In view of the arguments put is favour of and against the setting up of a civilian oversight committee, my opinion would be in favour of setting up a Citizen Oversight Committee. However, it would involve striking a balance.

Successful resolution of this issue would require that the concerns of both the community and the police be addressed. The desired outcome would be that even in the presence of a civilian oversight board, the police maintain the ability to perform their duties without the fear that they will be second-guessed, disciplined or sued by people who do not understand the difficulties of their jobs. The key is that successful civilian oversight bodies do more than simply investigate complaints. They should assume a proactive view of their role and actively seek out the underlying causes of police misconduct or problems with the complain process.

To achieve this, it will involve having a civilian review board that comprises of various stakeholders. This will involve including objective and held-in-high-esteem community members and some employees of the police service. The employee of the police service will be a non-sworn person employed by the police department who has some input into or control over the complaint process. The community representatives would be people held with reverence and high regards who would not be distracted by minor inconsequential pressures that may promote discomfort between the law agency and the community.

Responsibility of a Citizen Oversight Committee

The Citizen Oversight Boards will have a myriad of responsibilities that will be all inclusive to remove the perception by the police that the committee is aimed at merely targeting them. The responsibilities, while ensuring that the community needs are met, will also ensure that the ability of police officer to effectively perform their job is maintained. That is, the police officers will not be working in fear that they will be second-guessed, disciplined or sued. That is, they will not perceive the civilian oversight committees as police witch hunting boards.Therefore, the citizen oversight committee will have the following responsibilities:

  1. Responsible for receiving and investigating citizens complaints;
  2. Review complaints investigations conducted by the police department;
  3. Hear appeals of complaints investigations and dispositions made by the police department; and
  4. Audit and monitor the police department’s complaint process.

It is worth noting that whilst citizen oversight committees have an influence on monitoring and influencing law enforcer’s actions, they lack in power because they simply play an advisory role. They lack the ability to subpoenaand lack an investigative arm. Additionally, they cannot rule on police officers punishments  (Sen, 2010). Therefore, in setting a citizen oversight committee, I will ensure that they have the ability to subpoena, they can decide on punishments, and do have an investigative body.


In conclusion, the employment of excessive force by law enforcement agencies officers will continue to be a compound and disconcerting subject that faces many communities and law enforcement agencies, especially police departments across the United States. Making an attempt to provide answers to the problem of use of excessive force by police officers will remain difficult. This concern is  costly and detrimental as cities and police departments face law suits that amass into millions of dollars. Consequently, they are forced to deal with remedies to the problem to satisfy the courts, as well as the public. It is, therefore, imperative that whichever approach proves to be effective in deterring the use of excessive force by police is employed. Notwithstanding the financial costs, provided it creates and maintains respect for individual rights and the rule of law



Miller, L. S., & More, H. W. (2014). Effective Police Supervision (7 ed.). Waltham, MA: Routledge.

Schafer, J. A., Buerger, M. E., Myers, R. W., & Levin, B. H. (2012). The Future of Policing: A Practical Guide for Police Managers and Leaders. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

Sen, S. (2010). Enforcing Police Accountability through Civilian Oversight. Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications.

Siegel, L. (2010). Cengage Advantage Books: Essentials of Criminal Justice (7 ed.). Melmont, California: Cengage Learning.

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