The e-newsletter of the COPS Office | Volume 3 | Issue 1 | January 2010

The Changing Mission of Police Monitoring

Monitoring charts Independent monitoring furthers community oriented policing by making the successes and failures of the police in policing themselves open and comprehensible. Monitoring promotes accountability and transparency, and helps restore frayed relationships between communities and the police by helping to rebuild mutual trust and respect. Monitoring increases the sophistication of the public and the press in evaluating how the police deal with the rare situations of police misconduct, be it dishonesty, corruption, racially biased policing, or brutality. Yet the contemporary understanding of the relationship of monitoring to the success of community oriented policing has only emerged recently.

A Brief History in Police Monitoring

The answer to who is best suited to monitor the police and what monitoring should accomplish has differed depending upon the perceived problems in each era. In the 19th and early 20th century, the predominant issue was corruption. Vice cops were paid to look the other way. Some mayors and political bosses treated police jobs as political patronage, requiring the police to raise money for their political campaigns and provide protection to their cronies. Elsewhere, police suppression of labor strikes led to claims of police brutality, a term first used in The New York Times in 1893. In the first wave of police reform, police commissions were formed to diffuse power over the police and provide civilian oversight. In New York, the mayor, the chief of police (civilianized and renamed commissioner), and a city judge constituted the members of the first New York City Police Commission. Graft and corruption was nonetheless not eliminated, and Prohibition only made matters worse.

Out of this came a second wave of police reform and a new model for police monitoring. The Progressive movement was distrustful of politicians and electoral politics, viewing each as largely corrupt. Progressives argued that oversight of the police should rest in commissions of good citizens (bankers, merchants, civic-minded lawyers) who would serve part time, usually without pay, to oversee the police on a nonpartisan, politically independent basis. In order to take policing out of politics, the power to hire and fire the chief was given in whole or in part to citizens serving on police commissions. Progressives also advocated for giving the chief civil service protection as an additional shield against political pressure.

The model never quite performed as the Progressives had hoped. Because the commissioners were appointed by mayors and served at their pleasure, partisan political considerations were never eliminated. The good citizens on these commissions generally lacked expertise in police affairs and, as part-timers, did not have the time to acquire it. And by midcentury, the independence resulting from civil service protection led in turn to certain police chiefs who became formidable powers in their own right—insulated and, in practice, accountable to no one, including mayors or police commissions.

As civil rights were fought for and won in the 1950s and ’60s, police repression in the South exposed the nation to grim images of snarling police dogs and water cannons used against civil rights marchers. Communities of color in other parts of the country at times perceived the police as an occupying army unwilling to protect and serve them, vulnerable as they were to crime. Violent images of police battling antiwar protesters filled television screens. Trust in the police gave way in some quarters to cynicism and hostility, giving rise to calls for empowering communities of color by placing the police under scrutiny by civilian review boards with substantial minority membership. Advocates argued that law enforcement agencies rarely conducted thorough and fair investigations of citizens’ complaints or undertook substantial internal reform on their own. Minority communities wanted the same influence over police priorities and enforcement as the majority community had seemingly always enjoyed.

The creation of civilian review boards opened internal police investigations to limited and controlled scrutiny by outsiders. Yet these boards rarely were authorized to do more than look at the file of a completed investigation and make nonbinding recommendations. Lack of expertise in police tactics, strategy, and policy prevented many review boards from getting on an equal footing with the police, with the result that boards agreed with the police department a very high percentage of the time. Additionally, many review boards have been starved for resources and lack adequate staff, leading to a large backlog of unresolved cases.

In 1991, the Rodney King beating aroused a wider community, and police reform was no longer principally the province of communities of color and civil libertarians. Grievances against the police and calls for reform became mainstream and legitimatized, as exemplified by Warren Christopher and his commission investigating the LAPD. The work of the Christopher Commission and legislation authorizing the Department of Justice to seek to enjoin patterns of police misconduct, along with news and editorials about police failings in Los Angeles, New York, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, led to increasing demands for accountability.

The Debate

In the last 15 years, the need for police monitoring has focused on a perception held by some that the police lack the objectivity and distance to meaningfully police themselves. There is a lively debate whether internal affairs should be replaced with outside professional investigators working for independent boards empowered to adjudicate and impose discipline, with or without the concurrence of the police chief. Those favoring replacement argue that self-policing will unavoidably produce a biased result; that even good police investigators cannot resist the pressures that come to bear on internal investigations of an officer-involved shooting, an in-custody death, or a serious use of force on the street.

In contrast, other police reformers see internal affairs and external monitoring as complementary, arguing that the power to adjudicate wrongdoing and impose discipline belongs in the first instance to the police. Without responsibility to adjudicate wrongdoing and impose discipline, these reformers argue, senior police executives will not be held personally accountable for dealing with police misconduct, and will simply blame the external board for its decisions.

In recent years, a few jurisdictions have responded to this debate by empowering civilians from outside the police to oversee and direct police internal affairs investigations. Seattle, for example, has chosen to bring in a civilian lawyer to head Internal Affairs. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors created the Office of Independent Review in 2001. This group of six lawyers is empowered to pass upon internal affairs investigations in the Sheriff's Department (LASD).

What unites the Seattle and LASD models is the common responsibility to assure that internal police investigations are complete, fair, and analytical and that discipline, if appropriate, is properly reflective of the department's policies and goals. In this sense, they resemble supercharged, super-qualified citizen review boards with the resources, staff, and clout to deal on an equal footing with police executives. They are not, however, a complete answer. While these models improve selected internal affairs investigations, they may not identify and solve systemic problems or assist the police in managing the risk of police misconduct in general. In contrast to other models, independent monitors are more focused on systemic change than on resolution of specific cases.

The Value of Independent Monitoring

Monitoring enables independent, impartial individuals, usually lawyers teamed with current or former chiefs of police, to conduct a wide-ranging agency review, and then report frankly to the public about the fairness, thoroughness, and integrity of internal police processes for self-examination, self-investigation, and self-regulation. Monitors work cooperatively with Internal Affairs. Monitors are guaranteed unfettered access to all persons, documents, and records relevant to their investigations.

Monitors report to municipal authority—usually a mayor, manager of safety, or legislative body—and issue public reports concerning the progress of the police department in managing the risk of police misconduct and serious police tactical and strategic errors. Monitors work with the police department to develop baseline data to measure trends. They also may have input in the creation of a tracking system to capture data on officer performance across a broad spectrum, including use of force, shootings, litigation, and disciplinary decisions, as well as to track judgments and settlements against the jurisdiction because of police misconduct. Monitoring helps focus management on policy formulation and to responsibly anticipate and manage liability risk. More important, monitoring professionals are accountable to the public at large to provide a thorough and fair appraisal of law enforcement, and to make the heretofore mystery-shrouded, internal processes of the police more transparent and comprehensible.

Consistent with the mission of community oriented policing, police monitoring in the early years of the 21st century has emphasized problem solving and pragmatic ways to deal with the risks inherent in police work. External and internal oversight can and should be complementary and mutually reinforcing rather than confrontational and mistrustful.

We predict that in the next few years, the police will move away from imposition of discipline as a cure-all for substandard performance by officers. Monitors will evaluate the balance struck between situations legitimately requiring discipline and those where nondisciplinary solutions are better. We further predict that independent police monitoring will become a full-fledged profession serving cities large and small under the umbrella of community oriented policing.

Note: This article focuses on Independent Monitors who report to local authorities and not Independent Monitors selected pursuant to 42 USC 14141.

Back to top | Printer Friendly Version