The Ombudsman: A Way Forward For Your City?

ImageThere seems to be a growing amount of urban conflict today between police and community members. It can predictably happen after a police shooting. When a suspect dies in police custody or an unarmed man is shot and killed by police. The scenario is usually unfolds like this: a man dies and the community questions the actions by police. There is an investigation by both the police and the district attorney. After a period of time, the police are absolved of both criminal conduct or the violation of police department rules. Some members of the community strongly criticize these findings — it has taken too long, the police are left to investigate themselves, and so on. The result is that trust of the police is undermined and the police are left feeling the community does not support them in their difficult work. In the end, little is resolved and hard lasting feelings continue on both “sides” of the argument.

What to do? Is there another way to handle conflicts like this? In the past, these conflicts have often resulted in the formation of citizen review boards by mayors and city councils, but after all the years their track record is questionable as to their ability to resolved the conflict. It was recently revealed that the civilian review board in Charlotte, NC, had, in 16 years of operation, never  made a finding against police. That seems to be the pattern of a citizen review board. And when a board fails (ever) to find against police, they further anger community members who feel the cards are stacked against them when they complain against police.

Is there a way out of this morass of community conflict? I have struggled back and forth over the years about this dilemma. How are citizens to be given fair and equitable treatment in such circumstances? Interestingly, the city in which I was the police chief for over two decades before I retired is currently experiencing this kind of conflict regarding the shooting of an unarmed, intoxicated young man. Both the district attorney and police internal investigators have exonerated the officer and this has resulted in growing anger from many community members who believe the taking of the man’s life was unreasonable, if not immoral, given the situation. (See an earlier blog on this).

The other day, I was thinking about an idea concerning public accountability that I had studied during my university days. It was t0 appoint a community advocate to work through problems such as these. The idea originally came from Sweden. The person was called an “ombudsman” and he or she was to be a respected, independent,  “wise” person to hear and resolve complaints from citizens against those in power.

The first public sector ombudsman was appointed in 1809 in Sweden to be an arbiter between the King and Parliament. The position was to protect the rights of individuals against the excesses of bureaucracy. In effect, a public official appointed by the legislature to receive and investigate citizen complaints against the acts of government.

In 1967, our country appointed its first public sector ombudsman. And since that time, a number of states, counties and municipalities have followed suit. (Examples).

The typical duties of an ombudsman are to investigate complaints and attempt to resolve them. This is usually done by making recommendations, whether binding or not, and through mediation. Ombudsmen often also aim to identify system problems that have led to poor service or breaches of civil rights.

Obviously, to make this idea work effectively, the ombudsman must be a person of great integrity, strength, wisdom, longevity in office, and be outside partisan political squabbles, and be closely in tune with and connected to the community served.

Find out more about ombudsmen at the website of the International Ombudsman Association. The website of the United States Ombudsman Association can be found here. The model they endorse is a legally-created ombudsman, with a term of office, full investigative powers, and access to records.

For a city example see the office of the ombudsman in Boise, Idaho and the police ombudsman in Spokane.

I am not saying that the ombudsman concept is the only way to go but rather that it is something cities should strongly consider in lieu of going to a more traditional civilian review board.

Good luck, good policing, justice, and accountability!




  1. Chief
    I suspect that those same individuals that are unhappy with the resulting investigation would be most happy with those same investigators (the Rat Squad, the DA) should the result be the copper was wrong.

    Most of those unhappy with the results of the investigation are unhappy with the cops to begin with, thus they won’t be satisfied with anything less than the cop’s head.

    Not sure how to fix this as it’s been a significant and continuing problem in most cities for many years. Your city, Madison, has always seemed to be unique in this area, and for that kudos to you.

    Is an ombudsman the answer, maybe. Certainly better than CRBs, but fraught with the same problems I think.


    1. “I suspect that those same individuals that are unhappy with the resulting investigation would be most happy with those same investigators (the Rat Squad, the DA) should the result be the copper was wrong.”

      Ugh. More “groupthink”. Mr Rush, that often sited argument is old now and just like before, it simply isn’t true.

      1.) Most of us are demanding an investigation for the Heenan case that is free from the many, currently existing, blatant conflicts of interest. The reason is obvious.
      2.) Most of us agree that individual feelings about police integrity are irrelevant in the argument of why the system for investigating police-related death should be as free as possible from conflicts of interest. Now, I didn’t write “perfect” but, “as possible”. We are lightyears away from “as possible”.

      My guess is, if you shot someone in self defense you would take issue if the lead detective collecting evidence was the victim’s friend or “brother”. And if that lead detective were smart and honest, they’d pass on the investigation with the understanding that they are human and too close to appear unbiased and perhaps too caring and loyal to remain objective.

      and you wrote…
      “Most of those unhappy with the results of the investigation are unhappy with the cops to begin with, thus they won’t be satisfied with anything less than the cop’s head.”

      What is your goal in making these statements? Again, inaccurate. We aren’t the “boogieman” on a “witch hunt”. Many of us like and love cops on and off of the force. I’ve had very positive experiences my whole life with MPD police and I continue to shake the their hands when I see them and they shake mine because most of them know we just aren’t the zealots you wish we were. Please stop the sensationalism. It’s old and it’s terrible for everyone.

      Please list problems with the different methods of impartial review? That would be helpful. We can’t possibly throw one method out for failing as a practice in one city.

      The Chief in Knoxville TN likes his version.

      David, An ombudsman sounds like a interesting idea as do civilian review boards. Love the collaboration efforts that are going on in some forums including this one. I am grateful for the people who have stepped out of the ring, down to earth and are putting forth efforts to bring people together around a justice we can all recognize.

      A good friend forwarded this to me.


      1. The Spokane link is worth reading. It is an example of a city ombudsman in action — going against the grain here and looking out for citizens as well as police. As to our city, I am hoping this can be a learning experience for all and move city leaders to implement a more acceptable review process such as exists in Knoxville or Spokane. Now it the time for action.


      2. I, too, would love to see an impartial review of this case but probably for different reasons than Ms. Maurer. I want to see it laid to rest and get Steve either back to work or an a different path in life. He should get his chance to have his day in the public court. If Steve isn’t going to go back to work in Madison, let him move on with his life doing something else. This limbo must be awful.

        I am sincerely saddened by the death of Paul Heenan. Everyone wishes it had never happened, but it did. Paul shared responsibility in what happened. But to keep painting Steve as the worst person alive is wrong and to continue to do so is old and it’s terrible for everyone.


      3. There is enough grief and sadness here to go around for everyone. This is a tragedy and something we all wish could have been somehow avoided. But that’s in retrospect. The question now is how can this kind of shootings be prevented in the future so that both police officers and citizens do not have to go through situations like this one.


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