What Do We Know About Police Accountability?

“While many people today are calling for civilian review boards to have more authority, including the power to impose discipline… research has found that civilian boards tend to be more lenient on officers than police executives are.” — Professor Sam Walker

[Note: In the following interview, Chuck Wexler, Executive Director of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) interviews long-time police academic and researcher Professor Sam Walker about civilian review boards and other mechanism to increase police accountability.]

Chuck Wexler: Sam, how long have you been studying police oversight? 

Professor Sam Walker: Over 40 years now. I started out studying criminal justice, and my original area was police-community relations coming out of the legacy of the 1960s. Then I began to focus much more specifically on accountability measures in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. I focused on citizen oversight and citizen review of the police.  

Wexler: What are the models of police oversight? 

Professor Walker: There are two basic models:  

  • The most common is some kind of civilian review board that reviews or investigates individual citizen complaints. They reach a finding and make a recommendation to the chief. Some boards just make a recommendation about the outcome – whether the complaint is sustained, not sustained, or unfounded. Some have the authority to make a recommendation regarding discipline. 
  • The other model is what is referred to variously as a police auditor, a police monitor, or an inspector general. They don’t investigate individual complaints. They have the authority to investigate the policies and practices of a police department, and they can obtain any information they want. They investigate, identify whatever problems exist, and make recommendations in a report that is available to the general public and goes specifically to the chief, the mayor, and city council. It provides the basis for an informed public debate about what needs to be changed and improved in a police department. 

In both models of oversight, they only have the power to recommend.  

Wexler: How effective are civilian review boards? 

Professor Walker:  The more I studied this topic, the more skeptical I became about the effectiveness of civilian review boards. In any type of citizen oversight, the basic standard of evaluation is whether the quality of policing delivered to the public has improved. Are things better than they were? In the long run, what we want is better policing. The question is whether this is the best avenue to get there. 

It turns out that the percentage of reviewed complaints that are sustained in favor of the complainant average around 10%. A very low percentage of citizen complaints are sustained. And in a lot of departments, the chief receives the recommendation of the sustained complaint but does not impose discipline.  

A lot of people today want a review board to have the power to impose discipline. I firmly believe that that is the worst thing we could do, because it takes the power to run the department away from the chief.  

My vision of accountability is to enhance the authority of the chief, and turn the spotlight on the activities of the chief. I think the last thing anybody wants to do is create a situation where some problem comes up and the chief can say, “I can’t deal with that. You took the authority to deal with that away from me and gave it to that other agency. Go talk to them.” You’re really undercutting the authority of the police chief. I want to enhance that authority, while putting the spotlight on the chief. 

Wexler: When citizens advocate for a civilian review board, they often seem to assume that the review board will be tougher than the chief on officer discipline. Why do civilian review boards often end up being more sympathetic towards officers? 

Professor Walker:  That’s correct, that a lot of people think that a civilian review board will be tougher on officers when examining a use-of-force case than internal affairs will be, but we’ve learned over the decades that that isn’t the case. 

One reason for this is that people think all members of the review board will  be just like them. It doesn’t work out that way. The review board needs people who are independent, not closely aligned with either the police department or activist groups. It should have people who are civic-minded, committed to good policing, and have experience in civic affairs. They’re going to look at these things in an independent manner. 

Part of the problem is that board members aren’t as well-versed about the internal workings of police departments. They may not know that an officer may have violated a certain policy or done something else wrong, if it’s not part of the immediate complaint.  

Over the years and decades, we haven’t gotten consistently high sustain rates, meaning that a high percentage of complaints are sustained in favor of the complainant. It just hasn’t happened. That was one of the main things that really turned me around. When I first dove into the subject of civilian review of the police, I was a strong supporter of the idea, but I didn’t know much about the details. The deeper I dug, the more disillusioned I became with this idea.  

Wexler: What about the other concept, police monitors? 

Professor Walker:  The basic idea of a police monitor, or auditor, or inspector general who focuses on policies and procedures is that when you change a department’s policy on something, whether it’s use of force, handling domestic violence incidents, or high-speed pursuits, you’re going to change the behavior of all the officers, and that’s a very positive gain. 

One of the most effective police oversight agencies is the Office of the Independent Monitor (OIM) in Denver. They have responsibility for the police department and the sheriff’s department. Like a civilian review board, the Denver monitor focuses on citizen complaints.  But the monitor’s office isn’t involved in individual cases; they monitor the complaint process. They sit in on the complaint investigations and observe, take notes, and draw conclusions about the process.  

So for example, the Denver OIM helped set strict guidelines on timelines for resolving complaints. The complaint has to be assigned to an investigator within so many days; the investigator has to complete the investigation within so many days or weeks; and the complaint has to be resolved internally within so many weeks. That’s important because if you delay the resolution, it’s unfair to the complainant, and it’s unfair to the officer. Having someone in there to make sure that complaints are being investigated in a timely fashion is a very positive gain.  

Another benefit of monitoring the complaint process is that you get to listen to the questioning. There are many cases across the country where the questioning is unfair. There are hostile questions for the complainant, and softball questions for the police officer. There are cases where the investigators don’t ask the obvious follow-up questions. But if you have this outsider from the OIM noting that, they can then make a public report identifying a problem in the quality of the investigations, and the report goes  to the chief and the public. 

Wexler: What is the role of unions in these oversight processes? 

Professor Walker:  It is true that unions have a lot of power, and they’ve managed to get some things into their contracts that shouldn’t be there. They have privileges that employees in other lines of work don’t enjoy. For example, some unions have a waiting period following a use of force. The officer cannot be interviewed by internal affairs, supervisors, or anybody else for 48 hours. Who else gets that privilege? That’s totally unreasonable. 

But I look at things in terms of opportunities. Where do we have the opportunity to make changes that simply bypass the union’s powers? For example, you could tighten up a department’s policy on high-speed pursuits, which can be very dangerous situations. If the department can change that policy and the union has no power to prevent it, that’s a change that provides greater safety to the public and the officers.  

Wexler: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the outlook for accountability? 

Professor Walker:  I’m guardedly optimistic. Things don’t always work out the way we like, but there has been a real sea change in public attitudes with these demonstrations. They’ve gone on so long and been so widespread nationally. There have been protests in these small towns in Nebraska and Iowa. That says that people who were not really conscious of police problems beforehand are aware of it, upset about it, and want some change. That’s a huge reservoir of public pressure on police departments, city councils, mayors, and state legislatures. And we’ve already seen a lot of change, just in the last two months. 

Wexler: If you were a police chief, what accountability system would you like to have? 

Professor Walker:  I would like to have an auditor. I would like an external group with full authority to poke around and see what we’re doing right and what we’re doing wrong. The auditor would issue a report, and, as the chief, I would have the opportunity to issue a written reply. That would be a civilized dialogue, instead of discussing police problems with shouting matches at city council meetings or demonstrations in front of police headquarters. A civilized, structured dialogue about how serious the problem is and what needs to be done is how you’re going to get progress. 

Wexler: What kind of background should a police auditor have? 

Professor Walker:  Most currently are lawyers. We’re kind of lawyer-crazy in this country. But it could be anybody with investigative experience. They have to be fair, independent-minded without any biases, have the ability to listen, and have the ability to dig, question, and come up with reasonable and fair recommendations. 

Wexler: What should the relationship between the auditor and the chief be like? Adversarial? Collegial? Collaborative? 

Professor Walker:  It has to be collegial. Let’s say an inspector general stumbles across something that’s serious and immediate. There’s nothing wrong with the inspector general meeting with the police chief to lay out the problem. But it doesn’t stop there. A full investigation would be conducted and a public report would be issued. This sunlight is an important part of democracy, to find out how our government agencies are working, and if they’re doing the best they can possibly do.