Citizen’s Review Boards: Who Sits In Judgment?

Editor’s Note:  We encourage you to read Part 1 and Part 3 in this series of articles.  Photo Courtesy:  City of Oakland, Citizen Review Board.

When California physicians are judged concerning alleged violations of their ethical code, they answer to the California Medical Board.  According to their official website, that board primarily consists of physicians and attorneys, and their role is to license and discipline medical doctors.  They are judged primarily experts in their own profession.

When California lawyers are judged concerning alleged violations of their ethical code, they face their own State Bar of California, and subsequently may appear before a State Bar Court.   This process is a pure in house operation, no outside assistance necessary.  Lawyers judge their own exclusively.

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When law enforcement officers are judged concerning alleged violations of their ethical code, their judges are selected as walk on “volunteers”, required to possess little or no expertise of the profession, sensitive to the political environment and guided by the philosophical doctrine of an organized core of ideological purists, the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE).

Who are these people who sit on civilian review boards and work under the philosophical stimulation of the NACOLE leadership?  And what motivates them to feel compelled, and more interestingly sufficiently skilled to preside over the professional decisions and strategic operational practices of an established profession in which they have neither made decisions or engaged in strategic operational practices under equivalent conditions?

During the course of researching this topic, it was interesting to note that most review boards spent considerable effort producing web pages that highlighted mission statements, emphasized law enforcement misconduct, and provided a streamlined path to the complaint process.  But several were lacking in transparency when it came to identifying those who were empowered to judge the transparency of law enforcement professionals, as show by Miami and Dallas.  Significant research was required to both identify review board members and review background information.

Here is a sampling of the folks who are out there judging the thoughts, decisions and actions of law enforcement officers.

San Diego (CA) cops are evaluated by an business oriented academic, who is also a NACOLE trained executive director and described as an “expert in the field of police oversight.”  Her 23 member board has experience in technology, education, real estate, medicine, and arbitration.  Las Vegas (NV) law enforcement professionals are subject to the thought processes of attorneys, business owners, gaming industry executives, marketing experts, political bureaucrats, private security, and real estate interests.  Pittsburgh’s (PA) thirteen member board is stocked with business owners, academics, artists, activists, colleges students, pastors, and financial counselors.  One board member, a public safety employee, spoke of “seeing and hearing countless incidents (among police officers) of rumor spreading, criminal activities, cutthroat activities, hatred, and tension due to race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender.”  Minneapolis (MN), which can only be described as oversight schizophrenia for the number of and changes to committees, includes human resources specialists, a public defender, a claims adjuster, and an Ivy League educator.  A well traveled community activist heads the Atlanta (GA) group.  Members include criminal defense attorneys, public defenders, personal injury attorneys, bankers, business entrepreneurs, communications geeks, and a retired command level law enforcement officer.  One member hailed from The Cochran Firm Atlanta (as in O.J. Simpson).  Several had previous experience working for civilian review boards in other parts of the United States.

Portland (OR) employs the overkill principle with two committees of 13 and 25 members.  Most are millennial and have advanced degrees from several private upscale academic institutions, giving their round table website photos a distinct preppie, alternative reality aura.  Political science and liberal arts majors are prominent.  Attorneys, social organizers, teachers, community activists dominate, including the executive director of something called “BITCH Media,” a term certain to cause an internal investigation if spoken by a law enforcement officer or used as a descriptor on a business card for an off duty job.

St. Louis (MO) governs cops with a nurse, human services employees, business owners, and attorneys.  Cincinnati (OH) uses attorneys, activists, and a probation officer.  Long Beach (CA) evaluates their cops through the filters of a public defender’s investigator, an educator, community activists, a political field rep, and a college administrator.  And finally, Houston (TX) relies on the law enforcement assessment of attorneys who specialize in lawsuits, corporate law, marketing, white collar criminal defense, and bankruptcy.  Also included are academics, business entrepreneurs, and motivational trainers.

And what of training?  Since virtually no one comes to the business of instructing police how to do it better brings any practical subject matter experience, it could be assumed that all citizen review groups are aware that everyone would benefit from greater exposure to the variables of their enormous task.  Of the 27 committees researched, only two had revealed any interest in awareness training.  Tampa (FL) sent their members to the department’s citizen’s academy and a nine hour patrol car ride.  Boston (MA) creates law enforcement experts with one day of discussion and one day of internal affairs familiarity.

And in Atlanta (GA), policymakers apparently decided to forgo any training relevant to actual policing and instead fed their volunteer experts additional guidance on law enforcement transgressions, including abusive language, false imprisonment, harassment, use of excessive force, serious bodily injury, and death by Atlanta cops.

Could it be that over time and with media saturation, the public has come to believe that the work that constitutes enforcing the law is so uncomplicated that anyone can master it theoretically, and perform it flawlessly by simple review?

In a 2007 interview with Full Disclosure Network’s Leslie Dutton, attorney and law enforcement critic Merrick Bobb flatly declared:  “If I understand how the police officer feels, how the police officer thinks, if I evaluate all the risks, if I’m looking at the safest way for this officer to perform his or her job, what does it matter whether I could go to the range and hit the target.  I don’t think that matters.”

To Merrick Bobb and the rest of the smartest guys in the room, and especially to those volunteers who honestly believe they can simply absorb the raw, unscripted authenticity that comes with law enforcement reality, hell yes it matters.

But the field of “cop watching” has exploded into a highly lucrative enterprise for the leadership component, and access into the world of political power, beneficial friendships, and influential contacts.  And there is no better place to practice all three than the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE).


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