Establishing Public Committees to Police the Police
Updated: Jun 17
The United States is currently experiencing widespread civil unrest due to its citizens no longer tolerating the nation’s culture of police brutality. As weeks of sustained peaceful protests have emerged in reaction to the murder of George Floyd, the national dialogue has turned to how we can end police brutality and tolerance for it in our justice system. One of the ways I believe we can end police brutality is by “policing the police,” with local, state, and national civilian law enforcement oversight committees.
The purpose of this article is to help convert the energy and organization peaceful protesters have displayed on America’s streets into lasting change by establishing the public as the permanent overseer of law enforcement. The police police the public, so the public should oversee the police. I recommend this public oversight role be manifest in a committee whose voting members are directly elected by the public. These oversight committees would—at minimum, perform the following core duties:
Lobby legislators for anti-police brutality legislation
Track police reports and complaints to monitor law enforcement conduct
Recommend personnel actions and develop policy changes
Serve as a liaison for constituent feedback about law enforcement conduct
Regularly update municipal leaders on the status of law enforcement conduct
Of course, the oversight committees would perform other oversight duties as deemed necessary by their constituents. There are additional powers that oversight committees have been granted in various municipalities, like the authority to conduct investigations into police misbehavior.
By performing their core duties, oversight committees will create cultures of public accountability within the law enforcement entities of their jurisdiction. Municipalities whose committees instill this culture will spread that culture to adjoining municipalities. With enough municipalities instilling this culture, eventually a whole state will adopt a culture of public oversight committees. And once enough states adopt this culture, it will spread throughout America.
Resources for forming an Oversight Committee
Public oversight committees are unknown to most people in the United States. For those unfamiliar with the practice of law enforcement oversight the task can seem daunting. Fortunately, two organizations have already put in a great deal of work to make public oversight of law enforcement a reality:
The National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE) is a non-profit that “brings together individuals and agencies working to establish or improve oversight of police officers in the United States.” NACOLE provides ample training, resources, and a membership structure that can help stakeholders organize themselves into local, state, and federal oversight committees. NACOLE’s website also has a “frequently asked questions” (FAQ) page that answers many questions interested parties might have about law enforcement oversight.
The Police Use of Force Project (in this article, shortened to PUFP) has prepared excellent model legislation (PDF document link) for local municipalities that regulates the documentation of, when, and how police use force. PUFP has also compiled a great deal of governmental data and research to support their model legislation and inform the development of further legislation.
I recommend accessing the resources provided by both NACOLE and PUFP to aid the organization of oversight committees and the development of the policy recommendations. While model legislation and committees can certainly be produced without these organizations, the fact both have already done much of the policy work, data gathering, and organizing greatly increases the likelihood that effective, lasting oversight committees will be established throughout the country.
Organizing the Committees
It is important that protesters transition swiftly into durable organizations with a membership structure that can see through lasting policy change and continuously improve law enforcement oversight.
Initially, peaceful protest organizers should encourage the people that compose their groups to form local law enforcement oversight committees. Protest organizers likely maintain a relatively high level of trust within their communities, and therefore have a better chance of rallying people to form a committee. Protest organizers are also more fit to lead local oversight committees in this initial formation period because they can serve as a reliable point of contact for municipal leaders. Indeed, as I write this, a number of city, county, and state leaders are already meeting with protest organizers to discuss what policy changes can be made to end police brutality.
Oversight committees should be formed independent of the normal municipal government structure. Interacting as a direct arm of a municipality in the early formation stages may impede the development of an effective anti-police brutality policy. This independence is necessary because legislators or administrators may attempt to protect certain aspects of law enforcement policy while the oversight committee is too weak to oppose them. Victims, activists, practitioners, and scholars need the space to identify the values they want to espouse as an organization and condense those values into an effective policy. Oversight committees’ interaction with government bodies should be as an independent organization until the committee is strong enough to pressure governments to enact real changes to law enforcement agencies.
After an initial period of formation, a permanent means of group decision making will need to be established for the newly minted committees. The voting membership of public oversight committees must be composed of stakeholders who altogether satisfy two requirements:
Possess enough credibility with local protest groups and the broader community to form a committee in their name
Possess the technocratic know-how to develop policies and monitor data for the purpose of preventing police brutality
Examples of stakeholders who would be good committee members are: victims of police brutality, activists, former law enforcement practitioners, and scholars of police accountability policies.
Law enforcement oversight committees should have 9 to 15 voting members. Too few voting members risks the underrepresentation of minority groups, while too many voting members will make it difficult to build consensus on values and policy ideas. It may make sense to organize two or more committees in the same municipality if there is great disagreement among potential committee members or constituencies— especially if the municipality is very populous. However, be advised that the existence of multiple committees in the same jurisdiction may allow elected officials and administrators to favor one committee over another for political expediency. If there are multiple committees in one jurisdiction the committees should still seek to work together toward the same broad ends, even though they might disagree on some important issues.
Nonvoting members of committees should consist of those who are not (yet) in a position to represent a constituency of the municipality but are willing to substantially aid the work of the committee in some way. For example, a local criminal justice professor might have some ideas on how to develop policy to end police brutality, but the professor is not a prominent voice that the broader community recognizes. Another example might be a trustworthy local church accountant who would be a great choice to handle the committee’s finances but isn’t an expert on police violence. Having a nonvoting membership structure allows these individuals to contribute meaningful work to the committee without having to understand all the complex contours of police brutality.
Because law enforcement policies and practices directly impact the public, law enforcement oversight committees should be directly accountable to— and directly elected by, their constituents. Much in the same way municipal government meetings are publicly accessible, most committee meetings should be publicly accessible. There should be listening sessions at the public committee meetings where residents of the community can provide feedback.
At some point, the committee will need to start holding regular public elections to maintain credibility with the community. All voting members of the committee should be directly elected by the public. If the law enforcement oversight committee is part of the municipal government at this point, regular municipal elections should be held to determine voting membership. Regular elections should be held at the committee’s public meetings and through the internet if the committee is independent of the municipal government.
It should be noted that there are already some law enforcement oversight organizations in various municipalities. (For example, Philadelphia already has a “Police Advisory Commission,” which is a member of NACOLE.) It is up to protest organizers to determine how they will interact with these organizations. However, at least in the interim, I suggest that protesters form their own committees for the purposes of lobbying for model legislation and other policy changes. Members of these existing committees can and likely should be brought into these discussions. Once the protester committees and the existing organizations build a rapport with one another, a decision on how to move forward in their roles can be made at that time.
As local law enforcement oversight committees begin to form from the milieu of the protests, committees should network together to facilitate the exchange of ideas, raise their effectiveness, and coordinate advocacy to make the national movement to end police brutality more effective. Networked to one-another, the committees should form a web of oversight that holds law enforcement agencies across the nation accountable.
NACOLE already has something of a structure that can aid in efforts to network committees together. The PUFP has great model legislation and organized data. Both organizations should spearhead efforts to link these committees together to establish a broad “unity of effort.” Other organizations seeking to end police brutality have outreach capabilities they can leverage as well; however, I will focus on NACOLE and PUFP in this article because they seem to be the organizations best suited to facilitate committee networking and policy development. To facilitate the development of this network I suggest NACOLE and PUFP take the following three courses of action:
1. Reach Out to Committees
First, I suggest NACOLE and PUFP (and/or other similar organizations) reach out to the various protest leaders or oversight committees to advise them, aid their committee’s development, and provide them ongoing support. NACOLE should seek to invite protest leaders and committees into their organization as members. The PUFP should seek to distribute their model legislation, data, and research to committees, as well as ask committees to lobby for legislation that forces agencies to publicly release the use of force and disciplinary data that is critical to police oversight.
2. Develop a National Oversight Committee Web Platform
Second, I suggest NACOLE develop a common web platform that facilitates public access to committees and serves as a forum for communication between the committees. The website should use a “wiki” format where a person can enter a “mother site” and instantly search for oversight committee webpages of a given municipality or state. On each state or municipality’s webpage citizens should find easily available statistics (aided by PUFP developed tools) about their law enforcement agencies, read legislation the committee is lobbying for, communicate with the committee, and vote for committee members, among other relevant items. Certainly, it will take a good deal of money to establish a website system of this nature. However, funds for the project can be raised from individual and corporate sources, especially in this national moment where everyone is focused on police brutality.
3. Develop a system of Regional and National Conferences
Finally, regional (i.e. state) and national conferences should be established to further develop the art of law enforcement oversight through networking and the communication of ideas. NACOLE already hosts an annual conference for “civilian oversight practitioners.” As committees form throughout the nation (and presumably join NACOLE) this national conference ought to be replicated at the state/regional level. Generally, each state’s committees should host their own conferences. However, in some parts of the country it may be beneficial to split state conferences in two, or group state conferences together. For example, it may be better to have a New England Conference rather than a separate conference for Vermont, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. Or, in another case, it may be better to have and Northern California and a Southern California conference.
If NACOLE and PUFP implement these three courses of action, law enforcement oversight committees across the country will have access to the resources, communication, and camaraderie that will allow them to develop a broad unity of effort to end police brutality. Once unity of effort is achieved among the local municipal committees, a broad national push toward a new culture of policing in the United States can begin.
Now let’s talk about how we can maintain that culture permanently.
Establishing Committee Permanence
Once the law enforcement oversight committees are organized and networked together to share ideas and resources, attention should be paid to how civilian oversight of law enforcement can become permanently embedded into American culture. Municipal oversight committees should be an expectation in the operation of municipal governance, much like zoning boards or parent-teacher associations. The final portion of this article will examine some of the ways to normalize civilian oversight of the police.
Integration with municipal and state governments
The most straightforward way for law enforcement oversight committees to establish permanence in municipalities is to become legally embedded in municipal and state governments. Laws are relatively hard to change. Having an oversight committee written into law as part of municipal government provides a durability that is difficult to replicate outside of government. However, as previously stated, committees should not be absorbed into municipal governments until the committee has independently defined itself and has decided on the types of policies it wishes to adopt. The committee can decide whether it is in their interest to become part of the municipal government once it can stand on its own as a local institution.
A civilian oversight committee becoming part of a municipal government has several pros and cons. The three main pros are:
The committee may gain the authority from the government to conduct investigations into police misconduct.
The committee gains direct access to municipal officials without having to lobby for an audience because they are a government function.
The committee has no need to raise money for its operations.
The three main cons of an oversight committee becoming part of a municipal government are:
The way committee members are selected may not be ideal. City legislators may write the law such that committee members are appointed by the mayor. I do not recommend appointments to the oversight committee.
The complexity of the role the committee plays in oversight (for example, conducting investigations) may increase to the point that citizens are intimidated from accessing the committee as a resource, or running for positions on the committee.
Committee members may develop such a rapport with municipal government officials and staff that they undermine the committee’s role to oversee law enforcement practices.
The other way to establish a committee permanently into a community is to deeply embed the oversight committee within the community as an institution. If the communities within a municipality are committed enough to ending police brutality, then a viable committee can be maintained outside of the government structure. In my opinion, such commitments to a singular cause tend to fare best in very populous municipalities. This is because large population centers that have a greater number of interest groups will be able to maintain the committee. Interest groups tend to wax and wane in enthusiasm and number as time passes, so having many of them available to fill an oversight committee will help ensure that the committee is not abandoned once the cause of ending police brutality leaves the spotlight.
A civilian oversight committee that is embedded in the community has several pros and cons. The three main pros are:
It is easier for citizens to access the committee because it is part of a community-led, grassroots effort.
Municipal government officials will have less influence over the committee’s decisions because it is independent of the government.
The committee is free to push for policy changes outside the confines of the government’s structural norms.
The three main cons of an oversight committee that is embedded in the community are:
The committee is responsible for raising money.
The committee has less access to government officials because it is not a government function.
The committee has less capacity to conduct investigations into police misconduct because it is not written into the laws that constrain law enforcement.
The stakeholders seeking to found law enforcement oversight committees must decide which long-term form they want their committee to take. Whether or not the committee is embedded within the government, every committee dedicated to lasting change will help to broadly improve the culture of law enforcement in the United States. If the public can organize, network, and permanently embed public law enforcement oversight committees into the culture of America, we might finally be able to end the culture of police brutality in our county.
Photo Credits (in order of appearance):
Photo by Harrison Haines from Pexels
Photo by Retha Ferguson from Pexels Photo by Alexander Dukes (the author)