Civilian Oversight of the Police in Major Cities

Stephens, Darrel W., Ellen Scrivner, and Josie F. Cambareri. 2018. Civilian Oversight of the Police in Major Cities. Washington, DC: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.

Civilian oversight of the police has been a topic of discussion and debate since the 1960s. The debate generally surfaces in communities where there has been a high-profile incident in which a member of the community has been injured or killed during an encounter with the police. The shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014 followed by other high-profile shootings and deaths pushed civilian oversight and police accountability into the national spotlight.

Although not generally acknowledged by the public, police agencies have always had civilian oversight through elected mayors, city councils, prosecutors’ offices, court decisions, and state and federal legislation. Since the early 1960s, other forms of oversight have been developed in the hope of ensuring greater police accountability and community trust. In the earliest cases, a number of cities established civilian police commissions or boards (Los Angeles; Chicago; Kansas City, Missouri; and Detroit are examples) that played a role in the selection of the chief, policy development, and discipline. Since the late 1960s, other forms of civilian oversight have emerged.

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