NOT WHAT WE HAD IN MIND:
CIVILIAN OVERSIGHT AND CRISES IN POLICING
Not What We Had In Mind: Civilian Oversight and Crises in Policing is a case-study of civilian oversight of policing in the city of Eugene, Oregon, based on interviews, participant observation, and archival research. It understands civilian oversight bodies including those that review policy and those that investigate and review complaints against police as a liberal reform implemented by jurisdictions following moments of crisis for law enforcement.
I seek to understand the mechanisms by which calls for radical policing reform are transformed by public policy bodies into reforms that exacerbate the underlying problems of the criminal justice system while further legitimizing systems of social control and repression. Such transformations have been taking place at an accelerating pace over the course of the past few decades in states and cities across the country: demands for fewer mandatory minimum prison sentences become calls for more use of GPS monitoring; demands for fewer armed police officers become calls for more body-worn cameras; and demands for fewer death sentences become calls for more life sentences without parole. Civilian oversight occupies a troubled position near (but not at) the fulcrum between so-called reformist reforms that can expand the legitimacy and scale of policing and abolitionist reforms that reduce limit or reduce the use and presence of policing in society. Understanding its successes and failures can therefore illuminate what is ultimately at stake for criminal justice reformers and police and prison abolitionists.
This study will eventually form part of a multi-site, international study of civilian oversight in in three locations: British Columbia (Canada), the City of Eugene (Oregon, USA), and Los Angeles County (California, USA). Civilian oversight in these three places differ in a number of ways: the level of government jurisdiction to which they correspond (city, county, and province); the time of their creation (BC in the late 1990s, Eugene in the mid-2000s, and Los Angeles in the late 2010s); the geographical features of the area they serve (a mid-sized city; a vast province with multiple large and small police departments; and densely populated county that includes the third-largest US city); and the national legal framework in which they function (Canadian and US).
To date, scholarship on civilian oversight is scant, in part due to its recentness. The first civilian review board in the United States was created in 1958 in Philadelphia and was subsequently shut down in 1969 (Schneider, Agee, & Chronopoulos 2017). It wasn’t until the 1990s that large numbers of US cities began to consider civilian oversight. This trend accelerated dramatically in the 2010s following confrontations between civilians and police in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere. One recent study has compared the civilian oversight mechanisms or their absence across the 50 largest U.S. law enforcement agencies (Ofer 2016). Ethnographers have recently explored much of the relevant context and history in Los Angeles, but does not focus on civilian oversight at the county level (Gascón and Roussell 2019). A new qualitative study published used 13 in-depth interviews to evaluate structural challenges faced by civilian oversight in British Columbia (Stelkia 2020).