NOT WHAT WE HAD IN MIND:
POLICING IN CRISIS AND THE LIMITS OF COMMUNITY OVERSIGHT

Racial disparities in policing have been both a cause and a consequence of racial inequality and injustice in the United States, and recent mass mobilizations across the country have put a spotlight on local policies and how they are developed and implemented. As local jurisdictions begin to introduce new or revise existing oversight measures for police and sheriff’s departments, in-depth studies of their ability to contribute to racial equity and racial justice are imperative. Community oversight is resisted by police unions as enfeebling and derided by abolitionists as concessionary. Yet it has been touted as the gold standard for policing reform since the 1967 Kerner Commission. Scholarship to date on the subject is scant in part due to the recentness of official external police oversight mechanisms. With renewed urgency in calls for police reform, this project seeks to reach policymakers with relevant case studies and analysis to inform decisions about community oversight. The first civilian review board in the United States was created in 1958 in Philadelphia and shut down in 1969. It wasn’t until the twenty-first century that many US cities began to implement formal community oversight. Official civilian oversight bodies can take several forms: some decide or advise on policy (e.g., a police commission), some investigate complaints or use-of-force incidents either independently or in some collaboration with a police internal affairs division (e.g., a police auditor), some review completed or ongoing investigations to ensure fairness and transparency (e.g., a civilian review board), and many combine multiple aspects of these functions. They vary greatly in their degree of independence and power, but the trend in the United States has been toward weak external oversight and strong police autonomy in comparison to other English-speaking countries, such as Canada. This study seeks to understand community oversight of local law enforcement as a policy intended to address corruption in law enforcement and police violence. A primary focus for the project is the impact of these policies on local communities of color. For this project, community oversight includes civilian government oversight bodies and unofficial forms of community engagement with the police, policymakers, and the oversight process, such as mass protests, grassroots organizing, investigative reporting, and popular education. Such popular responses to policing have prompted the establishment of oversight policies in almost every instance and are now driving policymakers to rethink existing policies. Community-based demands for police accountability arise in moments of crisis; yet they too often get displaced by local planning mechanisms that seek transparency in reviewing police conduct but do not lead to meaningful policy change. In other words, procedural fairness emerges as an ideal for policymakers, while grassroots organizers seek substantive justice. Policymakers’ goals can thus become obstacles to the goals of community members, even though both understand independent oversight of the police as necessary to achieve racial justice. Better understanding this dynamic should help local jurisdictions meet the goals of multiple constituencies.


This project compares police oversight in three locations: the City of Eugene (Oregon), Los Angeles County (California), and British Columbia (Canada). Oversight in these three locations differs in a number of ways: the jurisdiction to which it pertains (city, county, and province); the time of its inception (BC in the late 1990s, Eugene in the mid-2000s, and LA County in the late 2010s); their geographic scope (a mid-sized city, a densely populated county that includes the second-largest US city, and a province with variously sized municipal police departments spread over hundreds of thousands of square miles); and the national legal framework in which they function (US and Canadian). In studying police oversight across three jurisdictions and in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests triggered by the deaths of George Floyd and other Black Americans, this project seeks a robust description of the materialization of policy reform—or the thwarting of policy reform—as it happens and as seen from multiple vantage points. This study primarily seeks to improve the oversight of the more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States.