There have been concerns from citizens that internal mechanism of vetting and screening police conduct has not been effective, transparent, and fair in addressing increasing complaints of the citizens regarding police misconduct. To streamline the effectiveness, transparency, and fairness of addressing public complaints, citizen oversight agency is very essential in provision of an inclusive vetting and screening of police. Democratic society requires that police officers are not only accountable for their police chiefs and internal structures, but also to the citizens and external structures of policing. Christopher (2004) argues that, with increasing democratic space, the primary objective of citizen oversight policing is to review historical complaints, increase effectiveness of addressing complaints, enhance transparency in police administration, and encourage proactive participation of citizens in police reforms (p.2). Internal review of police conduct is not efficient and effective in addressing pertinent complaints of the citizens because of biasness and lack of transparency. Therefore, due to inherent problems in the internal review police conduct, citizen oversight in policing is one of the methods that citizens employ in monitoring conduct of the police because it enhances accountability, transparency, and fairness in addressing public complaints.
Citizen Oversight in Policing
Increasing democratic space in modern society requires that public issues and complaints related to policing be subject to accountability, transparency, and fairness to enhance the confidence of citizen in policing. Citizens have been raising pertinent issues regarding secrecy and independence of police screening and vetting procedures in the view of public complaints that remain unaddressed for many years. Citizens have noticed that although there are cases of misconduct among police officers, internal review of police misconduct has been so secretive and isolated in that, public cannot access and evaluate the trends of complaints; a scenario that leads to lack of trust in police administration. According to Miller and Merrick (2002), there is hardly consensus regarding external and internal review of police officers since citizens, activists, politicians and police have differing opinions regarding the essence of citizen oversight (p. 3). On one hand, police management hold that vetting and screening of police officers due to allegations from the public need internal review since they have elaborate structures that ensure effectiveness and efficiency in police administration. Thus, police management should have exclusive mandate in carrying out vetting and screening of police officers for any misconduct. On the other hand, proponents of citizen oversight in policing argue that external and internal vetting of police officers are complementary processes of regulating policing and integral part of reforms, which are critical in holding police officers responsible and accountable to the citizens they protect.
Due to inherent problems that are in the internal review process of the police misconduct such as lack of transparency, biased investigations, and negligence of public complaints, citizen oversight policing is critical part of police reforms that aims at alleviating these problems. Miller and Merrick (2002) argue that, incorporation of citizen oversight agencies in police administration is going to enhance effectiveness of addressing public complaints in cases where internal review structures are extremely poor and there are rampant abuses by the police (p.6). Proponents of citizen oversight policing further argue that, formulation of police policies and making priorities is more effective and efficient when citizens participate as compared to when it is an exclusive responsibility of the police. Among other problems, effectiveness of internal review systems determines the urgency of external citizen review since there is variability in the internal review systems from one country to another. Hence, vetting of police officers and investigation of public complaints require concerted efforts of both internal and external review systems to enhance effectiveness of addressing policing issues.
Democracy allows citizens to play a critical role in determining governance, particularly in police administration for it affects their safety and freedom in a society with rampant cases of crime and police abuses. Proper handling of criminal issues and complaints against the police in a fair and transparent manner has great positive impact to the community since it enhances public confidence in police administration. Public confidence is very important in police administration because it creates mutual and cooperative efforts that are central in reforming police administration and fighting crimes in the society. Since police alone cannot fight crime effectively and thus, depend on public when gathering criminal information, enhanced public confidence hinged on fairness and transparency of police administration plays a significant role in creating responsive citizens. According to Christopher (2004), increasing democracy across the world has led to the realization of the essence of citizen oversight policing in improving police image, promoting community policing, discouraging police misconduct, creation of reforms and reducing complaints against the police (p.4). Therefore, based on the inherent problems associated with internal review of police administration, incorporation of citizen oversight is very critical in enhancing effectiveness, transparency, and fairness when addressing public issues and complaints.
Critique of Citizen Oversight in Policing
Citizen oversight of policing is an effective tool of managing the police administration and individual police officers because it assesses and evaluates the conduct of police relative to expectations of the citizens. It provides citizens with opportunity to raise their concerns and give their recommendations concerning police policies and reforms. Concerns and complaints from the citizens act as warning to the police chiefs and the abusive police officers for they reflect dissatisfaction of the citizens with policing measures, thus pushes the perpetrators to make the necessary reforms. Since police management intricately links with the needs of citizens, incorporation of citizens into police administration via external review structures is crucial in addressing pertinent issues that affect the society. Citizen oversight policing is part of police reforms aimed at bridging the gap between the public and the police with the objectives of improving efficiency, accountability, fairness, and transparency of police administration. Moreover, cooperative functions of the police and the public are essential in promoting safety and peace in the society, hence inclusion of citizens into police administration will help in fulfilling significant objectives of policing. Miller and Merrick (2002) argue that, even if internal structures are weak in police administration, citizen oversight mechanism is going to supplement and enhance effectiveness of addressing public issues and subsequently build public confidence in police administration (p. 9). Consequently, if the public has confidence in police administration, it will cooperate with the police effectively through community policing.
Although citizen oversight is an effective police management tool, it depends on the extent of mandate given in allowing public participations because numerous models of citizen oversight exist. The independent model of citizen oversight is one of the models that have mandate to carryout extensive independent investigations regarding an issue of public interest or police misconduct. Other models of citizen oversight are dependent on police for they rely on internal investigations of the police in carrying out reviews, auditing, and monitoring, which are quite ineffective because complaints or issues are prone to unreliable and biased information from the police administration. Appellate oversight models are the most ineffective models because they are reactive rather than proactive in addressing public complaints since they just deal with appeals from the public who feel aggrieved due to unaddressed issues or dissatisfied with resolution of their complaints. The problem with citizen oversight is that it uses reactive approach rather than proactive approach when addressing public complaints concerning police misconduct, which is very ineffective (Miller & Merrick, 2002, p.12). Given that there is variability in the models of citizen oversight, many countries employ hybrid models to resolve effectively diverse public complaints. Hence, the hybrid models provide enhanced mandate and independence in carrying out investigations, reviews and monitoring of police misconduct.
Sustainability of Citizen Oversight Agency
Citizen oversight agency delicately depends on political support, police cooperation, financial resources, civil rights movement, leadership, and public attitudes that determine its establishment and sustainability in police administration. Political support plays a significant role in the establishment and sustainability of effective oversight agency by formulating appropriate legislations that provide legal frameworks to which oversight legislation can anchor. In the United States, senators and mayors have been advocating for effective external review of police administration as part of critical police reforms essential in promoting fairness, accountability, and transparency. However, if politicians withdraw their support by not formulating and adopting appropriate legislations, then citizen oversight policing will weaken and eventually become ineffective in tacking police misconduct. Moreover, cooperation from the police management is very imperative in the existence of oversight agencies for they are the source of vital information regarding public complains. Miller and Merrick (2002) explain that, effective oversight agencies need cooperative relationship with police administration to have access to complaints, carryout investigation, contribute to policymaking and disciplining officers (p. 16). The oversight agencies neither need absolute independence nor dependence for they have crucial role of ensuring that the police administration becomes responsive, accountable, fair and transparency in all its dealings to gain public confidence.
Insufficient financial resources cripple proper establishment and sustainability of citizen oversight agency for it requires great deal of money to carryout independent and comprehensive investigations concerning public complaints against the police. Thus, insufficient money is an impediment to the establishment and sustainability of effective oversight agency and as Christopher (2004) argues, well-established and sustainable oversight agencies are, in developed nations, with lots of resources and enhanced democracy relative to the developing countries (p. 7). In addition to financial resources, leadership and public attitudes have overwhelming influence on the course of oversight agency. Proper leadership and good public attitude boost the effectiveness of citizen oversight agency while poor leadership and negative public attitude have detrimental effect in the establishment and sustainability of citizen oversight agency.
Incorporation of citizens into police administration is critical in enhancing transparency, effectiveness, fairness, and accountability when addressing public complaints against the police. For centuries, the gap between the police and the public has been wide but due to increasing democracy across the world, the public is gradually participating in the issues of governance; in this case police administration, by giving recommendations towards formulation of real time policies. Although internal review processes are also part of essential police reforms, external review of police administration supplement the effectiveness of addressing public complaints. Thus, for effective reforms in the police administration, political support, police cooperation, financial resources, proper leadership, and good public attitude are essential ingredients for the establishment and sustainability of citizen oversight agencies.
Christopher, S. (2004). Holding Police to Account for Misconduct: Police-Specific Complaints Agencies. American Civil Liberties Union, 1-13.
Miller, J., & Merrick, C. (2002). Civilian Oversight of Policing: Global Meeting on Civilian Oversight of Police. Vera Institute of Justice, 1-21.