Civilian review panels need power, independence, transparency and funding to hold police accountable for misconduct.

The modern history of police accountability began on August 9th, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Prior to that tragic day when Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, generations of African-Americans had waited in vain for the rest of the country to notice the havoc wrought on communities of color by racist policing and police brutality. And while instances of excessive force like Rodney King’s brutal beating occasionally made headlines, national awareness of just how commonplace such incidents were would have to await the widespread use of cell phone cameras.

Now, of course, there can be no excuses. The names of the victims—Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Alton Sterling, John Crawford, Freddy Gray, David Joseph, Antronie Scott, Sandra Bland, and on and on—are too well-known and far too numerous. Their tragic stories and unnecessary deaths have launched the nationwide movement that includes Black Lives Matter, Campaign Zero, and the NFL anthem protests.  

Since Ferguson, law enforcement can no longer live by the creed of ‘just trust us.’
Rather, moving to a ‘Trust but Verify’ approach should be a priority when it comes to building trust between the community and law enforcement, and effective civilian oversight is key to improving those relationships. Yet civilian review panels tasked with this very assignment—much like our own in Austin—struggle to hold law enforcement accountable because they are toothless, underfunded and beholden to the departments they oversee.  

Research on civilian review boards provides examples of best practices, which if implemented in Austin could improve the effectiveness of our Civilian Review Panel and be a part of building a bridge between law enforcement and the community.

As the Cato Institute notes on its Police Misconduct website, a review of civilian review boards concluded that independence, openness, and a serious community outreach component are keys to success for civilian review boards. A Seton Hall Law Review article on effective Civilian Review Boards in the 50 biggest communities in the US offers a few additional categories of best practices:

  • The majority of the board should be nominated by civic organizations;
  • The board should have broad authority to review complaints;
  • The board must have independent investigatory authority including the authority to subpoena witnesses and documents;
  • Board findings of misconduct must consistently lead to discipline;
  • The board must be able to investigate policy and training, not just individual incidents;
  • The board must be fully funded and fiscally stable;
  • The process must include due process protections for police officers; and
  • The public must have access to the complaint process and regular reports on the board’s activity.

The City of Austin Civilian Review Panel has room to grow if we compare our police accountability system to those in other major cities across the US. The CRP does not even meet the minimum requirements to be defined as a ‘civilian review board’ in the Seton Hall law review article. The CRP does not measure up too well against the Cato Institute’s simpler metrics, either.

Yet even with the proposed changes to the Civilian Review Panel in Austin, there is little independence for the CRP. The Civilian Review Panel can only make recommendations to the chief about discipline or needed training and policy changes. It cannot independently investigate and has no authority to independently hire, fire, or discipline officers.

The Civilian Review Panel is simply not as transparent as it should be. Although much of the material that is reviewed during an investigation is not available to the public, some information about the recommendations the panel makes and the decision to follow these recommendations by the Chief is available to the public. The current CRP has made many recommendations to the Chief, but with so many constraints on what they can say to whom, there's no community dialog about those ideas for reform and none have come to fruition. If the real goal of community oversight is less police brutality and increased trust, our system is not getting us there.

The Office of Police Monitor must also refer complaints to the Civilian Review Panel.  There is virtually no opportunity for the Civilian Review Panel to reach out directly to the Austin community. There is a limited window of time in which a person who has already complained to Office of Police Monitor to request the OPM refer the complaint to the CRP.

The City of Austin trades on a reputation as a progressive, forward-thinking community. We can no longer turn a blind eye toward major existing issues like police accountability that divide this community. Policing reform should be job one. The Austin City Council should take into account the expectations of the community in Austin and demand the new police contract include an empowered and effective Civilian Review Panel.

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