Police Oversight is Widespread in the US. But is it Effective?


Chicago’s most recent round of police reform was sparked by scandal: the 2014 murder of teenager Laquan McDonald by an on-duty police officer.

Cities getting serious about police oversight after public outcry is fairly common, but what that oversight looks like – and how effective it is – can vary dramatically. That’s according to a new survey of civilian police oversight around the U.S. in the Cardozo Law Review’s online journal and an accompanying interactive website.

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“There’s still debate about whether civilian oversight is a good idea,” said Sharon Fairley, the study’s author. “Most of the larger jurisdictions in the country have some form of civilian oversight because members of the community want to have a say in policing matters. We need to put that debate to bed – whether or not civilian oversight is a good idea – and focus on the next challenge, which is how (we can) make civilian oversight as effective as it should be.”

Fairley, a former federal prosecutor who helped lead efforts to reform Chicago’s civilian police oversight in the wake of the McDonald shooting, said it’s not uncommon for cities to create or reform police oversight agencies after a scandal. But she says the effectiveness of oversight agencies can hinge on the powers and resources they have. “Even the most longstanding agencies that are viewed to be the most experienced at doing this work continue to have challenges and continue to receive negative feedback from the community,” Fairley said.

Despite continued community criticism, Fairley says the design of Chicago’s oversight system is “fairly robust” and that the key now is “to look at the way these agencies are operating in practice to make sure that they are actually fulfilling the missions they’ve been given.”

Fairley points to the Chicago Police Board as an oversight agency falling short on its mission of listening to and acting on community concerns. “The Police Board actually has the power, by ordinance, to make policy recommendations to the Police Department. It’s never really employed that power,” Fairley said.

Fairley also says uncertainty about leadership at the top of the Chicago Police Department itself creates another wrinkle, and says the Police Board has a tough job on its hands identifying candidates to take over from interim Superintendent Charlie Beck, who was installed after Eddie Johnson was fired last month.

“Leadership is really important,” Fairley said. “When we think about problems we’ve had in the department, many of them are just the way that the organization has evolved from a cultural perspective, and culture is really driven from the top down.”


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