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Oversight will never fix what’s wrong with policing


Oversight will never fix what’s wrong with policing

Feb 02, 2023 | 5:30 am ET
By Quentin Young
Oversight will never fix what’s wrong with policing
A woman makes a peace sign before a line of police preparing to advance upon demonstrators after a rally by President Donald Trump at the Phoenix Convention Center on Aug. 22, 2017. (David McNew/ Getty Images)

Memphis has a police oversight board.

This might seem surprising, since after local officers barbarically beat Tyre Nichols to death last month no police department in the country seems more in need of oversight. But the Memphis Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board has been in existence for almost 30 years.

What’s not surprising is that the presence of so-called independent oversight in Memphis, which has a long history of law enforcement abuses, did nothing to prevent outrageous police brutality.

It rarely does.

Civilian and independent police oversight systems have proliferated in cities around the country. Often established in response to some high-profile episode of misconduct, they’re instituted as an act of reform — and in department after department achievements fail aspirations. Hostile police officials, lack of real independence, and inadequate authority almost invariably hobble the overseers.

“It has no teeth,” Memphis City Councilman J.B. Smiley said last week about CLERB. “It doesn’t have the power to subpoena.”

But these failures don’t show the problems with police oversight boards so much as they reveal the problems with police. American policing can’t be fixed with more oversight, which at best serves as a reactive approach to accountability at the margins. True reform is possible only when the community’s priority is safety for all and policing itself undergoes a fundamental transformation.

Police oversight disappointments are so prevalent it’s hard to find an American community where it has truly succeeded. Upon release of videos showing Nichols’ violent encounter with police, Daniel Nichanian, editor of Bolts Magazine, posted a thread on Twitter that highlighted examples of communities from coast to coast struggling to assert effective oversight of police departments.

The 'prison industrial complex' — as abolitionists refer to the standard American system of surveillance, policing and incarceration — is rooted in centuries-old racist institutions and perpetuated by self-interested apologists

Coloradans have plenty of their own examples.

In 2019, a Boulder police officer, with no justification, pulled a gun on Zayd Atkinson, a 26-year-old Black Naropa student who was picking up trash outside his own residence. The incident prompted the city to hire an independent police monitor and establish the Police Oversight Panel, a group of volunteers who would review internal investigations of police misconduct. Some reformers had great hopes for the panel, but much of that hope has been soured by discouragement. 

Its work has been marred by limitations on its role. In November, one of the oversight panel’s members resigned in protest of the panel’s lack of authority. In a case last year that involved five officers, the panel clashed with Chief Maris Herold over how to discipline the officers, and it had no authority to oppose her slap-on-the-wrist approach, which the independent monitor, who has since left the position, agreed with. 

The very process of choosing new members for the panel recently was stymied by entrenched local police interests as law enforcement defenders tried to obstruct the appointment of a worthy candidate.

Denver established its Office of the Independent Monitor, watchdogged by a Citizen Oversight Board, in 2004, and the office is seen as a national model. It’s also emblematic of the profound shortcomings of police oversight in America.

For years critics have pointed to weaknesses in the Denver monitor system. And even as it benefited from incremental improvements, none has proved remotely sufficient to prevent abuses. During the 2020 social justice protests in Denver, police committed countless acts of excessive force and often responded to peaceful protesters as if they were enemy combatants. Then-independent monitor Nick Mitchell later analyzed police actions during the protests in a blistering report, which contained some measure of welcome sunshine on departmental misconduct. But even Mitchell acknowledged his work was limited in crucial ways by the very agency he was charged with monitoring.

“The untracked munitions, the lack of officer rosters, the (body worn camera) footage gaps, the untimely and often vague Use of Force Statements, and the gaps in recording dispersal orders were an obstacle to our full after-the-fact analysis,” Mitchell wrote.

Law enforcement misconduct would be more authentically addressed through a decrease in the need for police. The “prison industrial complex” — as abolitionists refer to the standard American system of surveillance, policing and incarceration — is rooted in centuries-old racist institutions and perpetuated by self-interested apologists, such as privileged residents of affluent neighborhoods and police unions. A society that assures adequate and equitable housing, health care and education in turn ensures less need for police — and less need for police oversight.

In an interview with Denverite after he left his position as independent monitor, Mitchell essentially advocated a form of abolition. 

“If we really want to improve the system, we’ll reduce the number of people who are incarcerated, who are getting arrested, end up getting detained within our jail system,” he said.

No amount of oversight could ever compare to that kind of reform.