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How Does Fairfax County Compare on Police Oversight?

A survey of what other cities and counties and their police departments are doing to promote transparency and accountability of police operations.

— The National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement supports member cities and counties with citizen police oversight functions. Its U.S. membership is approximately 100 organizational and individual members and growing. The association exists to provide a means for technical support to requesting cities and counties, share information among its membership, and to annually meet to conduct seminars and workshops to advance the professionalism of police-community relations and police citizen oversight.

A review of the NACOLE membership demonstrates a varying array of citizen review organizational models, authorities and functions, ranging from some with subpoena power and authority to access police incident reports, to other purely advisory and no authority to compel reports, convene hearings, or conduct independent investigations. A typical model includes citizen oversight participation independent of the police department.

Here are some profiles:

“Police organizations are most effective if they are transparent and accountable. … By doing so they will enjoy the trust and respect of the citizens they serve. …. Police civilian oversight boards and other oversight models help to make that possible, and the growing number of these organizations nationally is testimonial to their importance in promoting a culture of openness and transparency between the police departments and the communities they serve.”

Kathryn Olson, executive director, Seattle Office of Professional Accountability, and president, National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement.

City/County: Washington, D.C.

Size of Police Force: 3,800 sworn officers

Names: Police Complaints Board (PCB) and Office of Police Complaints (OPC); Executive Director, Phillip Eure

Authority: OPC Investigates, mediates, adjudicates police misconduct complaints filed by the public against sworn police officers. OPC decisions are binding, although the police department determines the level of discipline. OPC has subpoena power. The OPC is overseen by the Police Complaints Board (PCB) which consists of four private citizens and one sworn police member.

Comments: In a NACOLE letter to the Virginia Citizens Coalition for Police Accountability, Inc., the OPC executive director, wrote: “Citizen review of the police takes on many forms around the U.S. In addition to handling police misconduct allegations, an oversight office could mediate some types of citizen complaints as well as develop recommendations for police reform based on patterns or trends detected in the complaints. … The overall goal would be to promote increased police accountability in Fairfax County and to improve interactions between law enforcement officers and the public. … Experience shows that the more confidence that people have in the police, the greater the likelihood they will report crimes and otherwise cooperate with law enforcement. … This leads to better policing and safer communities. We urge government officials in Fairfax county to become educated about the benefits of citizen oversight, a field that has become highly professionalized in recent years.”

City/County: City of Tucson, Ariz.

Size of Police Department: 1,000 sworn officers

Name: Citizen Police Advisory Review Board (CPARB)

Authority: Seven voting members and four advisory members. Mayor and City Council appoint voting members, and the board selects the citizen advisory members. Reviews completed police internal audit investigations, and other completed investigations.

Independent Police Auditor Office: Program Manager, Robert Barton. A retired former police officer.

Comments: The CPARB serves as the liaison with the City Council; reviews police investigations completed to determine if they are thorough and fair. Its existence has had the effect of promoting confidence between the police, elected officials, and the community. Created by Ordinance. Does not have subpoena power.

City/County: City of San Diego, Calif.

Name: Citizens’ Review Board on Police Practices

Size of Police Department: Approx. 2,000 sworn officers

Comments: Reviews citizen complaints and independent auditor investigations, all police officer shootings and deaths in custody, and reports to the Police Chief and City Manager.

City/County: Pittsburgh, Pa.

Name: Citizen Police Review Board (CPRB)

Executive Director: Elizabeth Pittinger

Size of Police Department: Approx 1,140 sworn officers

Authority: Created by Referendum to Home Rule Charter. Authority to hold public hearings, subpoena witnesses and documents. Authority is advisory only. Also has responsibility to mediate citizen complaints.

Comments: Has responded to 10,000 citizen allegations since 1997. Citizens may safely offer information and file complaints about alleged police misconduct; also, police have referred citizens to complaint board. CPRB has helped to create a positive cultural change enabling citizens and police to work compatibly with each other.

City/County: Indianapolis, Ind.

Name: Citizen Police Complaint Board

Executive Director: Chris Reeder

Size of Police Department: 1,196 sworn police officers

Authority: Created by local ordinance; subpoena power for records and compel individuals to appear at hearing. Nine citizen members appointed by the Mayor and City-County Council, and three appointed by the Fraternal Order of Police.

Comments: Creating the Police Complaint Board has resulted in a drop in serious police misconduct complaints, including for example deaths in custody; also, the PCB has improved community-police relations.

City: Seattle, Wash., and the King County Sheriffs Office

Name: Office of Professional Accountability (OPA); OPA Review Board

Executive Director: Kathryn Olson, Executive Director

Size of Police Department: 1,280 Sworn officers (Seattle City); King County, 1,027 employees and sheriffs deputies.

Authority: The OPA Review Board consists of three citizens appointed by the City Council; works closely with the OPA Auditor, and OPA Office Director (Olson) in providing civilian review of the citizen complaint process and promote public awareness of the existence and work of the OPA.

Separately, the King County Sheriff’s office has a Office of Citizen Complaints - Ombudsman (OCC). Authorized to investigate complaints. Typically, complaints are first filed with the Sheriff’s office re: complaints about excessive force, unprofessional conduct, or other violations. The OCC has access to all the Sheriff’s records and can conduct independent factual research.

Olson currently serves both as the executive director of the Seattle Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) as well as the current president of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE).

For Information about the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE): www.nacole.org.