The police are the most scrutinized organization in the United States, with daily reports by citizens and news media on the alleged misconduct of officers on duty. But there is barely any research on the role played by citizens and community groups in adversarial encounters with police officers.

There are no social problems that are one-dimensional.   

Defining the entire police agency or criminal justice system as a systemic problemis misleading.The vast number of officers and departments questions the systemic misconduct purported by police oversight boards or reform organizations. Oversight boards are generally the result of a political process from community organizations and political activist and are usually the result of efforts from minority communities where crime is more prevalent (Walker, 2016; FBI, 2017; Ofer, 2015). State agencies set the standards for police hiring and training and there are additional integrity standards set by the individual departments. Officer candidates usually attend a state academy or state-approved police academy for basic training and certification as an officer. State Boards of Standards and Training set the standards for police agencies and establish annual training requirements that usually consists of use of force, application of the law, integrity, and community relations. The state does not set training standards for Civilian Oversight Boards.

Improving relationships between citizens and police officers is the goal of police oversight boards. The stated policies of most civilian oversight boards are to reduce violent encounters with the police and secure avenues to pursue punitive actions against officers accused of misconduct, but infrequently offer guidance for crime reduction, or creating more positive interaction between communities and officers. The oversight boards are overwhelming focused on punishing perceived or alleged police misbehavior. The anti-police culture that exists in communities seeking oversight boards have not proven effective “police commissions have not proven to be a viable alternative to the standard form of control of police departments by mayors and city councils” (Walker, 2016, p.638). 

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Research on the effectiveness of improving police and community relationships by oversight boards is undetermined but have resulted in officers leaving a department and making recruitment more difficult. Metro Nashville Police are experiencing this personnel problem. Fraternal Order of Police President James Smallwood said, “They don’t feel like they’re supported by their administration and they’re walking out the door and going to other police departments where they might make a little less money, but they’ll get more support from the city or the department they work for,” (Gordon, 2019). Effectiveness of the boards is important for success but “arguments for and against oversight that rely on questions of effectiveness draw on assumptions that are largely untested and unproven… these assumptions can be very difficult to test empirically” (Miller, 2001, p. 2).

Two areas that have a probability of achieving the positive goals of Civilian Review Boards without the adversarial appearance of review boards is Citizen Police Academies and Community Policing. Local universities can assist in developing instruction and curriculum to improve Citizen Academies and community policing methods for both citizens and officers adding credibility to those efforts. Bringing together officers, citizens, academia, and public and private business and organizations to develop training initiatives, establishing policies, and operational methods create trust among participants and add validity to the programs. Police policies shape the training and responses of officers in the performance of their duties. Police policy development is an important area for the community and officers to interact.

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“Police policies and priorities are more effective and more responsive to the community when civilians are involved than when the police make decisions without civilian input,” (Miller, 2001, p. 2). Research supports community policing as a tool to improve police and community relationships (Johnson, 2016; Foster, 2018). An effective, well organized, community policing program combined with citizen police academies can produce the desired results of a civilian oversight board without the perception of opposing and adversarial goals.

The police must have a role for any reforms to be effective “reforms will endure only when the police organization itself is involved in the process,” (Schwartz, 2016). The Citizens Police Academy, Community Policing, and policy making provide the setting for input and interaction between the community and police and lends to the concept of working together.

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Incorporating citizens in police training initiatives and policy-making places citizens inside the police agency. Citizen Oversight Boards places citizens outside the police agency and establishes a wall between officers and citizens. Embedding citizens with the police department is more cost-effective than standalone Citizen Oversight Boards, which can add millions of dollars to a city’s budget. Placing citizens within the police department in the same space as officers utilizing existing equipment, facilities, and support personnel negating the need for additional funding.

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Larry D. Anthony, Ph.D., has a combined service of 45 years in criminal justice with the Memphis Police Department and Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. He has co-authored two publications on gangs and written numerous reports on terrorist and criminal organizations (restricted to law enforcement). He is a military veteran in security operations and intelligence serving in the Far East and the Middle East. He has conducted training in criminal investigations, crime scene investigations, interview and interrogation techniques, and intelligence collection methods.