Police External Review Boards

No police department in the country, or the world, is free from deviant officers.
Offenses can be something as minor as a department policy infraction such as being out of
uniform or as major as a criminal violation such as assault. Since the earliest police
departments were formed, society has tried to find a way to “police the police”. Today,
this is done through internal affairs or a similar office inside the department and civilian
review boards which are independent from the police.

Each department has some way to discipline those officers who find themselves on the
other side of the law. The decision to suspend an officer, or to take any other action
against them, can come form the chief or a board of officers. Complaints may come form
citizens, fellow officers, or from superiors. Most small departments will leave the handling
of these complaints to the chief or the commissioner’s discretion. Larger departments
usually will have some type of review board to handle complaints. These boards would be
made up of a number of officers and supervisors, and have the ability to conduct
investigations, hold hearings and pass disciplinary decisions. Some boards may work as an
advisorial group to the chief, who would have final decisions. This is one of today’s most
widely used ways to keep law enforcement officer in check. In his article, Herman
Goldstein points out that:

However strongly committed an agency may be to disciplining the conduct of its employees, it is not
likely to criticize the actions of an officer which, though of questionable legality, are in accord with
a practice knowingly and consciously engaged in by the agency. This suggests that department-
wide policies, as distinct from the individual conduct of police officers, can be adequately
controlled only from outside a police department (1967, p.164).

This now raises questions as to an internal board’s ability to stop police misconduct. In
comparing the Police Advisory Board (external) and the Police Board of Inquiry (internal)
for the city of Philadelphia, James Hudson points that the board of inquiry works best
when “directed inward toward the police organization (1972, 429)”, meaning it should
deal with policy violation within the department, not complaints from citizens.

External review is now shown as a necessary measure. Boards are made up of
interested citizens who advise the mayor on police discipline matters. James Hudson,
when writing about the Philadelphia Police Advisory Board, defines it’s task as,
“...improving police-community relations on the basis of citizen complaints and, more
narrowly, to assist the citizen in a resolution of this problem.” The review boards are
structured differently from department to department in their organization and authority,
but all have the same basic goal.

External Review has not been used or studied long enough to say that there is an exact
science to it. As with any other issue, different parts of society view these boards’ tasks
differently. Most boards have the same general structure. Civilians appointed by the
mayor, or other governmental official, sit on the board, usually in an unpaid capacity.
Some boards have an executive director or secretary who is compensated. The boards
also have a varying degree of power and authority. Some act in a mere advisory capacity,
while others have final say in major decisions.
The weakest model of external review boards they act only as a watchdog of the
department’s internal review system.

While one still has police officers conduction the investigations, and senior officers ultimately
determining and imposing discipline, there is an organizationally distinct civilian agency
monitoring the police disposition of public complaints (Goldsmith, 1988, p.64).

This type of system involves citizens, but has serious limitations in the role that they
play. The next model allows more input in the investigation, but the disciplinary actions
are still up to the police. The strongest of all boards the “civilians are engaged in the
monitoring and final disposition of complaints (Goldsmith, 1988, p.65)”. This last model
separates the board completely from the police department, and a great deal of authority.

External review boards do not always have to be seen as a group out to get the police,
they also act as a third party in a discussion between the police and a complainant. Using
the Philadelphia board as an example again, James Hudson describes the “...conciliatory or
mediating procedures. In some cases, the citizen merely wanted an explanation of police
behavior...In such cases an explanation often resolved the complaint (1972, p.