Police oversight groups need more resources, better training, fewer legislative hurdles

With police departments around the country under heightened scrutiny, a new report from Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research finds that civilian police oversight groups need more resources, fewer legislative hurdles, and proper experience and training.

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In “Who’s Policing the Police?: A Comparison of the Civilian Agencies that Perform Oversight of Police in Texas’ Five Largest Cities,” Kinder Institute director Bill Fulton and staff researcher Steve Sherman analyzed police oversight agencies and institutions in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin and Fort Worth. Specifically, they examined how well the agencies aligned with or diverged from the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement’s (NACOLE) guiding principles.

The report comes as Houston municipal leaders consider possible changes to the city’s volunteer civilian oversight institution, the Independent Police Oversight Board (IPOB), which has reviewed investigations of police use-of-force incidents since 2011. Fulton recently served on Mayor Sylvester Turner’s Task Force for Police Reform, and the Kinder Institute’s research assistance on civilian oversight agencies became the genesis of the new report.

The oversight agencies of Texas’ five largest cities have different mandates, responsibilities, investigatory powers, disclosure requirements and relationships to the public, but the research demonstrated that Houston’s is the least robust among them.

The researchers developed several recommendations.

First, they said civilian oversight agencies need more power and staffing, because the work they do requires time and money.

“Extensive research suggests that an ineffective and opaque civilian oversight system may be worse than no oversight system at all,” the researchers wrote. “If starting or reforming an oversight system, that system should be funded and supported.”

A staff sufficient to deal with investigations, reviews and policy research is essential, the researchers wrote. While Austin has about 15 paid employees and plans to grow to 20, most agencies have fewer than five paid staffers to oversee thousands of officers. Houston’s IPOB has no paid staff and relies on volunteers to conduct oversight work.

The researchers also said state law, particularly Local Government Code 143, may create barriers to civilian oversight. LGC 143 sets many of the parameters that govern how cities can review officer’s personnel files, consider past disciplinary infractions, discipline officers in a reasonable time frame or perform other civilian oversight activities.

“We suggest that state and city officials confer to discuss LGC 143’s barriers to effective oversight, as outlined by NACOLE’s principles, and encourage more uniform and evidence-based policy design,” the researchers wrote.

Implementing best practices in civilian oversight will also require changing key clauses in union contracts, because those contracts often set the power and scope of oversight groups and can impact their effectiveness, the report read. In addition, oversight organizations need strong legal backing and board members need training, including learning the ins and outs of patrol work.

“Training of civilian board members is necessary because many civilians have strong opinions about police yet possess little knowledge,” the researchers wrote, noting that some cities do mandate a strict training regimen. Cities looking to revamp their agencies should refer to the NACOLE principles for selecting and training staff and board members, such as a basic familiarity with state laws and the history of the local police and their challenges, they wrote.

Ultimately, civilian oversight is “only part of any overall effort to improve police accountability,” the report read. “Improving accountability also requires policymakers improving lines of communication between the police and residents, and police departments making their data more publicly available.”

Research shows that better oversight institutions increase civilian trust in the police and lower rates of assaults against officers, Fulton said. He added that effective oversight groups would see the police not only as subjects of scrutiny but also participants, since rank-and-file officers have inside knowledge of their department’s challenges.

“No two oversight institutions are the same,” the researchers wrote. “We hope that cities exploring reforming their oversight agencies, or forming new ones, take into account local concerns and the political environment of their own city and ways to involve both citizens and officers in civilian oversight.”

The report is available online at https://kinder.rice.edu.

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