Is Civilian Oversight a Good Idea? Depends on Which Civilians

By Steve Pomper   

Most cops I know, my happily retired self included, have been opposed to civilian, meaning exclusively or majority civilian, police oversight for as long as I can remember. The “de-fund or abolish the police” movement has lost some of its luster with otherwise normal people who got caught up in the Marxist moment.

Those people have finally stopped to think for a moment and are realizing just how stupid that idea is. By comparison, civilian review may now seem moderate, though it can also have devastating consequences for law enforcement officers. And it can also affect a community by encouraging de-policing to continue or increase—if that’s possible.

It’s not that civilians cannot make competent decisions or that police officials always do. I know civilians who would give cops a fair shake and even the benefit of the doubt when its warranted. I also know cops who I would not want to oversee a controversy over a parking ticket.

However, especially in today’s anti-police atmosphere, it’s only prudent cops be wary of not civilians, generally, but of the type of civilian many city’s leftist leaders would choose for these oversight positions. Often, virulently anti-police mayors, city councils, and, sadly, even some police chiefs, choose the board members. How would police officers not feel like they have targets on their chests, being judged by a leftist-chosen civilian oversight board?

One commenter, when I first read this story about a taskforce report in the Boston Police Department (BPD) caught my eye at Police1.com. The post read, “Maybe plumbers should start an oversight of doctors.” Sarcastic, yes. But isn’t that the first thing that comes to a cop’s mind? This is especially concerning because even cop supporters sometimes get it wrong and don’t see the danger with civilian review.

Part of the problem is they imagine cop-supporting people like themselves sitting on boards. Increasingly, that doesn’t happen. Anti-cop activists are more likely to be appointed. Would you want someone who doesn’t know the first thing about doing your job to be sitting in judgement over you, the person trained to do the job?

I recall times when even some of my favorite political pundits get it wrong when they assume “everyone knows something an officer did was wrong.” No, not everyone. Not necessarily a trained law enforcement professional. For example, I remember seeing video of an officer chasing a suspect, catching up to him, and pushing him to the ground. That’s a valid technique, which prevents an officer having to crash to the ground with the suspect.

Unfortunately, sticking up out of that ground—wrong place, wrong time—was a fire hydrant. I recall the suspect was seriously injured and sued the city. The officer didn’t put the hydrant there. It could have easily been a bag full of leaves—but it wasn’t. Maybe the suspect shouldn’t have run. There’s a thought.

A city-commissioned taskforce issued a report regarding, what else, “reforming” the BPD. According to Sean Phillip Cotter of the Boston Herald, “The report recommends establishing an independent Office of Police Accountability and Transparency that would be staffed by civilians and exist outside of the Boston Police Department and City Hall. This new office would have the ability to issue subpoenas amid its ‘broad investigatory and supervisory powers’ to review internal and external complaints.”

Subpoenas, investigatory, and supervisory equal the authority to issue discipline. Could this include termination or even criminal referrals? The article didn’t specifically mention this, but logic dictates this could be a result, right? In fact, Cotter writes, “The [current] Community Ombudsman Oversight Panel… is essentially toothless and does very little.” So, the new board would have teeth.

Cotter also write something that illuminates a side issue with reporting on “police reform,” generally. “[Boston Mayor Marty] Walsh created the task force as calls and protests for police reform grew in June following several high-profile police shootings of Black people.” Since when is “black,” when referring to race, capitalized? Especially when “white when referring to race, is lower case. If English language rules are changing, shouldn’t someone tell us?

Mayor Walsh is not a bomb-thrower and is more reserved than many of his fellow Democrat mayors across the country. As Cotter wrote, Walsh is “not a supporter of defunding the police.” The mayor added, “I’m not going to put the city of Boston at a public safety risk. If we need to fund police officers to keep us safe, then we’re going to do that.”

Still, the epidemic of attempting to fix something that isn’t broken simply because radical activists say so continues to break the nation’s law enforcement agencies. One anomaly occurs in Minneapolis, and the mayor and city council wouldn’t allow the crisis that emerged to go to waste.

It seems quite likely that if the barely-there Mayor Jacob Frey and the city council had allowed the police to quell the riot when it began, the violent conflagration would not have spread across the entire country. Certainly not at the raging temperatures it did. Instead, Frey and the council poured jet fuel on the disturbances by surrendering a police precinct and voting to abolish the police department.

Someone please tell me how that shows what happened in Minneapolis means every other police department in the country needs to be “reformed?” But that’s what’s happening. Recently, the Virginia legislature continued on its pogrom against the police, this time with civilian oversight of the cops. In party-line votes, the Democrat majority passed House Bill 5055 and Democrat senators passed Senate Bill 5035.

The thing about these bills is their tyrannical and partisan aspects. The bill mandates local governments throughout the commonwealth create civilian review boards. While the bill would allow for retaining some local control over the boards, how long before even that control would evaporate?

Civilian review boards are also under consideration or being established in cities such as Columbus, Ohio, South Salt Lake, Utah, and Newark, New Jersey. But are civilian review boards truly the answer to good policing in America?

The conservative National Center for Constitutional Studies agrees trends toward civilian review are dangerous. “For nearly 50 years, a deadly and effective attack has been orchestrated against local police departments all throughout the United States and most Americans do not even realize it is happening. The very organizations which are to provide front-line protection against lawlessness in our communities are being targeted. The reason: to neutralize the ability of the local police to identify and intercede criminals and terrorists who would disrupt our peaceful communities. This in turn would lead to the dissolution of strong local self-government, which is the cornerstone of our republican form of government in the United States.”

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