The public debate over civilian oversight of local police departments has simmered for years, usually prompted by brutality or corruption cases, says the Ford Foundation Report. It gained urgency in the 1990’s as government agencies paid increasing sums to settle police brutality claims. The 1994 federal anticrime law gave the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division new authority to investigate local police departments and bring civil actions it where it could prove a “pattern and practice” of police misconduct. Jutice has reached consent decrees or enforceable settlements in Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Cincinnati, Columbus, Buffalo, Detroit and four smaller cities. Settlements may require law enforcement agencies to track officers’ behavior, improve training, review supervision and discipline and submit to the regular review of an outside monitor.
The Police Assessment Resource Center (PARC), supported by the Ford Foundation, evolved against this background. Merrick Bobb, then a corporate lawyer, served as an investigator for a commission led by Warren Christopher to examine the Rodney King beating case in Los Angeles, and issues it raised, for the Los Angeles Police Department. In the mid 90s, Bobb and his work came to the attention of the Vera Institute of Justice, a law enforcement reform group in New York City. Vera’s director, Chris Stone, saw that the Justice Department’s “pattern and practice” cases and settlements would create a need for the kind of insight and expertise Bobb had developed. Vera created PARC and recruited Bobb to be its executive director.
The group operates from downtown Los Angeles, with a staff of eight. In addition to monitoring the sheriff’s department, PARC contracts with departments in other cities concerned about police misconduct or facing court orders to address the issue. Portland, Ore., for example, called in PARC last year after the city council asked for an analysis of the Portland Police Bureau’s use-of-force policies and practices as they relate to police shootings. “I recognized that I did not have the background or expertise to do this kind of review,” says Richard Rosenthal, a former Los Angeles prosecutor who heads an Independent Police Review Division for the Portland City Auditor’s office. After interviewing several consultants, he selected PARC as “the most responsible and qualified people in the nation. They prepare reports that are critical but fair,” Rosenthal says.