The leaked video of a Springfield, Ma., police officer beating an apparently helpless suspect with a metal flashlight while three other officers looked on highlights a chronic problem in mid- and large-sized cities nationwide, says Governing magazine: Who polices the police? Incidences of overzealous police officers injuring or killing nonthreatening suspects are rare, but they can dominate the news for months. Cities have devised various schemes for overseeing police, the most common of which is a citizen oversight board charged with investigating reports of abuse. The battle surrounding these boards has always been over how much authority they have, and whether they have the expertise to do the job.
After the Springfield incident, Mayor Domenic Sarno announced a new “community police hearing board,” consisting of a group of citizens he appointed. Some wonder if this board will actually have any teeth. They worry that it will be mere political window dressing rather than an effective mechanism for investigations and discipline. Portland, Or., seems to have devised a system that balances police rights with citizen concerns–a system that, since its creation in 2001, has proven remarkably successful in significantly reducing excessive use of force incidents. The city shut down its police oversight board, which lacked clout and credibility, and replaced it with a professionally run board within the city auditor’s office, comprising a smaller, carefully chosen group of highly qualified members. Since then, use of force complaints have plummeted by more than 60 percent, which represents millions of dollars in savings in legal fees, lost time, and lost personnel. It has also led to an incalculable increase in community goodwill.