Advocates of police reform press for civilian oversight. Police officers say the boards are often politicized and unfair to them. In Kansas City, an Office of Community Complaints began in 1970, NPR reports. “Once the cops got used to it, it worked,” says lawyer Sid Willens. “And it’s still working, because what you’re doing is simply trying to do what every business tries to do, [which] is get rid of the rotten apples. And there are very few overall.” There are more than 200 civilian oversight entities around the U.S. Their powers to investigate and punish officers vary. The entities are usually the product of contentious negotiations with police unions, which tend to distrust them.
“You need to have an appropriate mindset towards policing,” says Jim Pasco of the Fraternal Order of Police. He believes civilians aren’t qualified to judge whether a cop followed the rules governing use of force. “The fact of the matter is, an officer has to make a split-second decision involving life or death,” he says. “And the civilian review boards tend to, by definition, be made up of civilians who have no particular experience or insight into what went through that officer’s mind, what the circumstances were and how desperate things can become in that nanosecond.” Pierce Murphy, director of Seattle’s Office of Professional Accountability, disagrees, saying, “I don’t think it necessarily takes having been in a squad car or walked the beat to be able to take the evidence, weigh it and decide whether the rule is followed or not.”