In Oakland, police will soon answer to civilians newly entrusted with the power to discipline officers and fire the chief. Last November, residents voted to create a civilian-run commission with a level of authority over law enforcement that is rare in this country, reports Governing. “This was a no-brainer given Oakland’s history,” says Rashidah Grinage, coordinator of the Coalition for Police Accountability, a group that helped write the ballot measure, which passed with 83 percent of the vote. “Most people realized that it would be futile to try to argue against instituting a police commission of this nature.” The Oakland Police Department has been under federal oversight since it settled a lawsuit in 2003 for $10.5 million. More than 115 plaintiffs alleged in the suit that four rogue officers had beat and planted evidence on them.
The reforms in Oakland parallel similar changes in large cities. In the last election alone, voters strengthened civilian oversight of police in Denver, Honolulu, Miami, New Orleans and San Francisco. “We’re in the middle of a national police crisis, and that’s created a lot of public support for a stronger form of citizen oversight,” says Samuel Walker, author of the book Police Accountability: The Role of Citizen Oversight. In the 1980s, when Walker began studying the issue, he found only 13 civilian oversight agencies. Today, there are more than 200. The notion that a civilian-led organization should police the police has had a spike in attention since the fatal 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. After Brown’s shooting, President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing recommended that localities adopt some form of civilian oversight “to strengthen trust with the community.”