Police oversight enters ‘watershed era’ of change amid cries for accountability

Controversies over use of force have spurred reform in U.S., Law School survey finds

Amid growing public outcry over police use of force, new systems for police accountability and public oversight have taken root in cities across the country over the past five years.

That’s the key finding of new research from University of Chicago Law School scholar Sharon R. Fairley, who in 2019 surveyed the 100 largest cities in the United States. While tensions persist among police, politicians and the public, the results point to what she called a “watershed era in the evolution of accountability,” as more cities respond to community demands by starting new civilian oversight bodies or enhancing the powers of existing ones.

Published in de•novo, the online journal of the Cardozo Law ReviewFairley’s survey is accompanied by an interactive website where visitors can learn about civilian oversight agencies operating in each of the 100 cities—including the oversight functions they provide, a description of their mission and the year they were formed.

“Civilian oversight is no longer experimental; it is mainstream,” said Fairley, Professor from Practice at the Law School and a leading scholar on police accountability. “But, there are still problems of resources and independence. Oversight structures are often the product of political compromise between stakeholders who support the concept of independent oversight on the one hand, and those who question the legitimacy of it and seek to limit its impact on the other. You need the community to trust the process.”

A former federal prosecutor, Fairley led efforts to reform police oversight in Chicago in the wake of the 2014 murder by police of Laquan McDonald. She was also responsible for creating and building Chicago's new Civilian Office of Police Accountability—work which informed her views on the importance of integrity, transparency and independence of oversight agencies.

“To fulfill their mission, they have to have power to influence the system,” Fairley said.

The impetus for the recent growth and sophistication of civilian oversight is often tied to controversial uses of police force. In that context, oversight entities must be able to not only satisfy community concerns about fair and neutral accountability processes, but to withstand challenges from police who discount the judgment of civilian professionals.

They also must be sustained in the face of what Fairley sees as a common pattern: “scandal, reform, repeat.”

Other steps that can enhance the odds of success for civilian oversight:

 • Subpoena power. A major source of debate is the power to compel both law enforcement and civilian witnesses to provide information essential to the investigatory process and relevant in the review and appeals of oversight.

 • Budgetary independence. Lack of resources can undermine the thoroughness and timeliness of investigations. In Chicago, the budget floor for the Civilian Office of Police Accountability was set at 1% of the Chicago Police Department’s budget.

 • Transparency. Public reporting is crucial to building trust with the community, but the extent to which oversight agencies report on their processes and findings is often constrained by local and state law.

Fairley commended the work of four cities in particular: Seattle, Washington; Oakland, California; Austin, Texas; and Newark, New Jersey.

Seattle and Oakland, she said, “have completely revamped their systems in the last two years, each creating a robust, multi-agency approach.” The former passed historic legislation creating a new multi-faceted accountability structure, including the new role of Inspector General for Public Safety. The latter created a new Police Commission with the power to oversee the Police Department’s policies and procedures, and with the authority to terminate the Chief of Police for cause without the approval of the mayor.

Austin began dismantling its police oversight infrastructure in 2018, after the city auditor found that the citizen oversight—in place since 2001—had not created substantive change in the police department, largely due to department practices and city procedures. Newark created a new oversight agency in 2016 following an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, and has since faced legal challenges from its police union.

Fairley’s research concludes with a call for greater focus on evaluating the effectiveness of civilian oversight—including the cost-benefit tradeoffs of civilian oversight—to help municipalities better assess options and design systems that best suit their needs.

—Adapted from a story that first appeared on the University of Chicago Law School website.