B. Traditional Citizen Oversight

Over the next several decades, progressive reformers fought corrupt political establishments like New York's Tammany Hall throughout the country. Nevertheless, police brutality remained a serious and pervasive problem. Officers continued to “freely beat citizens on the streets, knowing they would rarely if ever be punished for doing so.” In the 1920s, the seeds of change were sown when the idea of government-sanctioned citizen oversight of law enforcement took hold. It was initially a radical idea and found support only among a small group of civil liberties activists. Nonetheless, in 1948, the first official civilian review board sprang into existence in Washington, D.C.--the Complaint Review Board. Unfortunately, it was a weak and ineffective organization, more notable for its historical significance than for its accomplishments. It would be followed by the Police Advisory Board (PAB) in Philadelphia in 1958. Philadelphia's PAB was a more effective agency, but still handled few cases and had “minimal impact” on police-community relations.

The effort demanding citizen oversight did not gain real traction until the 1960s, during which it found an ideological home alongside the civil rights movement. Civil rights activists protested police misconduct in nearly every city in the United States, frequently demanding the hiring of more African-American officers and the creation of civilian review boards. The most significant response was generated in New York City in 1966, when the mayor of the city of New York added four non-officer members to the existing all-police Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), giving the board a four to three civilian majority. Reaction from police rank-and-file was swift. They sponsored a referendum in November of that same year which abolished the CCRB entirely. Similar setbacks were experienced in Philadelphia, where the mayor allowed the PAB to lapse into nonexistence. Despite earlier fervent advocacy, citizen oversight was in dire straits by the end of the decade.

Civilian review boards experienced a resurgence in the 1970s, which saw the establishment of boards in Kansas City, Missouri; Berkeley, California; and Detroit, Michigan. By 1980, there were roughly thirteen agencies, and by 2000, there were over one hundred. Some of these boards were met with considerable hostility in their early years. For example, the San Francisco Office of Citizen Complaints was established in 1982, but “faced a combination of bitter opposition from the police union and indifferent support from the mayor's office for many years. It finally established an effective program of activities in the mid-1990s.” From the 1990s through the present day, citizen oversight has continued to rapidly develop. Numerous cities have established independent civilian review boards and police auditors, some of which are given broad license to investigate any and all aspects of police operations.