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Citizen Oversight of the Police

Police Accountability: The Role of Citizen Oversight

Citizen oversight involves a city or county agency independent of the law enforcement agency with responsibility for reviewing either citizen complaints against officers, or the policies and practices of the agency, or both.

There are two basic forms of citizen oversight. Citizen review boards are responsible for reviewing citizen complaints against officers. Only a few review boards, however, have the authority to conduct their own independent investigations of complaints. Other review boards review the investigations conducted by the police department’s internal affairs units.

The other form of citizen oversight agencies are known as either police auditors or inspectors general.


Citizen oversight of the police is discussed in detail in Samuel Walker, Police Accountability: The Role of Citizen Oversight (2001). The book discusses:

  • The history of citizen oversight
  • The two models of citizen oversight: civilian review and the police auditor model
  • The roles and responsibilities of the two models
  • Criteria for evaluating citizen oversight agencies

Citizen oversight is also discussed in Samuel Walker and Carol Archbold,  The New World of Police Accountability, 2nd ed. (2014)

The book:

  • Puts citizen oversight in the context of other ways of achieving police accountability
  • Explains the important relationship between the citizen complaint process and early intervention systems


Regarding the police auditor model or inspector general model of oversight, read the report, Core Principles for an Effective Police Auditor’s Office: coreprinciples


NACOLE: The National Professional Association

The national professional association for citizen oversight is NACOLE, the National Association for Citizen Oversight of the Law Enforcement. Visit the NACOLE web site here.

READ: The 2016 NACOLE report on the strengths and weaknesses of different forms of oversight: nacolestrengthsweaknesses

READ: The 2016 NACOLE report assessing the evidence on the different forms of oversight: nacole_assessingtheevidence_final


Investigating Citizen Complaints is Different

Police departments typically assign officers to internal affairs or professional standards units without providing any special training on invistigating citizen complaints. The assumption is that experience investigating criminal complaints is adequate preparation. Citizen complaints are very different, however, because the investigator is investigating a fellow officer.

Read the report Investigating Citizen Complaints is Different, by Jayson Wechter, an experienced complaint investigator. ICCID