In January, Wichita will become one of the few cities in the U.S. to have a civilian oversight entity for its police department to help improve community relations and put another set of eyes on complaints and officer misconduct cases.
On a national level, these entities – which have a wide range of missions – have been met with varying degrees of praise and disdain, experts say. They’ve also had mixed success carrying out the tasks the public expects them to fulfill.
Wichitans appear to like the idea of residents having a voice in policing and police-community issues. The Citizen’s Review Board, which was approved Oct. 10 by Wichita City Council, would do that to some degree.
But will it be able to successfully meet the expectations of the community?
Experts say that’s possible for Wichita to have an effective board. But, they say, it will take a few key things for that to happen.
The idea for Wichita’s Citizen’s Review Board, in part, grew out of a Wichita State University study released in 2015 that looked at the Wichita Police Department’s structure and practices and suggested ways to improve the agency’s role with the community.
One of the things it suggested was that the department implement an advisory board made up of members of the public who would review police conduct cases and complaints appealed by citizens. It also suggested that the advisory board be used to improve community-police relations and give input on police policy, priorities and programs.
Over the years, the Wichita Police Department has faced claims that it isn’t transparent enough in officer-involved shootings and cases of officer arrests. People have also complained about the agency’s use-of-force policies and questioned whether officers are adequately trained to deal with the mentally ill and others in crisis.
Last month, The Eagle published articles about an alleged police cover up and an FBI investigation involving a hit-and-run collision. The department in October also announced the arrests of two officers and said that two others had been placed on administrative leave.
Civilian oversight is one of the ways law enforcement agencies are attempting to tackle such concerns and issues of police distrust.
The country’s first few oversight boards, which came about in the 1960s, died after being met with pushback by police unions, said Samuel Walker, a professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska at Omaha who studies police accountability, oversight of law enforcement and citizen complaints.
The boards slowly re-emerged in the 1970s and gained momentum the following decade. “It’s been growing steadily ever since,” Walker said.
Wichita Police Chief Gordon Ramsay threw his support behind bringing a citizen review board to Wichita when he joined the department in early 2016. He helped establish a similar board in Duluth, Minn., where he previously served as police chief.
In response to recent news stories, Ramsay has said: “We are going to continue to work tirelessly to improve the trust of our community.”
He also has said that he thinks the department’s internal investigations “are thorough and should be reviewed by people.”
What boards can and can’t do
Right now, roughly 18,000 law enforcement agencies are operating in the U.S.
Of those, at least 200 have civilian oversight entities, said Liana Perez, director of operations for the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, a nonprofit organization of civilian oversight board members.
Some boards, like those in New York and San Francisco, have the ability to conduct their own investigations and subpoena information. But they are rare because hiring professional investigators to carry out the work is costly, Walker said.
Most, including Wichita’s Citizen’s Review Board, can review investigations only after they’re closed or act in an advisory role for a law enforcement agency.
Last month, Ramsay said Wichita’s board will cost about $20,000 a year to operate. A board with investigative and subpoena powers would take “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he said.
Wichita’s board will have seven members appointed by the city manager who represent a cross section of the community. They can’t be law enforcement officers, elected officials or their family members.
In addition to the suggestions made by the WSU study, the Wichita’s board will be able to:
▪ Make recommendations that the department may or may not adopt
▪ Help with community outreach and education
▪ Look at racial- and biased-based policing issues
▪ Review officer misconduct cases upon request and suggest policy changes that could affect future cases
▪ Look over internal investigation files but with names of disciplined officers redacted.
It won’t be able to:
▪ Conduct its own investigations
▪ Subpoena information or compel officers to testify
▪ Recommend discipline for specific officers
▪ Review active internal investigations
▪ Discuss its reviews of officer discipline cases and internal investigations publicly
Kansas has at least one other city that has civilian oversight for its police department.
Olathe police Maj. David Schroeder said Olathe established its Citizens Police Advisory Council with a city ordinance in 1995. Among its functions, the council acts as a liaison between the Police Department and the community and studies and reviews police programs.
It also makes recommendations that might improve relationships and communication, according to its website.
What it takes to be effective
Perez, of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, said boards that work well tend to be “very in touch with the community and allow community input.”
They also tend to have clear goals and access to paid professional staff that carries out such tasks as coordinating meetings, setting agendas, bringing in speakers and doing the basic groundwork for their investigations, said Walker, the retired professor.
Boards usually don’t work well, though, when its members don’t have adequate training.
“Policing is a technical business, and in order to really evaluate what the police are doing in a particular incident – even something a little broader like a policy or procedure – you do need to know a bit about law enforcement as a profession,” said Matthew Barge, co-executive director of the Police Assessment Resource Center, which provides counsel to police departments and community organizations nationwide on effective and accountable policing practices.
“Certainly members of the public can be well-equipped to gain that familiarity,” he said. “But going into it, most people are not. And it takes some time.”
Wichita’s board members will be required to complete the department’s Citizen Police Academy, racial profiling training and open records and open meetings training.
In Tucson – where Perez works – the civilian oversight board members can go through training alongside officers.
Some have gone through detective school, where they learn things like police questioning techniques. That knowledge might be used to later to ensure an officer properly conducted interviews, she said.
“Understanding how internal investigations are conducted is critical,” Perez said. The Tucson board also is given a list of closed internal police investigations each month to look over, she added. It then randomly picks three cases to review. “It’s kind of like quality control, so to speak,” Perez said.
Not everyone is enthusiastic about civilian oversight of law enforcement.
Jim Pasco, senior adviser to the president for the National Fraternal Order of Police, thinks that the make up of the boards can do more harm than good.
He wouldn’t comment specifically on the structure and goals of Wichita’s board but agreed to speak generally about civilian oversight entities. He said citizens commonly reach conclusions about cases “that are totally incorrect” because they lack knowledge of police policies and procedures.
“You wouldn’t send an accountant to do open heart surgery,” Pasco said. “So why would you send a high school principal to evaluate police work?”
Results can take time
Perez said communities shouldn’t expect to see results out of a new board for at least a year after it is established.
After that, a board’s success depends in large part on whether it has developed a clear focus and understands its role in the community, Walker said. “There are a lot of boards that really don’t have any kind of effective impact” because they don’t have those things, he said.
Barge, the co-executive director of the Police Assessment Resource Center, said overall there is reason to think Wichita’s review board will work.
“If there are resources behind them to do the work, then there’s reason to be optimistic,” he said. “But thinking that even if all those things happen that this is going to be the permanent panacea or that broader discussions are going ... to stop as a a result of this — I think that’s not what we’ve seen to be the case in other communities across the country.”