Various high-profile events in 2020, including the death of George Floyd, brought America’s system of policing sharply into focus. Public interest—and outcry—in changing training and certification requirements, standards for use of force and new systems for decertification reached historic levels. In a 2022 Gallup poll, 9 in 10 Americans supported changes to policing, with 5 in 10 supporting “major changes” and 4 in 10 supporting at least “minor changes.”
Not only did state legislatures act on the public’s interest, but they also worked to bring the public into the fold. The creation or revision of oversight and review boards, police officer standards and training (POST) restructuring, and changes to transparency of officer records were some of the more prominent options adopted by legislatures since NCSL began tracking the issue in 2020. Nationwide, states enacted at least 92 of the 659 police oversight bills introduced from 2020-22, according to NCSL’s Legislative Responses for Policing database.
A Shift in Oversight Approaches
Oversight bodies vary greatly across local jurisdictions and laws in the states reflect these myriad approaches as well. However, common oversight functions can include intake and investigation of complaints, participation in the disciplinary process, and reviewing, setting or recommending policy or changes to policy. The degree of public transparency of proceedings and access to department records is also variable across jurisdictions. There are various models of oversight, but increasingly oversight bodies represent hybrid approaches with oversight functions designed to meet the needs of individual communities.
Oversight bodies have received significant legislative attention in recent years with states authorizing the creation of new community or civilian review boards or modifying existing laws. In Virginia, S 5035 (2020) gave local jurisdictions the statutory authority to create civilian review boards that “shall reflect the demographic diversity of the locality.” The legislature explicitly defined the powers given to the boards, which touched on nearly every aspect of policing. Many of these enumerated powers were later included in proposed legislation in other states as well. These include:
- Receiving, investigating, and issuing findings on complaints made by the public.
- Investigating and issuing findings on the use of force, including deadly force.
- Making binding disciplinary decisions including suspension with or without pay, or even termination.
- Investigating agency and departmental policies, practices, and procedures, including reviewing investigations conducted internally.
- Requesting expenditure reports and making budgetary recommendations.
- Publishing reports on law enforcement activities, investigations, findings, determinations and other oversight activities.
In California, the legislature authorized counties to create sheriff oversight boards with A 1185 (2020). In California’s case, members of these boards are appointed by the county board of supervisors. Counties may also opt to create independent offices of inspectors general to assist the boards with their oversight work. Each board and inspector general created under the new law was given statutory power to issue subpoenas for the following:
- Any person as a witness on any subject matter within the jurisdiction of the board.
- Any officer of the county in relation to the discharge of their official duties on behalf of the sheriff's department.
- Any books, papers, or documents in the possession of or under the control of a person or officer relating to the affairs of the sheriff's department.
Changes in Board Composition
Arizona, Maryland and Oregon all made changes to the composition or procedures of review boards in their respective states. In Arizona, the legislature enacted a requirement that members of review boards undergo specialized training specific to law enforcement functions.
In Maryland, the legislature empowered the Baltimore City Police Commissioner to remove officers from consideration of promotion if the board sustains certain misconduct complaints. And in Oregon, the legislature incorporated civilian or community oversight boards into its statutory definition of a “criminal justice agency.”
In 2022, New Hampshire created a statewide oversight body. Rather than having local level civilian review boards, NH H 1682 (2022) created a law enforcement officer review committee housed in the state’s POST Council. The committee has review authority over complaints and investigations of misconduct carried out by law enforcement agencies. Committee hearings are not public, however, after an investigation, the committee can direct a staff attorney to present a recommended finding to the POST at a public hearing.
In addition to creating this committee with non-law enforcement community members represented, New Hampshire also statutorily added more people to the POST. The law now requires a professor who primarily teaches criminal justice, an officer with a rank under lieutenant, and two additional community members, bringing the total to four community representatives.
Vermont also established statewide oversight, expanding the duties of the state’s Criminal Justice Council to include maintaining statewide standards of law enforcement officer professional conduct by accepting and tracking complaints, adjudicating charges of unprofessional conduct, and imposing certification sanctions. The same legislation also restructured the membership of the board to include an employee of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, an appointment from the Center for Crime Victim Services, an appointment from the Human Rights Commission, an appointment from the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence and seven members of the public without connections to law enforcement. Of those seven appointees, one is required to be a mental health crisis worker, one must have lived experience of a mental health condition or psychiatric disability and at least two should be from nominations submitted by local NAACP chapters in the state.
New Mexico legislation blended the expansion of review boards with another emerging policy tool: restructuring and changing the composition of state POST boards. The legislature divided the Law Enforcement Academy Board and created two more specialized boards in its place. The new Officer Certification Board is tasked with granting, denying, revoking and suspending officer certifications, and the officer training council is separately charged with developing new standards and training requirements.
In states that kept their POST boards, civilians are being given more roles and representation. South Dakota and Vermont now require members of the public to sit on oversight boards. South Dakota S 60 (2021) defined members as those who have never served as a certified law enforcement officer. In Vermont, S 124 (2019) specified that public membership on the state board include at least one mental health crisis worker, one with lived experience with a mental health condition or psychiatric disability and two selected from nominations submitted by the NAACP.