(GRAPHIC: Kezia Setyawan/The Enterprise)
EDITOR'S NOTE: This project was produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network as the Enterprise's effort to take a fresh approach to reporting on community issues.
ONTARIO - As Black Lives Matter protesters continue to fight police brutality, citizen oversight committees for police departments have emerged as a potential solution.
In early June, the Black Lives Matter movement came to Ontario, and organizers created a list of eight demands for the city and police department. One asked for the police department to create a citizen police overview committee.
As of now, the Ontario Police Department doesn’t have any form of citizen oversight, according to Ontario City Manager Adam Brown. Statewide, only three cities have some form of a police department citizen review or oversight board — Portland, Eugene and Corvallis, according to the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement’s website.
Such oversight committees review citizen complaints and police misconduct in their communities, said Liana Perez, NACOLE director of operations. Each committee is created based on the needs of the community so “no two are created equally,” she said.
Some oversight committees have the authority and resources to conduct full investigations and issue findings and recommendations. Some cities use staff auditors to look over the work of internal affairs to ensure they’re thoroughly investigating complaints, she said, and citizen review boards are typically staffed by volunteers who review complaints and recommend policy changes.
For smaller communities, Perez said police oversight committees seem to work best under the volunteer model because they incorporate more community involvement. The oversight committees typically reviews cases that are closed, according to the national association.
“Those are usually staffed by volunteer members of the community, citizens of the community that are able to look at and review complaints and make recommendations for policy changes and so forth,” said Perez.
Eugene Police Department Oversight Committee (The Enterprise/Kezia Setyawan).
For example, the city of Eugene’s Office of the Independent Police Auditor and Eugene Civilian Review Board conduct audits of closed investigations and compliance with department policy and procedures. The office also monitors open investigations into police misconduct.
The office can recommend changes to police department policies and procedures, but it can’t address discipline.
The Eugene Police Auditor and Civilian Review Board report to the Eugene City Council, according to Police Auditor Mark Gissiner.
The seven-member review board oversees and evaluates Gissiner’s and the deputy police auditor’s work, as well as the police department’s internal Investigations.
Eugene Police Chief Chris Skinner ultimately decides whether a complaint or an incident should be classified as an allegation of serious misconduct or allegation of criminal conduct, said Gissiner. The Auditor’s Office meets monthly with the chair and vice chair of the board to discuss and decide which cases to review, he said.
The police auditor is “an independent, civilian entity performing oversight of the Eugene Police Department; neither our funding nor management overlap with EPD. No employee of the auditor’s office is an employee of the Eugene Police Department,” the website states.
Skinner said the Review Board provides the police department with positive and negative feedback, as well as points out recurring issues it sees across different cases.
It examines more complex cases that have a community impact, he said. For example, the police department is currently reviewing hundreds of hours of body camera footage to investigate an array of complaints against the police department regarding its various methods of dispersing crowds, which sparked “tremendous public outcry,” during riots.
The review board will then review his agency’s investigation, he said.
“We’re one of the few oversight models in the nation that can proactively look at every reportable use of force case before we even get a complaint,” Gissiner said.
As a result of citizen oversight, “Many officers in Eugene have re-engineered themselves to be problem solvers rather than just going out and arresting people,” he said. “I believe then that they are less likely to engage in willful and malicious misconduct because they know that there are significant consequences for that.”
For a community, Gissiner said a citizen review board provides a “link to things that are going on within the police department,” and he said it’s equally – if not more – important to have a citizen committee that helps implement new policies. Eugene also has a Police Commission, an advisory group that reviews draft policies on issues such as tasers and pepper spray and recommends changes, he said.
The commission is another civilian board that is affiliated with the police department and appointed by the city council, said Skinner.
For the citizen advisory committee, Gissiner said the city council does “a really good job of picking people who are not narrowly defined by one issue” and who have been involved in a variety of community activities and jobs.
Historically, police departments have “been closed and vertical in their thinking, Gissiner said. “Anytime that you have an opportunity to get more community input into your organization you should take that opportunity and you will build trust by presenting those opportunities with more transparency and dialogue,” he said.
The police department is more legitimate in the eyes of the community, Skinner said, when board members evaluate police conduct and help affirm that, “while we make mistakes,” officers are held accountable.
“Far too long have we as a profession operated in a vacuum,” he said, “and it’s time for police departments to pull back the curtain and not be afraid to show the community how we operate.”
Skinner advised that communities look to other jurisdictions in which oversight bodies are viewed as legitimate, as well as developing a system that serves the goal of building trust and confidence in the community.
Oregon’s public records law limits Gissiner from providing as much information as he would like about disciplinary actions taken against police officers.
Gissiner said the Eugene Police Department receives one of the highest numbers of complaints nationally per capita but added, “I can confidently say the EPD is one of the most scrutinized departments in the country.”
“Approximately 90% of the complaints are service complaints such as response times, homeless camping and officer driving,” he said.
While it is difficult to measure their success qualitatively, he said, few other oversight boards, if any, can report use of force cases within 24 hours, and the Police Auditor examines such cases on a daily basis.
“If we are unsure of or don’t like what we read, we ask for the body cam, reports, and all audio/video,” he said. “EPD sends this to us within hours. I can guarantee that no other agency has this level of penetration. Is that success? To me it is.”
The city of Corvallis relies on a citizen advisory board to review police actions. (Kezia Setyawan/The Enterprise)
In contrast, the Corvallis Police Department does its own investigation of citizen complaints about police officers and then advises the complaining party on the outcome, according to the city’s website.
However, if the complainant isn’t content with the outcome, they can request a review by the Community Police Review Advisory Board. Members of the board are appointed by the mayor.
The Corvallis board also assesses all officer-involved fatal shootings, traffic stop data and “allegations of racial or other bias against individuals,” according to the city website.
As in Eugene, the Corvallis review board can recommend changes to department policies and procedures, but it can’t address discipline.
Hyatt Lytle, a member of the review board and a Corvallis city councilor, said while the board’s main function is to review cases, she has been on the board for four years and has never had to review a complaint. The board also meets quarterly, allowing for public comments about “law enforcement matters,” but does not see many citizens.
However, she said the meetings are an important part of the board’s job because the chief comes to the meetings to present commendations and reports against officers to the board and answer questions.
“[The reports] will be listed with the date received, type of complaint, and then they'll have a very high-level summary of the complaint and investigation findings,” said Lytle. “And then we can ask for high-level detail. We can't ask specifics, like, ‘What did the officer do?’ or, ‘Who's the officer?’ because by state law personnel matters are confidential.”
Lytle said another big piece of the board’s function is to give “advice on certain policy or administrative changes for the department.”
“So, things like, ‘Oh, we're thinking about maybe using red light cameras. What do you think about that?’” said Lytle. “Or, ‘We're thinking of implementing this type of body camera or this one.’ And they bring them in and show them to us and how they work, and ask which one [we] like better.”
While the board rarely receives complaints to review - which Lytle credits to the police department’s accreditation and current police chief - she said it may be because of a lack of public awareness.
“There could be a little more awareness that if you do have concerns, you could come to this board and testify those concerns,” said Lytle. “That could be pushed a little more.”
Corvallis’s review board has seven members, said Lieutenant Joel Goodwin of the Corvallis Police Department.
“We value transparency,” he said, “and it is critical our community trusts us. By having this board, it assures our community that we are willing to let others take a look at what we are doing to make sure it fits with our community’s expectations.”
Because the public doesn’t have an in-depth knowledge of how law enforcement operates, Goodwin said, people may feel the agency isn’t transparent. The board “reassures our community that we want them to have had appropriate avenues for community review of important issues,” he said.
For communities that are thinking of setting up oversight, he said, “Do some research on what models may work well for your specific community, and try to build a partnership between law enforcement and the community to ensure everyone has been included in the process.”
Nyssa handles complaints internally at its police department. (Kezia Setyawan/The Enterprise)
The Malheur County Sheriff’s Office has a Citizen Advisory Committee, which consists of 24 volunteers from around the county, said Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe.
Don Wayne, who has been the chairman of the committee for about six months, described the group as “a sounding board” as opposed to an authoritative or disciplinary one.
Wolfe reports to the committee “what’s been going on in the community” and any concerns he has, as well as listens to the group’s feedback on “the good and bad of what the community’s thinking,” Wayne said.
“You don’t often get a chance to sit down with your politicians and voice your opinions in a civil manner, and that’s what it is,” he said. “It’s just open communication in a non-hostile environment, which I think is important.”
Wayne said he’d recommend that any community implement oversight, which he believes should extend “beyond just police.”
“I think it’d be advisable for any organization that deals with the public,” he said.
Wolfe said the value of the committee is greatest “when folks tell us what’s going on in their neighborhoods and what their concern may be in regards to the sheriff’s office.”
When the sheriff’s office is considering a potential project or undertaking, he said it will often run it by the committee.
“I think it’s been very beneficial to see that group of people gather and give their opinions,” he said.
While the Nyssa Police Department doesn’t have citizen oversight in the police department, Police Chief Ray Rau said his department relies on a “different mechanism that actually works very well.”
Rau said the police department has an “open door policy,” and that he and the officers work to engage the community daily.
“People know that they can come in, and they have a voice,” said Rau. “And we've changed the way we've done business in order to, you know, to make ourselves the best we can to serve in this community.”
When someone files a complaint against a Nyssa police officer, they fill out a form, bring it to the department, Rau looks at it and it’s assigned to one of his supervisors, he said. After the process is over, Rau said he reaches out to the citizen to explain the outcome.
“Now, granted, there are personnel decisions,” said Rau. “I can't say, ‘I did this, this, this.’ You know, they got a week off. I can't tell them that because there's personnel issues. But I do tell them there was a violation of policy in different areas and that staff member is being held accountable or it was unfounded.”
“I do see the need,” he said about citizen oversight committees, “and I've worked in other agencies where there was a citizen oversight committee and there was a need for that because we didn't have the trust of the community,” said Rau.
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