History of Civilian Oversight

The first assembly of citizens to receive complaints of misconduct against police officers date back to the 1920’s. The demand for citizen or community oversight first occurred in the 1940’s. Many of these early review procedures were short lived due to insufficient fiscal support, lack of resources and served as only venues to receive and review police complaints. Further development of community oversight was strongly influenced by the civil rights movement and the perception in many quarters that law enforcement responded to racial unrest with excessive force.

Community review revived in the early 1970s as urban African-Americans gained more political power and as more white political leaders came to see the need for improved police accountability. They were more successful because they had more powers and enhanced resources. There was then a momentum of increased oversight agencies, responsibilities and policies, which usually came into existence due to a high-profile cases of alleged police misconduct (usually a shooting or other physical force incident), often involving white officers and suspects of color. Racial or ethnic profiling and allegations of discrimination are often at the heart of movements to introduce community oversight.

By the early 2000s, community review became more widespread in the United States. According to a report recently released by the National Association of Civilian Oversight of Police, as of March 2016, 144 oversight agencies were operating at the local level in the U.S. Roles of community review of law enforcement have evolved in cities, counties and towns using a form or hybrid of recognized community oversight models.


  1. Snow, Robert, “Civilian Oversight: Plus or Minus,” Law and Order 40 (December 1992).
  2. Terrill, Richard J.,"Civilian Oversight of the Police Complaints Process in the United States: Concerns, Developments, and More Concerns," in Complaints Against the Police: The Trend to External Review, ed. Andrew J. Goldsmith, Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1991; see also Walker, Samuel, and Vic W. Bumphus,“The Effectiveness of Civilian Review: Observations on Recent Trends and New Issues Regarding the Civilian Review of Police,” American Journal of Police 11 (4) (1992).
  3. Angelis, J. et al. Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement: Assessing the Evidence. National Association of Civilian Oversight of Police Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Diagnostic Center (2018).




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