Police Oversight In The United States: Implications For Sortition Advocates/Activists

Recent scrutiny of police misconduct in the United States has provoked renewed interest in civilian oversight. Hundreds of police review boards exist. The vast majority have advisory, not disciplinary power. The boards are appointed, and their composition varies, often consisting of community advocates. Sortition activists in Los Angeles (Random Access Democracy) have had preliminary discussions with city council members in two California cities (Petaluma and Culver City) about the possibility of reforming their oversight boards to include members selected by lot. A previous post in this blog asked for references to any sortition based police oversight board. To date, none has materialized.

Is sortition the answer to better police oversight? Probably not, at least not directly. If review boards were randomly selected, their actions and recommendations would likely be more independent. But police in the United States are immunized from oversight by a complex system of laws, police union lawsuits, and court decisions grounded in the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, a document promoted by the Fraternal Order of Police that proposes limits to investigative and disciplinary power over police abuses, and is woven into law in sixteen states. Meaningful oversight is more than a matter of picking better panels; it needs to involve legislative change.

It’s beyond the scope of this article to provide more detailed information about police oversight, but the following references, while by no means exhaustive, may be helpful to those interested: Campaign Zero is a website dedicated to ending police violence in the U.S. Arrested Oversight provides an in-depth analysis of how civilian oversight should function and how it fails. Why police so rarely get charged, Newark’s Citizen Disciplinary Board, and A proposal to give civilians more say reveal perspectives from opposite sides of the country.

Democratic lotteries might yet have a role to play in oversight. A citizens’ assembly, for example, could be designed to study the problems of oversight, then deliberate, and propose recommendations for improvement. These might include recommendations concerning police unions, which often sabotage oversight in ways hidden to the public. If the idea proves useful, it’s likely that many such assemblies would be needed to address conditions that vary from city to city and state to state.

Sortition advocates looking to demonstrate the usefulness of lottery based panels as direct solutions to community problems might want to consider areas such as housing, redistricting, urban development, etc., before tackling police oversight.