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Avoiding "Oversight Light"

As we pointed out in our July 9, 2020 Route Fifty column about police oversight, many communities that clamor for civilian oversight of police have been disappointed by the results.

Setting up a civilian oversight board is only a first step. How well it operates depends on multiple factors. The policies that guide the board’s operation are critical – for example, the responsibility of the police department to respond to recommendations and the organization’s power to access information.

But basic operational elements also can have a significant impact -- the experience and competence of the executive director and staff; continued community involvement; training of board members; insulation from politics; independent legal counsel, and ongoing and adequate funding.

When we interviewed Liana Perez, operations director for the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE), she noted that The City of Miami had an effective model that provided it with the authority that many other civilian oversight bodies lacked.

We turned to Cris Beamud, executive director of the Miami Civilian Investigative Review Panel, for the elements she defined as important in heading up an organization with impact. Beamud has broad law enforcement experience with a stint early in her career as a Rochester, New York police officer and later, after law school, work as a prosecutor and a police legal advisor. Before coming to Miami in 2013, she also had experience setting up a civilian oversight auditor’s office in Eugene, Oregon and a civilian review board in Atlanta.

Here is an edited version of our conversation.

Q. Is there any one model of oversight that is most successful?

A. There are many different approaches – auditor and monitor models and investigative models, but it has to be tailored to what the community needs. If the community considers robust internal investigation lacking, then you need an investigative model because internal affairs isn’t doing a good job. Or, it may be that investigations are fine, but the analysis and adjudication is weak. Then you need different elements. Usually, it’s a hybrid.

Q. Can you point to some of the key elements needed when oversight is established?

A. This has to be well funded. A weak and underfunded board is oversight light. It’s almost like a political trick.

When I first came to Miami, the budget was $350,000. The budget had been cut in 2008 and 2009 during the economic crisis and we were very low and understaffed. By 2018, we had risen to $700,000 and then a new ordinance was passed so that we now receive 1 percent of the personnel line of the police department. That’s a good way to do this. Our budget is now $1.1 million. That enabled me to hire an assistant director and a policy person, in addition to our two investigators, an administrative assistant and myself. We can do much more robust policy work and much more community outreach. We have constant information dissemination to make sure we don’t fall off the radar.

Q. Do you have recommendations about staffing an oversight body?

A. Sometimes a review board may be too heavily staffed with people who have loyalty to the city as a whole. If you hire someone from the city law department to be director or independent council, their thinking can be shaded by their loyalty and past duty to protect the city. That can make for problems.

I also knew it was important for us to have our own independent counsel and not rely on the city’s lawyer. That’s expensive, but it means we have a great law firm that helps us, and we are free of ties to the city’s law department.

Q. What about selection of the board?

A. With the inception of the Miami Citizen Investigative panel, board members were nominated by the community organizations that had pushed for its formation. They were approved by the city commission, but they weren’t selected by the commission. Now, the panel has its own nominating committee. By taking selection out of the hands of elected officials, it removes some of the politicization of the board. You have to put some distance between the elected officials and the people who serve on the board.

One change in the process here was also to require that two members come from each of Miami’s five political districts. In the beginning, too many panel members came from wealthier districts rather than representing the diversity of the community.

Q. Are there ways of ensuring that the organization that’s been created fulfills its mission?

A. After it has been established and has an adequate budget, strong personnel and an independent council, the community needs to stay involved. It’s important to have a constituency that is supportive and helpful. They can see if the board is becoming less probing or is unfair. Sometimes, executive directors will be reluctant to say somethings is going badly. So, it’s good for community organizations to stay involved and to assist the board on staying on point and on track. It’s important for people to keep an eye on what’s going on so that it continues to run well.


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