New laws take the ‘civilian’ out of civilian review boards overseeing police

By: - July 6, 2021 8:43 am

A protester asks Phoenix police officers why the protest was unlawful on June 23, 2020. Photo by Chloe Jones | Arizona Mirror

Any plans to implement independent community oversight of Arizona police departments are effectively dead after Republican lawmakers passed laws aimed at excluding police critics and letting cops lead that oversight.

The new laws require that any such boards, which are intended to give the community being policed the ability to investigate police misconduct, consist only of police officers or those who have undergone police training. 

The changes hand a major victory to police unions and curb efforts to empower the communities that are most affected by police misconduct — and Republican supporters said that is precisely the point.

Gov. Doug Ducey, whose father was a police officer in Ohio, said the changes make civilian review boards “fair and objective.”

“I want to make sure these oversight boards that are being brought to the fore are ones that can add value, can provide accountability, but are not folks that want to defund the police,” Ducey said. 

And GOP lawmakers also expanded the definition of “civilian review boards” to include government agencies or departments that investigate complaints, recommend policy changes or disciplinary actions, and issue reports on police misconduct — and made that definition retroactive to the beginning of the year.

That change is directly aimed at the Phoenix’s Office of Accountability and Transparency, said Joe Clure, executive director of the Arizona Police Association. The purpose, he said, is to ensure there are law enforcement professionals working in the new city department. In the rules the city approved in May to establish the OAT, the department’s director and employees and their immediate family members are prohibited from having worked for law enforcement agencies. 

“It clearly seems to us that they welcomed a bias against police officers,” Clure said.  

Critics of the new laws said the training requirements are unnecessary and disenfranchises working class and communities of color from serving on civilian review boards.

“Civilian oversight should be done by civilians,” said Cameron McEllhiney, director of training and education for the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement. “If large segments of the community do not feel that the police serve them or are a legitimate entity, part of civilian oversight is rebuilding that legitimacy and that trust. 

“This… is a way for law enforcement to negate the ability for civilian oversight to exist.”

For years, community groups, families of people impacted by police violence and faith leaders of Black communities have pushed Phoenix, which has been among the largest cities without an independent community board with the authority to investigate and discipline police, to establish civilian review boards. The city council established the OAT in May, and in June it approved a budget of nearly $3 million to fund the new office, according to The Arizona Republic 

Phoenix is currently hiring a director to lead that office. 

Local groups — including the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice, and the Arizona Faith Network — opposed the bills as they moved in the legislature. 

“The rigorous, expensive, and completely unnecessary training requirements … would exclude from civilian review boards the communities most impacted by police misconduct: working class communities of color,” wrote Darell Hill of the state ACLU. “HB 2462 makes civilian review boards inaccessible for most civilians, frustrating the oversight, transparency and accountability measures communities have been fighting for.”

In addition to expanding the definition of what a “civilian review board” is and making that definition retroactive — both of which were included as part of the $12.8 billion budget — Republican lawmakers and Ducey also imposed new requirements that will go into effect in late September. 

One change, also included in the budget, says that civilian review board members must be currently or previously certified police officers in Arizona. That requirement is in addition to new policies Republican lawmakers passed and Ducey signed in May. Those measures require two-thirds of any board’s voting members to be police officers in the agency the board oversees, and say that everyone who serves on a review board must have attended a police academy or received 80 hours of training from the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board, the state agency that certifies police officers in Arizona.  

But that training for civilians doesn’t exist: AZ POST only trains people who are hired by a law enforcement agency. Matthew Giordano, the executive director of AZ POST, will “work collaboratively” with any Arizona law enforcement or group that falls under the new civilian review board law to develop the required training. 

The training is required to cover topics like use of force encounters and de-escalation scenarios, body-worn cameras, and due process in criminal and administrative investigations. As part of the AZ POST training required under the new laws, people also have to undergo 20 hours of “simulated event law enforcement training.” 

Cities like Chandler, Tucson and Phoenix already train review board members, but that training would not fulfill the new state requirements, the Arizona Republic reported in May.

The 80-hour requirement is excessive compared to other civilian oversight groups across the country, according to McEllhiney. While training on police policies and procedures is commonplace, the extent of Arizona’s new law is different, she said.  

“This is not what we are seeing nationally,” McEllhiney said. “This appears to stifle civilian oversight of law enforcement and it’s basic principles (of) building bridges between police and the community, accountability with management, effective policing, independence.”

But Clure defended the new requirements favoring police officers and said complaints that they will be a barrier for civilians to participate are unfounded.

“Community involvement is critically important, we welcome it, but it needs to be balanced,” Clure said. “The police are the community and the community are the police. This is a mutual area of concern for all, and it makes sense that this situation, these issues be looked at from a community standpoint.”

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