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In Search of Police Accountability

NCJ Number
Date Published
23 pages

This study examined three jurisdictions – Portland, OR; Washington, DC; and Cincinnati, OH – for the period 2001=3016 to assess the extent to which their civilian review boards (CRBs) have increased police accountability to the community for their professional conduct.


Policing is an inherently repressive function, often entailing abuse. Calls for accountability have led to the creation of local civilian review boards (CRBs) and enactment of a federal law authorizing the Department of Justice (DOJ) to sue any police agency that systematically violates the Constitution. The authors of this paper examined three jurisdictions—Portland, OR; Washington, DC; and Cincinnati, OH—over the period 2001-2016 to assess the extent to which these oversight mechanisms have increased accountability. They gathered misconduct complaint data from CRBs and police departments, and applied four sets of performance measures with expectations over time if accountability improved: (1) volume of complaints, volume by race/ethnicity, and the disproportionate rate of complaints by Blacks should decline; (2) volume of allegations, volume of those involving use of force should decline; (3) percentage of conclusive versus inconclusive findings should rise; and (4) percentage of allegations sustained should rise. They tested the null hypothesis for these trends using trend-line regression. The authors found that the volume of complaints and the disproportionate rate of complaints by Blacks remained high, with little downward trend. The volume of use of force allegations similarly remained high, with sustain rates substantially below those for other allegations. The percentage of conclusive findings increased in some instances, but generally remained flat. The overall sustain rate remained low, with no upward trend. It appears that CRBs and DOJ intervention have been largely ineffective in improving police accountability. Lasting change may require a fundamental shift in the socio-economic structure itself, and a concomitant newly conceptualized policing function. (Published abstract provided)

Date Published: January 1, 2019