Ever since the Phoenix Police Department led the nation in shooting civilians in 2018, protesters have called for reform. Part of that change is here, in the form of the recently approved civilian police review board. To be effective, however, the board must be highly representative of the communities most affected by the police.
As law professors who have studied the substantial literature on civilian review boards, we share the following research-backed proposals for making Phoenix’s oversight of the police successful:
- A board of civilians, not law enforcement.
In keeping with the wishes of Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams and the City Council to hear from the community, every member of the board should be a civilian who is not immediately related to present or past law enforcement officers. This limitation is especially urgent since the police union has consistently opposed the creation of the civilian board, even as Phoenix became the largest city in the U.S. without a police oversight board.
Some might argue we need a police officer’s understanding of these matters to assist the board, but an officer’s presence might actually thwart its mission. For example, complaints of police sexual violence are the second most reported police misconduct after other uses of force. As Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw’s conviction for serial sexual assaults of Black women shows, civilians may be deterred from reporting misconduct if they do not have a truly independent place to go.
- A board representing the most-policed neighborhoods.
Phoenix police spend more time in certain neighborhoods than others, and those heavily policed people need to be well represented on the board. Civilian review boards succeed when they have committed members who are personally invested in positive community relations with law enforcement. People from heavily policed communities are not only more likely to be invested in helping the police reform, but also simply have more information on how the police behave. Since law enforcement necessarily especially relies on the assistance of these civilians to establish a safe community, getting their buy-in through inclusion on the board will be valuable.
When we say the board needs to include those most affected by misguided past police policies, we include community members who have a nonviolent criminal record. Because of past targeting of particular neighborhoods and further targeting of racial minorities, members of the affected communities are more likely to have some form of criminal record. We know those disparities are unfair because drug use is equal across races, but drug arrests are vastly disproportionate. An example of an unnecessary arrest here occurred last summer in Maryvale, where Phoenix police held a Black family at gunpoint when their 4-year-old child walked out of a Dollar Store with a doll. One way of acknowledging such prior unfairness is to include some non-violent arrestees on the board.
Although one might think special attention to heavily policed neighborhoods is favoritism, this prioritization is necessary to make sure all voices are heard. People from ritzy Phoenix communities can easily influence politics through their greater money and access to officials, but the voices of poorer neighborhoods are frequently excluded.
The bottom line on the selection of successful civilian review boards is that they must truly represent the communities being policed. Heavy representation from Phoenix’s most policed neighborhoods — Central City, South Mountain, Estrella, Maryvale, and Alahambra — is the way to make sure this board is representative.
A successful board is possible here. It is supported by important players, such as City Councilman Carlos Garcia, who has been ahead of the times in protesting police violence, and Chief Williams, who has repeatedly joined protesters in recognizing the disproportionate killing of Black and brown people. But this critical forming moment must not be wasted.
Ultimately, people need to remember that the board is the result of protests. If the board’s membership reflects the two principles we propose, Phoenix may be on its way to successful reform. If not, Phoenix will likely go through more protests. We hope the announcement of the board members will demonstrate that Phoenix is truly moving forward with police reform.
Valena Beety is professor of law at Arizona State University Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law and the deputy director of the Academy for Justice.
Frank Rudy Cooper is William S. Boyd professor of law and director of the Program on Race, Gender & Policing at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, William S. Boyd School of Law.