Civilian Oversight of Police: Advancing Accountability in Law Enforcement, edited by Tim Prenzler and Garth den Heyer. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2015.  269pp. CDN$79.46 hardcover

Reviewed by Jihyun Kwon

Police forces around the world have long been haunted with the issues of accountability and appropriate oversight. In the West, external oversight, the civilian oversight of police in particular, has gained popularity over internal oversight. As police forces continuously face corruption scandals and accusations of misconduct in various jurisdictions, there has been a growing amount of research in this area.

By editing this collection of articles on civilian oversight of police, Prenzler and den Heyer attempt to review and integrate the existing body of research in the West and beyond, and to find consistent themes throughout. This volume is part of the Advances in Police Theory and Practice series, which seeks to connect the two separate worlds of police research and police practice. While this book provides an extensive, general summary of other research dating from 1960s, it does not provide any ground-breaking perspective or research on the police oversight literature.

This book begins with a historical and theoretical overview of police oversight by offering systemic and in-depth discussion of the existing literature according to the three models of complaints systems: ‘internal affairs,’ ‘civilian review,’ and ‘civilian control’ models. The focus is placed on the investigative aspect of the oversight and independence. In chapter 2 the term ‘relational conception of independence’ is introduced to emphasize “conditional, negotiable, and contingent” aspects of independence that are critical in the works of oversight agencies (p.46). The significance of independent investigation consistently reoccurs throughout the book and is a main part of the ‘practical win-win recommendations’ that the editors make for the stakeholders to achieve police legitimacy. This suggests that for a police oversight system to be effective, it must include an external agency that satisfies the flexible and multidimensional standards of independence in executing its role. By accessibly explaining the complexity of oversight independence, this work echoes what has been advocated by most previous research since the 1960s.

In the second section, Prenzler consistently builds on the previous section to examine stakeholder perspectives on complaints systems. Studies based on opinion surveys and focus group analyses are categorized and summarized to help us understand the general level of (dis)satisfaction among the public, complainants and police for all three types of complaints system. Despite the editors claim that this book “[provides] worldwide perspectives” on this topic (p.xiii), almost all of the studies cited in this section are from the Anglosphere. The editors do make an inadequate attempt at inclusiveness by exploring oversight issues in Africa and Asia. However, even in these chapters, which exclusively focus on two non-western regions, the authors continue to rely heavily on western literature and neocolonial narratives to understand and analyze police and oversight systems. By assuming the findings of western literature to automatically apply to these geographically and culturally distinct regions, they fail to seize the opportunity to break away from the repetitive narratives that have been rather unsuccessfully employed in this field of research and to provide more nuanced analysis of different types of oversight mechanisms. This essentially limits the potential “to improve police accountability through more substantive and sophisticated forms of oversight,” which the editors identify as “urgent” (p.xv).

Additionally, in examining different regional accounts of external oversight, the five chapters in Section 3 run somewhat contrary to the previous sections which set the tone of this book. Whereas a full chapter (i.e. chapter 2) is devoted to pushing forth the value of “the social and cultural dynamics” of oversight over “constitutional frameworks”, as the former is a better indicator of what happens in practice (p.29); the chapters in Section 3 place too much emphasis on the latter aspect. This is critical. By using the same western colonial standards and notions of governance and oversight for Africa, the authors are also too quick to point to the lack of formal legislative frameworks as an indication of virtually no ‘citizen’ oversight. They also allege that police in most parts of Africa “continue to be guided by informal rules and institutional culture in their daily operations despite reforms in legislation,” and assume this to be problems specific to the African continent when it is not (p.127). As a result, they effectively overlook other forms of law or social order enforcement mechanisms and oversight dynamics thereof that may not come under the neocolonial ‘constitutional framework.’ For Asia, the ideal western notion of ‘democracy’ is recognized as having no consistent value in predicting the degree of citizen participation in police accountability programs. Yet again, the author similarly limits his purview by persistently searching for the statutory investigative power and independence as an indication of existence or lack of democratic oversight. For citizen oversights in the U.S and Canada, the presumption that statutory framework reflect the reality of police governance remains. For example, in the case of Ontario’s civilian oversight system, the Ontario Independent Police Review Director, the authors refer to its statutory power to initiate independent investigation to indicate that it is an investigative body, rather than a gatekeeper or review agency of police complaints. This approach is grossly misleading given that most ‘statutory power’ of western police watchdogs remains unutilized due to political resistance and/or financial constraints. While legislative elements highlighted in this section correctly reflect the factual statutory frameworks, the abovementioned logical inconsistencies found within the book also reflect the simplistic approaches taken by the book as a whole.

In the last section, a relatively new idea of productive collaboration between police departments and oversight agencies is introduced. Of note is the contradictory nature of collaboration between the two and independence of the oversight agencies from the police, which the book emphasized greatly. Through case studies, chapter 11 expands on the concept of problem-oriented and problem-solving models of oversight, and advocates for collaboration. The “true collaboration” entails “a close working relationship” and “cooperation” between the two parties (p.244). This, as the author also acknowledges, threatens “the independence and accountability that oversight agencies have been established to instill” (p.244). While the case studies demonstrate how police-oversight collaboration is possible and may be preferable as indicated in both chapters 11 and 12 (which sums up the book), neither chapters address how this may relieve or exacerbate the significant level of dissatisfaction and perception of police-dominance in the current oversight systems among complainants that are so thoroughly documented in the previous chapters. As the editor claims to “[make] practical recommendations for achieving a ‘win-win’ balance in addressing the needs and interests of all parties involved” (p.269), one may have expected more innovative, or at least comprehensive, recommendations that include all of the three stakeholders’ perspectives. Once again, this section falls short of exploring further than what is already available and readily discussed in the oversight literature or policy arena.

Overall, this book is best-suited to readers who are relatively new to this topic as it provides an excellent overview of police accountability literature in the west. Others who are fairly familiar with this issue may also find this book useful as it is well researched and systemically puts together almost all of the existing studies on this topic for review. The book may not benefit those who are not only already familiar with the topic, but also looking for a new or more sophisticated take on this issue. Despite shortcomings outlined in this review, this book indeed fulfills its stated goal of summarizing and integrating currently obtainable research. With its relatively easy-to-read text, this book is recommended for those – including those outside the academia, such as police and oversight practitioners as well as policymakers – who are looking for a one-stop summary of contemporary issues that have been re-emerging in the field of police oversight in the Anglosphere.