Civilian review boards consist of persons who are not police officers. They review complaints against police and recommend disciplinary actions. By 1997, almost three‐fourths of the largest U.S. cities had civilian review procedures. The boards try to restrain problem cops who engage in brutality, harassment, and other forms of citizen abuse. Additionally, they strive to ensure an impartial investigation of all citizen complaints. In practice, however, departments often ignore citizens' recommendations. During the mid 1990s, for example, the New York Police Department failed to take action on a third to half of the police misconduct cases that had been substantiated by an independent civilian review board.
Citizens can seek either damages (money) or injunctions (court orders requiring police and departments to start or stop doing something that violates individual rights) and can file under state or federal law. State laws provide that citizens can sue the police for wrongful death, assault, battery, false arrest, breaking and entering, and false imprisonment. In addition to state laws, Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871 (now 42 U.S.C. 1983) allows citizens to sue public officials for violations of their civil rights. Each year courts order officials and municipalities to pay millions of dollars in damages in these suits. According to Paul Chevigny, an expert on police misconduct, civil lawsuits have little deterrent effect because officers almost never pay the damages themselves, even when the courts hold them personally liable. Chevigny points out that general city funds, not police budgets, serve as the source for paying damages.
Prosecutors can file charges only after the police misconduct has taken place. The high burden of proof in criminal court (for example, a prosecutor must show criminal intent and must establish guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt”) makes the likelihood of success low. Even convictions may have no impact on police policy if police executives disagree with the decision to prosecute.
When local prosecution fails, the federal government can act to control abuses. But even though federal constitutional rights limit police powers, the federal government rarely prosecutes such violations. An exception was the federal prosecution of the Los Angeles police officers who beat Rodney King. After a jury had acquitted the officers in a California court, federal prosecutors convicted the officers in federal court for depriving King of his constitutional rights.
The creation of the position of inspector general was one of the key recommendations of theChristopher Commission in the aftermath of the 1991 police beating of Rodney King, a black motorist, and the rioting that ensued. The Commission—led by Warren Christopher, who became U.S. secretary of state in 1993—proposed the position as one of several changes to better monitor citizen complaints against the police and oversee the discipline system by which officers are governed.