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With Congress at a standstill on police reform legislation, what can be done to combat systemic racism & police brutality?
06:33 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

The video showed a police officer from Austin, Texas, yanking a Black elementary school teacher out of her car and slamming her to the ground for an alleged speeding violation.

The dashboard-cam footage went viral in 2016, and local activists that year demanded the officer be fired. When it didn’t happen, Austin police reformers clamored for stronger oversight of the police, and rejoiced when the city unveiled a beefed-up independent watchdog office in 2018.

Called the Office of Police Oversight, the new city department operates independently of the police department and aims to not only hold individual officers accountable, but also make policy recommendations that focus on systemic issues, such as racial profiling. Even so, it hasn’t been enough to eliminate the types of incidents that result in allegations of police brutality and racial bias.

Since the city began revamping its oversight arm in January of 2018, Austin police have tased a Black man on his knees with his hands in the air; fatally shot an unarmed Black man in his car in a parking lot; and fired “less-lethal” bean-bag projectiles into the crowd at rallies honoring George Floyd – sending a 16-year-old Latino boy and a 20-year-old Black college student to the hospital with head injuries, the latter a skull fracture.

“There is so much work left to do,” said Austin City Council member Greg Casar, who is a vocal advocate of stronger police reforms. “Policy change alone isn’t going to solely do the trick. We need a culture change within policing.”

A protester in Austin, Texas, is detained during a rally against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd.

In addition to touching off a worldwide movement, the police killing of Floyd in Minneapolis has provoked a flurry of interest in police accountability, which often takes the form of police oversight agencies.

In recent weeks, at least a dozen cities have reached out to the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE) to either launch some form of new oversight agency or expand on existing ones, said its director of operations, Liana Perez.

But at a time when “defund the police” has become a rallying cry for some activists, the notion of an oversight agency holds little appeal for those who want fundamental change.

Even the strongest proponents of the civilian oversight model say it, alone, isn’t enough to reform policing in America.

“This whole discussion is about policy and culture,” said Robin Kniech, a City Council member in Denver, whose system of oversight has been praised as a model by experts. “You can have a great use-of-force policy, but if you have a culture of impunity, it doesn’t work.”

Craig Futterman, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, said civilian police watchdogs can – in theory – be effective. However, he said, most of them are hamstrung by a lack or shortage of four things: independence from police departments or city hall, transparency, funding and authority.

“The answer to me isn’t that there is something fundamentally wrong with the premise of civilian oversight,” he said. “The problem is, in America we still have not really tried.”

Watchdogs are few and their authority runs the gamut

About 165 of the nation’s 18,000 police departments are subject to some form of police oversight – meaning the vast majority of law enforcement agencies across America are left to police themselves, said Perez of NACOLE.

They come in a dizzying constellation of formats with varying levels of authority, but in general consist of either appointed volunteers or paid non-law enforcement professionals who are tapped to police the police.

Usually, the bodies lack the power to impose discipline directly, acting instead as advisory panels for police chiefs, internal police department investigators or city managers. ​Some of the bigger agencies possess the authority to conduct their own investigations.

Their effectiveness – and power – runs the gamut.

In Los Angeles County, it was the FBI – not its civilian watchdog – that was investigating allegations of abuse of jail inmates at the hands of deputies that led to a coverup and criminal convictions of the former sheriff and some of his top officials.

In Inglewood – a city in Los Angeles County with a high rate of violent crime – the citizen oversight panel’s meetings have been canceled each month since June 2018, according to the city website. Emails from CNN asking the committee members about this dynamic were not returned, but a 2016 story in the Los Angeles Times quotes a city official saying the commission has “no authority” to “discuss or oversee or even hear any cases of [or] related to officer involved shootings.”

By contrast, one of the nation’s strongest civilian oversight boards is located in the northern half of California – the Oakland Police Commission.

This February, in an extremely rare move, the panel of civilian appointees voted unanimously to fire without cause Oakland’s police chief, who had clashed with the commission over police shootings and diversity on the force, according to the