Executive Summary

This paper is an expanded and revised version of a presentation made by JHSA to a public hearing of the Edmonton Police Commission on June 16, 2004. It is also a sequel to the Society's 1997 paper entitled "Role of the Police." The theme of this paper is civilian review (CR) and civilian oversight (CO) of complaints against the police. These terms are explained and their importance outlined.

The law, law enforcement, and policing are briefly traced from the early Colonial period when First Nations law was unacknowledged (1760-1835), through the 19th and early 20th century when "public policing" was introduced, to the period after World War II when civilian oversight became more prominent.

Social conditions after the War changing public attitudes, increased immigration, a more cosmopolitan society, and numerous inquiries into police conduct led to increased interest in and promotion of CR.

Most police jurisdictions in Canada have adopted some form of CR. The debate about police conduct tends to focus on two highly emotional issues: racism and the use of excessive force. Underlying these debates is the fundamental question: are the police engaged in excessive misconduct, or is this simply public perception? Is CR successful and is it relevant?

There is very little objective research evaluating the effectiveness of CR. Most of the research is anecdotal emphasizing the organizational structure of CR and the process for lodging a complaint. Data for research is sadly lacking.

This paper summarizes what type of police conduct generates complaints. It notes the relatively small percentage of complaints, the even smaller percentage of complainants that are substantiated, and the general dissatisfaction with the complaints process.

Despite these limitations, support for CR continues and is increasingly regarded as necessary in a democratic society. The paper concludes with a brief description of what must be done to make CR more viable, the John Howard Society of Alberta perspective on the need for CR/CO, and the Society's view on how such bodies need to be able to function.