Interest in the role, function and performance of the police in contemporary Canadian society has increased in recent years, despite steadily falling or relatively stable crime rates (Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics). It would seem logical to expect that public interest in law enforcement would lessen when crime rates are declining, but this has not been the case. Criminologists and others who study crime acknowledge that the interrelationship between public attitudes toward crime and the occurrence of crime in society is far more complex than at first it appears (Roberts, Fear of Crime).

There are other reasons for the public's interest in law enforcement. Scientific discoveries such as the use of DNA have resulted in more sophisticated investigations of crime, sometimes leading to convictions that otherwise would not have occurred, and occasionally freeing the wrongfully convicted. Popular television programs on criminal investigations and extensive news coverage of major crime provide citizens with a greater amount of information about law enforcement even though this information, in strictly legal terms, may not always be accurate (Roberts, Sentencing in the Media).

More important, citizens are increasingly aware of their public responsibility to become actively involved in controlling and preventing crime - in concert with the police and law enforcement officials. The relationship of citizens with the police occurs at many levels and in various forms, one aspect of which is the subject of this paper. Governments too are encouraging citizen involvement in crime prevention and law enforcement, for example, through the National Crime Prevention Strategy and the Safer City Initiative. The United States has for many years promoted the concept of a "war on crime," implying that every American can be “drafted” to play their part in this political and social process.

A previous paper prepared by the John Howard Society of Alberta in 1997, "Role of the Police," traced the evolution of policing in Canada, discussed the renewed emphasis on community-based policing, and briefly described the impact of multiculturalism on policing services. Community-based policing was presented as a partnership between the community and its police to identify and ameliorate local crime and disorder. What was not discussed was the broader relationship between the community and the police, particularly the monitoring of police conduct by the community and the mechanisms through which citizens can lodge a complaint if they believe a police officer is acting inappropriately.

During the last half century, Canada and many other jurisdictions have promoted the idea that the public needs to have a more active role in monitoring the work of the police, especially when their conduct is perceived to be violating community standards. This process of involving citizens in police work, directly or indirectly, is encompassed within the terms civilian review (CR) and civilian oversight (CO) - terms that are frequently used interchangeably.

Generally, CR/CO is a method of involving citizens, structurally external to a police service, to hold police accountable to the public for their actions, policies, and organizational response to the community at large. It also describes a structure and a process for citizens to oversee and review complaints made against the police (Miller and Merrick 1) and to remedy problems regarding police misconduct and the use of excessive force. The objectives of CR/CO also include: changing the perception that police discriminate against racial minorities, improving the relationship between the police and the community, and increasing accountability in the criminal justice system.