The terms civilian oversight and civilian review in the criminal justice literature have different interpretations and meanings. A literal interpretation of civilian oversight would suggest that it has a broad, umbrella-like function while civilian review implies that its function is more practical and specific, namely, to monitor activities that result in complaints against the police (Colleen Lewis, "The politics"). But further examination of the term indicates there are many types of oversight: oversight of complaints against the police and oversight of police policy (Miller and Merrick 3-8). Moreover, oversight functions in Australia are often performed by an Ombudsman rather than by civilians and do not focus exclusively on the police (Lewis and Prenzler, "Civilian Oversight"). CR/CO, in other words, may differ in theory and in practice according to geographic area, jurisdiction and culture.

Why is this issue important for the John Howard Society of Alberta and for Albertans and Canadians? There are several reasons:

  • There are federal, provincial, municipal as well as various specialized police services operating in Canada with minimal consistency in how each of them deal with complaints from citizens; there are also no models describing the essential components of CR, and no standards or guidelines recommending how complaints can be effectively managed (Wortley, Civilian Governance 11);
  • There are many instances of police forces in Canada, acting on behalf of governments or particular interest groups, that failed to treat all citizens as equal before the law, a fundamental principle of Canadian justice;
  • The quality of crime investigations is critical in an era when wrongful convictions still occur;
  • Power can be abused by any group in society including the police; mechanisms need to be in place to ensure that any power granted is not exceeded, and above all does not supersede Canadian law;
  • Research on CR is sadly lacking in Canada; the evidence is not clear whether the small number of substantiated complaints against the police is the result of effective police work, a faulty complaints process, or citizen apathy and indifference towards this issue;
  • Incidents of police misconduct at the time of arrest can severely complicate reintegrating offenders after their release.

This paper has five basic objectives:

  1. Briefly trace the relationship between citizens and the police during the early social development of Canada;
  2. Describe the changes that occurred in the 1970s and the period following;
  3. Outline methods of instituting democratic control over the police;
  4. Summarize the process of civilian review/civilian oversight, and their benefits and limitations; and
  5. Discuss some steps that can be taken to strengthen the relationship between citizens and the police.