Some research studies suggest that if civilian agencies are given sufficient resources there is a much greater likelihood their work will have an impact on officers' conduct and increase the public's confidence in the police.

Supporters of civilian review must continue to meet the challenges advanced by police unions and associations which often strongly defend their members ("A police union's threat"). Some police groups claim that civilian review will have a negative impact on police morale. Another claim is that the police, with their experience, can be more effective in investigating and processing complaints. Research studies support neither of these arguments:

  • Police representatives have not produced concrete evidence that civilians are less able to distinguish between false accusations and legitimate cases of police misconduct;
  • There are no Canadian or international studies that demonstrate the presence of civilian review lowers police morale and job satisfaction and increases occupational stress; and
  • No studies have been conducted indicating officers subjected to civilian oversight have lower levels of morale than officers who are required to undergo an internal police-service review.

Civilian Review and its Limitations

While there seems to be a general consensus that civilian review is necessary to establish boundaries for policing in a democratic society, this method of involving citizens in law enforcement needs much further development if it is to be successful. Three of the most important issues are:

  • Establishing and clarifying the authority of civilian review bodies and their degree of independence from the police;
  • Ensuring they obtain adequate resources to achieve their objectives; and
  • Exploring methods of addressing the many dimensions of alleged police racism.

The dilemma for civilian review agencies is that most of them do not have the power and authority or the resources to initiate independent investigations of the police and to adjudicate complaints (Colleen Lewis Complaints). The most they can usually do is review an investigation conducted by the police and make recommendations about discipline. Seldom do they have any final authority over the decisions of police management (Wortley Civilian Governance). The question remains: is it more important that civilian review boards effectively identify, investigate and "discipline" police officers or is their independence from the police more important?

A survey on systematic racism conducted in Ontario in 1994 found that people are more likely to report police maltreatment to civilian rather than to police authorities. But there is a further dilemma: members of visible minorities are generally hesitant about becoming involved in the complaints process regardless of whether the review is external or internal to a police force (Wortley Civilian Governance 18).

The organizational characteristics of a police force, its management policies and functions, ethics education and training, and other factors such as "police culture" can be covariates of complaints from citizens (Cao et. al, "A test"; Davis and Mateu; Leffler; Queensland Criminal Justice Commission). These factors become the responsibility of police managers and are unlikely to be successfully addressed by any civilian review agency. Developing a means of separating complaints arising from police organizational and management issues from matters specifically related to an officer's conduct is one reason why a multi-tiered complaints system may be necessary (Smith '28).