Citizen Oversight of the Police

Citizen oversight of the police has proliferated among the larger cities of the U.S., based on the expectations that it would curtail police misconduct and raise the public’s confidence in the police. But social science offers very little empirical evidence to either confirm or refute these expectations.  In 2001, one northeastern city established a police review board to provide for citizen oversight, and to learn about how well the new board achieved some of its objectives, Rob Worden and Shelagh Dorn designed and administered surveys of complainants, other people who had contact with city police (i.e., police “clients”), and officers against whom complaints were filed.


Three years of survey research in this city yielded a mix of findings. Citizen oversight, it appeared, enhanced the legitimacy of complaint review, as many people had more confidence in the investigation and disposition of complaints with a citizen review board in place.  In addition, evidence suggested that these perceptions had a small but positive effect on the likelihood that police clients took action to complain when they experienced police misconduct.  However, many police clients were not aware of the existence of citizen review in this city, despite outreach efforts by the board.  Moreover, most clients who were not satisfied with their treatment by police, or with the service that they received, took no action to complain, and when they did, it was not in the form of complaints subject to citizen review. When complaints were filed with the civilian review board, complainants were seldom satisfied with the process unless their complaints were sustained, and many complainants’ expectations could not have been fulfilled by an adjudicative process of this kind.  A public version of the full report – the last of three to the city – can be found below.

In 2009-2010 the Finn Institute resumed work of this kind for the city, including a survey of the people who had filed complaints since the suspension of surveying in 2004, and a survey of the city’s residents, to better inform the review board and city officials about the operation of complaint review and the public’s attitudes toward the police. The patterns remained much the same as in the earlier period.

Reports and Publications

Robert E. Worden, Heidi S. Bonner and Sarah J. McLean, 2018.  “Procedural Justice and Citizen Review of Complaints against the Police: Structure, Outcomes, and Complainants’ Subjective Experiences,” Police Quarterly 21 (1): 77-108. (Published on-line December 21, 2017;

Robert E. Worden and Kelly J. Becker, 2015. “Tip of an Iceberg: Citizen Complaints and Citizen Dissatisfaction with the Police,” poster presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Society of Criminology, Washington, DC.

Robert E. Worden, 2004. Citizen Oversight of the Ashton Police: Perceptions of Police Clients and Complainants, 2003.

Robert E. Worden and Sarah J. McLean, 2010. Citizen Oversight of the Ashton Police, 2010.