Police Oversight

The Santa Ana City Council has been discussing the issue of police oversight. The City hosted a virtual community forum on August 4, 2021 to share more about police oversight mechanisms and to facilitate a panel discussion among practitioners and subject-matter experts. You can view the recording of the forum below and scroll down to learn more.


Background Information


Across the United States, at the federal, state and local level, debate is underway regarding law enforcement. This broad conversation ranges from social justice, accountability, the role of the police, funding levels for law enforcement, the laws, policies and procedures governing police departments, and oversight.

At the June 16, 2020 City Council meeting, the City Council directed staff to prepare an informational report providing examples of police oversight models in place across law enforcement agencies in the United States. More specifically, the City Council directed staff to explore best practices for police oversight, identify various models of oversight, and evaluate the various frameworks.

Staff returned to the City Council on December 15, 2020 with an updated informational report with additional details about police oversight. The report is available on our website. At this meeting, the City Council directed staff to continue researching this topic and to conduct community engagement to make sure the community is involved in the process of exploring police oversight for Santa Ana. 


About the Santa Ana Police Department


The mission of the Santa Ana Police Department (SAPD) is to deliver public safety services to the community with the utmost professionalism and integrity. SAPD’s values act as the guideline for the discretionary use of police powers and are the basis by which employee actions are evaluated.

SAPD is committed to creating and maintaining a safe, secure, and enjoyable environment for community members and visitors alike. SAPD strives to provide fair, courteous, responsive, and effective service equally to all people while observing each individual’s dignity and worth. Therefore, it is the policy of SAPD to accept and thoroughly investigate all complaints of alleged misconduct by any member of the department. The complaint process has two goals:

To correct improper employee conduct.

To protect employees from unwarranted criticism when their actions were lawful and justified.

To that end, a Citizen’s Complaint Form is available on the City of Santa Ana’s official website. If citizens cannot access the internet, complaint forms are mailed out or hand delivered to the individual wishing to file a complaint. Below is the process by which individuals submit complaints of police misconduct:

  • Complainant prepares and submits SAPD Citizen Complaint Form or communicates alleged misconduct to any staff member
  • Complaint is reviewed by supervisor to determine if the nature of the complaint describes alleged police misconduct
  • Complaint is assigned for investigation and inspector reviews all facts, policies and procedures pertaining to the complaint
  • An investigation is conducted within the one-year statute of limitations (may be extended due to exceptional circumstances)
  • A determination is made as follows: (1) Sustained; (2) Not Sustained; (3) Unfounded; (4) Exonerated
  • Complainant is notified within 30 days of finalizing the determination
  • If complaint is sustained, discipline is recommended to the Chief of Police, who makes the final determination
  • Due process rights are available to the involved officer(s) to appeal any findings and/or imposition of discipline
  • Personnel Board reviews the findings and imposition of discipline on appeal
  • Involved officer(s) may appeal the Personnel Board findings to the Superior Court.

The Citizen’s Complaint Form procedure is an example of an internal police misconduct investigation, where the individuals who investigate the complaint are composed of internal law enforcement and/or other individuals from within the local government agency. This differs from the external investigative component conducted within a police oversight model where the individuals who investigate the complaint are civilians who do not work for the law enforcement agency or local government agency.


Overview of Police Oversight Commissions


While the definition varies by source, a police oversight commission is a form of oversight of law enforcement officer conduct. The purpose of these oversight systems is to improve law enforcement performance and accountability. A leading scholar, Samuel Walker, distilled best practices into a concise and practical list designed to facilitate police reform (Walker, 2005). These strategies are based on the 2001 Department of Justice report, Principles for Promoting Police Integrity. These include (a) use of force and other critical incident reporting; (b) open and accessible citizen complaint procedures; (c) early intervention systems; and (d) external citizen oversight.

Any successful model must address the rules, policies, norms, and culture of the police department. Research suggests that police misconduct is often driven by the ethos of the police organization (Armacost, 2004, p. 456). In 2019, SAPD leadership, working with members of the community and co-facilitated by the Orange County Human Relations Commission, revised the Department’s Community Oriented Policing Philosophy (which clearly emphasizes accountability, integrity and transparency); and established a 2019-2024 Policing Strategic Plan.


NACOLE's Three Classifications of Police Oversight


Although the models set forth above depict the two general types of oversight board/commissions, there are numerous variation between those with investigatory power and those without. There are civilian review boards, monitors, auditors, and inspectors general, among the variations. The “best” approach continues to be a subject of debate among scholars and practitioners. In part, this is because so many different factors influence what particular agencies and communities need and can sustain. A variety of police oversight classification systems have developed over the years because of the wide variation in approaches adopted by communities. The National Association of Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE) adopted a system developed by Samuel Walker in 2001 with some modifications of their own. NACOLE places police oversight bodies in one of three classifications:

The investigation-focused model involves routine, independent investigations of complaints against police officers, which may replace or duplicate police internal affairs processes, staffed by non-police civilian investigators. The review-focused model concentrates on commenting on completed investigations after reviewing the quality of police internal affairs investigations. Recommendations may be made to police executives regarding findings, or there may be a request that further investigations be conducted. A review board composed of citizen volunteers commonly heads this model, and they may hold public meetings to collect community input and facilitate police-community communication. The auditor/monitor model focuses on examining broad patterns in complaint investigations including patterns in the quality of investigations, findings, and discipline rendered. Further, in some cities that use this model, auditor/monitors may actively participate in or monitor open internal investigations. This model often seeks to promote broad organizational change by conducting systematic reviews of police policies, practices or training, and making recommendations for improvement.


Since the 1970s, more than 200 police oversight commissions have been established throughout the United States. For information that is more detailed please see Exhibit 1 for a report published in 2018 by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services entitled Civilian Oversight of the Police in Major Cities. In order to better understand how police oversight plays a role in local law enforcement in California, a summary of police oversight bodies in select cities is provided in Exhibit 2. Civilian oversight programs vary significantly from one city to the next and even within the general categories described here, and some communities deploy police oversight commissions that incorporate more than one characteristic of each of the models.

In addition to the flexibility of the makeup of each police oversight commission, variability also exists among the costs associated with each. Research of a handful of cities indicate that the models with full investigatory power requires the greatest amount of annual funding; whereas, non-investigatory power models that serve to monitor require the least.



Take the Survey in English

Tomar La Encuesta en español

Điền vào Bản khảo sát bằng tiếng Việt

Questions and Answers

What is police oversight?

Police oversight is external (non-police) oversight of a police department. A police oversight board or commission typically consists of a group of non-police individuals (referred to as “civilians”) who independently oversee and review the actions of a police department, such as complaints or concerns against the police department or its officers.

What does police oversight look like?


While police oversight boards/commissions differ,  they generally can be categorized into three main models:

  • Investigation-Focused model: This model involves routine, independent investigations of complaints against police officers, which may replace or duplicate police internal affairs processes, staffed by  non-police civilian investigators.
  • Review-focused model: This model concentrates on commenting on completed investigations after reviewing the quality of police internal affairs investigations. Recommendations may be made to police executives regarding findings, or there may be a request that further investigations be conducted.
  • Auditor/monitor model: This model focuses on examining broad patterns in complaints investigations including patterns in the quality of investigations, findings and disciplines rendered. In some cities that use this model, auditors/monitors may actively participate in or monitor open internal investigations. This model seeks to promote broad organizational change by conducting systematic reviews of police policies, practices or training, and making recommendations for improvement.

There are over 200 different models of police oversight depending on the classification by a city or organization, but a majority of them can generally be classified under one of these three models.


What are the benefits of police oversight?


Advocates of police oversight show that there are a variety of benefits, such as the following:

  • People are given a place to voice their concerns outside of the law enforcement agency.
  • Oversight can help hold the police department accountable for an officer's actions.
  • Oversight agencies can help increase the public’s understanding of law enforcement policies and procedures.
  • Oversight agencies can help improve community relations by fostering communication between the community and police agencies.
  • Oversight agencies can improve department policies and procedures. 
  • An oversight system can demonstrate increased police accountability and highlight the need to eliminate misconduct.

We encourage you to do your own research to make a determination about what you think the benefits of police oversight are.


Do other cities have a police oversight board/commission?


Yes, cities such as Los Angeles, Anaheim, Berkeley, Chicago, and dozens more across the United States currently have a police oversight board in place. You can learn more about their police oversight boards/commissions by visiting their websites:

There are over 200 cities with police oversight boards/commissions to provide oversight of their law enforcement agency. We encourage you to explore police oversight boards/commissions from other cities as well.


How many people serve on a police oversight board/commission?


It depends. The make-up of police oversight boards/commissions differ across law enforcement agencies. For example, the City of Berkeley, CA  board has nine members, while the City of Anaheim, CA has seven members. The method of appointing these members differ as the City of Berkeley has members nominated by the City Council and the City of Anaheim selects from a lottery of residents from each of the City’s districts.


What does "subpoena" mean?


A subpoena is an order issued by a legal authority that orders a person to give a written or spoken statement, or orders the production of evidence. Failing to listen to the subpoena results in a fine or imprisonment. Some police oversight models allow the police oversight board/commission to issue subpoenas.


What makes a police oversight board/commission effective?


There are multiple factors that a police oversight board/commission must have to have an effect on its purpose of providing police accountability and effective community service. These include the following:

  • Having an efficient oversight body that is quick and thorough in carrying out their duties regarding  a concern or investigation.
  • Encouraging the highest ethical standards in organizations that oversee law enforcement.
  • Educate the public by developing mechanisms to enhance police and community relations, educate law enforcement agencies, and encourage law enforcement to respond with sensitivity to residents’ issues and complaints
  • Sufficient funding to allow for resources and gives the body the ability to properly carry out its duties and function well.


How much does it cost to run a police oversight board/commission?


The costs of running the board/commission differs, depending on the City and the model of police oversight being used and the powers that they are given. The City of Oakland, CA, for example, uses an investigation-focused police oversight model, and has a budget of $4.1 million. The City of Anaheim, CA uses the auditor/monitor model of police oversight and has a budget of $125,000.


Why is Santa Ana considering establishing a police oversight board/commission?


Amid the rising tension between individuals and police departments across the country, the Santa Ana City Council is interested in exploring police oversight as a means to build trust between the Santa Ana Police Department and the community.


Where can I learn more?


There are many sources where you can find information about police oversight--and we encourage you to explore those. You can use an online search engine, visit a library and ask a librarian for help, and much more. You may also consider visiting the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE)'s website for additional information. 

If you have any questions, please call the City of Santa Ana at (714) 647-5234