In Yichang, Hubei Province, Executive Director John Kamm referenced the Office of Civilian Complaints (OCC) in San Francisco to illustrate civilian police oversight in a presentation on the subject. The text below summarizes information from that section of his talk.
San Francisco, California has the most developed and oldest civilian oversight system in the United States. The key body is the Office of Civilian Complaints (OCC), which reports to the Police Commission (PC). The PC, which has seven civilian members, is responsible for approving police policies proposed by the OCC and reviewing the police chief’s decisions on discipline.
With a few dozen staff members, the OCC fills a number of functions. The body recommends police policies for PC approval; investigates complaints of police misconduct; makes recommendations to the police chief and PC if a complaint is sustained; prosecutes officers in PC hearings; mediates minor disputes between officers and complainants; and conducts public outreach.
There are several advantages of civilian oversight, even for the police, who are commonly believed to mistrust the OCC. The body helps maintain a non-adversarial relationship between the police and the District Attorney, gives citizens a sense of empowerment, and lowers the costs of police work and litigation. The OCC investigated about 1,000 complaints against police in 2007, with 7 percent of these sustained as cases worthy of discipline.
The OCC was established in San Francisco in 1982 as a response to police misconduct from the “White Night Riots” of May 21, 1979. On that date, citizens in San Francisco marched in protest over a seven-year prison sentence given to a former police officer (and, by then, city supervisor) who had been convicted of manslaughter for killing two city officials. Later in the evening, several police officers smashed up a local bar and beat patrons, drawing a tremendous public outcry.
An institution born out of citizen outrage, the OCC has attracted its share of public controversy and citizen complaints. In January 2007, an unflattering audit revealed that 40 percent of complaint cases were dropped because the OCC had missed deadlines, with other complaints going uninvestigated for months. Condemnation of the agency led to reform of the OCC that is still ongoing. By mid-2007, a backlog of old cases had been reduced, with 42 percent of new cases filed in 2007 being closed by June 30. The OCC also successfully mediated 18 cases throughout the year—the most ever in its history.