I recently learned, after a series of emails with the Centralia City Manager regarding the Centralia Police Department, that there is, in fact, no formal police oversight in the City of Centralia.
According to City Manager Rob Hill: “On the overall matter of Police Department policy, I believe it is important to note that those are not approved or vetted through the City Manager or City Council. Those policies are strictly the purview of the Police Chief, and he has sole authority within the City ranks to adopt, amend and apply them. Others may disagree with some of the policies or their application, but ultimate authority resides with the Chief.”
The city manager had sent me this in response to my own emails that outlined and identified multiple missteps, apparent policy violations, and intentionally misleading statements made by Centralia Police Department leadership following my digging into an impromptu public Taser demonstration that occurred over the summer.
The statement from the City Manager left me wondering: “But … ‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?’” In this case, the famous Latin phrase translated as: “Who will watch the watchmen?”
If there is no oversight — how do we ensure accountability at all levels of law enforcement? It’s a question that every Introduction to Criminal Justice student is posed with.
I was so interested in this statement by the city manager that I emailed each of the Centralia City Councilors and asked them for comments on the matter (and a follow-up email as well).
Only one city councilor saw fit to respond: Councilor Peter Abbarno. Not a single other city councilor responded on the matter. As an attorney, Abbarno likely responded because he understands the gravity of my concerns.
As someone who studied criminal justice, I’m very concerned and troubled that Centralia has no option available for police oversight. In light of this, I asked city councilors in my emails: If you as a council have no actual oversight of police, and neither does the city manager, has the council ever considered adopting a civilian oversight model?
While this might be a new idea to the City of Centralia, it’s certainly not a new idea to the rest of the country. Cities all over the U.S. are adopting citizen and civilian oversight structures that give citizens a real and meaningful opportunity to work directly with law enforcement on matters of police policy and steer how policy is applied in their local community.
Many major cities, of course — Seattle, Everett, Tacoma, Spokane — have civilian oversight boards, but even smaller cities have already adopted this trend as well. In Washington State, for example, Ocean Shores, Oak Harbor and Pullman. Some of them have codes and bylaws that outline who can serve on the citizen panel, whether or not a representative from specific districts should be required, etc. — there are many, many ways oversight groups can be organized and structured.
Given what I have seen and the responses I’ve been given (some of them intentionally misleading by the Chief himself) over the past couple of months, I believe that the City of Centralia would absolutely, 100 percent benefit from a civilian oversight commission.
Police Captain Pamela Seyffert sums it up really nicely in an issue of Police Chief Magazine: “Professional civilian oversight of law enforcement agencies can transform organizational culture in a positive way. Changes in technology, widespread access to the Internet, smartphones, 24/7 access to continual loops of news, and organized activism are just a few of the factors nudging law enforcement toward the future of professional civilian oversight. These factors, combined with the complex societal issues with which the police are asked to deal, are creating an atmosphere ripe for change. Law enforcement agencies, though, have often resisted civilian oversight. Across the United States, however, policing has changed, and professional civilian oversight could be exactly what is needed to regain legitimacy, boost morale, increase the hiring of diverse candidates and improve public safety.”
In short (and ultimately), civilian oversight is the future of policing in a changing society. The National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE) outlines multiple benefits of civilian police oversight on their website, too, if you’re interested in further reading.
Right now, we have leadership in the police department that has gone outside of their written policy at will, recklessly, in public (in at least one occasion) and there is no oversight body to check them. This system will only lead to greater problems and issues with accountability down the road.
If the city manager and city council truly have no purview over their own law enforcement department, then it stands to reason that a civilian oversight commission is long overdue. If this is something you, as a citizen, are concerned about, you can also advocate for the adoption of an oversight commission directly to your city councilors as well.
Brittany Voie is a columnist for The Chronicle. She lives south of Chehalis with her husband and two young sons. She welcomes correspondence from the community at firstname.lastname@example.org.