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On the LAPD 'Civilian Oversight' Board, the Untrained Criticize Police Work

Consider this hypothetical: Dr. Jones is the lead surgeon on a medical team composed of highly trained and experienced doctors, nurses, and technicians. One day an emergency surgery is required and the team is hastily assembled. Some members respond from hospitals and offices in various parts of the city while others come from their homes. But the team has trained together often and has handled many similar emergencies in the past, almost always with satisfactory outcomes. During this surgery the team confronts unexpected complications, and despite their best efforts the patient dies on the operating table.

Later, after an inquiry, a panel of “experts” overseeing the hospital issues a report finding fault with Dr. Jones and the members of his team, citing what they perceive to be the lapses in judgment that led to the patient’s death. Appearing before the panel, Dr. Jones speaks for his team. “May I ask,” he says, “where all of you experts attended medical school? And may I ask how many of these surgeries you’ve performed yourselves?”

“We’re not doctors,” say the experts.

“As I suspected,” says Dr. Jones. “And have you, by any chance, ever watched one of these surgeries performed?”

“Well, no,” say the experts, “but we’ve seen every episode of Grey’s Anatomy!”

This is absurd, of course. No one of sound mind would construct a system in which a doctor’s actions during surgery are judged by people with no medical training. Nor would you ask a layman to pass judgment on soldiers, pilots, firefighters, or anyone else whose profession requires experience and specialized knowledge to perform under stress.

Anyone else, that is, except a police officer. When it comes to police work, anyone and everyone can be an expert.

One hears so much about “civilian oversight” of police departments these days, with the argument being that absent the watchful eye of outsiders, police officers can become insular and detached from the communities they serve. Which may be true, as far as it goes, but this argument should be subjected to some questions: Which civilians should be entrusted with this responsibility, and what is to be expected of those so entrusted? (Do you want this guy, for example, overseeing your police department?) Isn’t it proper that a civilian overseer receive some minimum level of training in what a police officer’s job demands? And shouldn’t these overseers render their judgments based on real-world conditions rather than some idealized notion of what they think should have happened?

In Los Angeles, sadly, the answers to these questions are “no” and “no.”

On May 8 of last year, a woman living in the Sunland-Tujunga area of L.A. was awakened by the sound of an intruder in her home. She escaped through a bedroom window and phoned for police, and when patrol officers arrived they were able to look inside and see the burglar roaming the house. The woman had told officers she had three guns in the house, a pistol, rifle, and shotgun, with ammunition for all three, so the patrol officers surrounded the place and called for a SWAT team. Over the next few hours, SWAT officers attempted to negotiate with the suspect by telephone and through the use of a sound system on a police robot. Despite these efforts, the suspect refused to surrender and traded shots with officers in several separate exchanges.