Independent commissions to investigate the police have been an important part of the history of the American police. Commissions have been created to investigate local law enforcement agencies and also at the national level to examine the law enforcement profession as a whole. Commission investigations generally publish a report with recommendations for police reform.
In the twentieth century, commissions adopted a social scientific approach, utilizing recognized police scholars and often engaging in extensive data collection and analysis. The first investigating commission of this type was the Cleveland Survey (1922). The first national investigating commission was the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement (known popularly as the Wickersham Commission, 1929–1931). Its report on police abuse of citizens’ rights had a major influence in stimulating police reform. In 1967, the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice published a task force report on the police that also had a major impact on reform.
There have been many local police investigation commissions. The New York City Police Department was the subject of several investigations of police corruption in the twentieth century. The most famous recent police investigating commission was the 1991 Christopher Commission, which investigated the Los Angeles Police Department after the highly publicized beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles Police officers.
The weakness of investigating commissions is that they have no power to implement their recommendations for reform. Nonetheless, commissions have played a major role in the reform of the police by documenting existing problems and recommending reforms that have guided the efforts of federal, state, and local officials.
References and Further Reading