A Guide to Taking Action on Police Reform

Nicole Silverberg
Jul 7, 2016 · 6 min read

In the wake of the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, I wanted to know how I, as a white person, can help without speaking over people of color. I was directed to a very helpful list of actions by Ijeoma Oluo, who graciously enumerated ways allies can help. Some of it is DIY, which can be intimidating and discouraging. I know we wish there was just a button we could press to make it better. Hopefully this guide will come as close as possible to that, and you can use it to take action. This guide is by no means comprehensive, but is hopefully a solid start to understanding your city and state’s laws and contacting your elected officials about police reform.

Know Your City & State’s Existing Laws and Practices

What are the police accountability procedures? Are there mandated body cameras in your city? Are there citizen oversight panels? What even are citizen oversight panels?


According to the ACLU’s “Fighting Police Abuse Community Action Manual,” the first step is finding out what the current problems are in your city, such as “excessive use of deadly force,” “discriminatory patterns of arrest,” “overreaction to gang problems,” and “lack of accountability.”

Finding information about what’s happening in your community is challenging by design, but you can demand information from your city. Lawsuits brought against police departments are also matters of public record. You can contact your local ACLU affiliate to see if they have this information — they very well might!

Your city’s police accountability procedures are also important to know. Google “police accountability procedures [name of your city]” to find out. It may take some hunting, but you should be able to find out how to file complaints, and what the procedure is from there.


Or, what must be proven in order to indict a police officer for misconduct? Again, Google “threshold police misconduct [name of your city]” to find it.

Additionally, you can obtain your police department’s manual. From the ACLU:

Your police department has a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) manual (it may have another title) that contains the official policies of the department. The SOP manual is a public document and should be readily available. Some departments place current copies in local libraries.

Others treat it as an internal document not available to the public — a practice which is unacceptable. Demand to see the manual, if your department withholds it. As a last resort, you may be able to file suit under your state’s open records law to obtain the SOP manual.


Here’s what a citizen oversight panel is, from the ACLU:

Civilian review systems create a lot a confusion because they vary tremendously. Some are more “civilian” than others. Some are not boards but municipal agencies headed by an executive director (who has been appointed by, and is accountable to, the mayor).

The three basic types of civilian review systems are —

Type I. Persons who are not sworn officers conduct the initial fact-finding. They submit an investigative report to a non-officer or board of non-officers, who then make a recommendation for action to the police chief. This process is the most independent and most “civilian.”

Type II. Sworn officers conduct the initial fact-finding. They submit an investigative report to a non-officer or board of non-officers for a recommendation.

Type III. Sworn officers conduct the initial fact-finding and make a recommendation to the police chief. If the aggrieved citizen is not satisfied with the chief’s action on the complaint, he or she may appeal to a board that includes non-officers. Obviously, this process is the least independent.

Although the above are the most common, other types of civilian review systems also exist.


Civilian review establishes the principle of police accountability. Strong evidence exists to show that a complaint review system encourages citizens to act on their grievances. Even a weak civilian review process is far better than none at all.

A civilian review agency can be an important source of information about police misconduct. A civilian agency is more likely to compile and publish data on patterns of misconduct, especially on officers with chronic problems, than is a police internal affairs agency.

Civilian review can alert police administrators to the steps they must take to curb abuse in their departments. Many well-intentioned police officials have failed to act decisively against police brutality because internal investigations didn’t provide them with the facts.

The existence of a civilian review agency, a reform in itself, can help ensure that other needed reforms are implemented. A police department can formulate model policies aimed at deterring and punishing misconduct, but those policies will be meaningless unless a system is in place to guarantee that the policies are aggressively enforced.

Civilian review works, if only because it’s at least a vast improvement over the police policing themselves. Nearly all existing civilian review systems

reduce public reluctance to file complaints

reduce procedural barriers to filing complaints

enhance the likelihood that statistical reporting on complaints will be more complete

enhance the likelihood of an independent review of abuse allegations

foster confidence in complainants that they will get their “day in court” through the hearing process

increase scrutiny of police policies that lead to citizen complaints

increase opportunities for other reform efforts.

A campaign to establish a civilian review agency, or to strengthen an already existing agency, is an excellent vehicle for community organizing. In Indianapolis, for example, a civilian review campaign brought about not only the establishment of a civilian review agency, but an effective coalition between the Indiana ACLU, the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and other community groups that could take future action on other issues.

Track Legislation

The Black Lives Matter movement has created a plan called Campaign Zero, a ten-point agenda to reduce police violence. It’s well-researched, well-organized, and informative. One tool provided by Campaign Zero is an interactive legislation map. You can select between one and ten agenda points and see if your state has legislation that has been passed or is being considered. It looks like this:


If you click on the icon for your state, it will share the names of the bills, their status, and their contents. It also gives a tool for you to contact your representatives.

Access that by clicking here.

Contact Your Representatives

Now that you know what the practices and laws are in your city, as well as any laws that may be under consideration, it’s time to reach out to your elected officials. Here are the people you should contact:


It’s very easy to find this contact information using Google.

You can also find your representatives and bills they’ve introduced, committees they serve on, and political contributions they’ve received here at CommonCause.org.

When you speak to them, either via emailing or calling, here are some things you can say:

  • You can advocate for specific parts of Campaign Zero’s policy agendas.
  • You can demand better police accountability.
  • You can advocate for a civilian review agency.
  • You can tell them that you will not tolerate police brutality and that you ask for their action on police reform to protect the lives of the citizens they swore to protect.
  • #BlackLivesMatter

Be sure to thank them for listening.

And lastly…

Do not vote for officials who do not support police reform.

Do not accept inaction.

People’s lives depend on it.

To volunteer to end racism and police violence in America, sign up here.

You can make a tax deductible donation specifically to police reform here.

Nicole Silverberg

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