Faculty Spotlight: Professor Brian Buchner, Fostering a More Equitable and Just Society

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Photo: Brian Buchner

For Brian Buchner, fairness, equity, and the pursuit of justice are core tenets of his life and career. As the Assistant Inspector General with the LAPD Office of the Inspector General, Professor Buchner oversees the Audit section, which reviews all aspects of the Los Angeles Police Department. Throughout his career, Professor Buchner has sought opportunities that further transparency from public officials, creating actionable policy to facilitate a more just and equal society.

Professor Buchner’s interest in the criminal justice system started early. As far back as he can remember, Professor Buchner was interested in criminal justice issues and the need in a democracy for a system that treats people fairly and with respect, offers vulnerable people dignity, and provides equal access to justice for everyone. His early forays into criminal justice begin with a law enforcement explorer program in high school, as a seasonal Police Officer for the tourist destination of Ocean City, Maryland, and multiple degrees in criminal justice and criminology. These early experiences were instrumental in shaping Professor Buchner’s views on criminal justice as well as his views on collaborative solutions within policing and public safety. Following his MA in Criminology and Criminal Justice from the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Professor Buchner dove into various public safety and criminal justice related jobs, including directing policy to tackle some of the toughest challenges for the City of Los Angeles, serving as the president of the nation’s largest police oversight organization, and testifying before President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. 

Below, Professor Buchner explains his drive to make communities safer, the challenges facing criminal justice practitioners, and fostering a more equitable and just society.

How did you get your start in criminal justice?

From as far back as I can remember, I have been very interested in criminal justice issues and the need in a democracy for a system that treats people fairly and with respect, offers vulnerable people dignity, and provides equal access to justice for everyone. I believed strongly in the very idea of “justice.” I was one of the leaders in a Law Enforcement Explorer program when I was a teenager growing up near Cleveland, Ohio, which afforded me a great understanding of law enforcement as well as the importance of community engagement efforts that would help to build strong relationships between the police and the people they serve. These early experiences continue to shape my views on criminal justice and collaborative approaches to policing and public safety to this day.

Following the completion of my graduate studies, I became a Policing Specialist for a nonprofit organization called the Police Assessment Resource Center (PARC), based in Los Angeles. PARC was primarily responsible for monitoring the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, including reviewing their investigations into critical incidents involving the most serious uses of force, such as deputy-involved shootings, as well as allegations of deputy misconduct. While at PARC, I had the opportunity to study and offer guidance on policing and civilian oversight best practices nationwide.

After leaving PARC, I continued to seek out various public safety and criminal justice-related jobs. First, I worked as a Police Special Investigator at the LAPD Office of the Inspector General, where I reviewed hundreds of uses of force by LAPD officers, analyzed officers’ tactics, and prepared independent analyses and recommendations for the Board of Police Commissioners, which oversees the entire police force. I also conducted proactive investigations focused on broader risk management issues and assessed officers’ compliance with a wide variety of LAPD policies and procedures.

From there, I went on to work on some of the most challenging issues in the City of Los Angeles, as the Mayor’s Public Safety Policy Director, Chief of Homelessness Operations & Street Strategies, and the City Homelessness Coordinator for the Office of the City Administrative Officer. As Public Safety Policy Director for the Mayor, I directed city-wide policing policy. My position allowed me to influence many important reforms, such as crafting a video release policy for the LAPD that became the model for the State of California and implementing department-wide implicit bias training for officers.

During that time, I also served as President of the nation’s largest police oversight organization. The work I did over the course of a 3-year term had a truly profound and lasting impact on me. I was able to connect with communities and advance police reform initiatives in the wake of police-involved deaths in places like Baltimore, Chicago, and Ferguson; and I witnessed the strength, courage, and grassroots activism exhibited in those places and many others. All of it serves as another reminder of exactly why I continue to do this work.

In addition to all of this, I worked as a part-time lecturer at Cal State LA’s School of Criminal Justice & Criminalistics, served as a Subject Matter Expert and Consultant to the University of California Office of the President (focused on policing and police accountability), and was a Senior Fellow at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. I have also published numerous reports on various aspects of policing and the civilian oversight of law enforcement and was invited to testify before President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. 

Currently, I am back at the LAPD Office of the Inspector General, serving in the role of Assistant Inspector General. I oversee the office’s Audit Section, which has a wide mandate to review all aspects of the LAPD.

What does a typical day look like for you as the Assistant Inspector General with the LAPD Office of the Inspector General?

The LAPD Office of the Inspector General (OIG) plays a crucial role in promoting transparency, accountability, and integrity within the Los Angeles Police Department. Acting as an independent oversight entity, the OIG monitors and evaluates the department’s operations, policies, and practices to ensure they align with legal, ethical, and community standards. One of its primary functions involves conducting comprehensive reviews and audits of the LAPD’s internal investigations, ensuring they are thorough, unbiased, and in accordance with established guidelines. By overseeing and scrutinizing these investigations, the OIG aims to maintain public trust, enhance officer professionalism, and foster a culture of responsible and responsive policing.

A typical day at the OIG involves a significant amount of reading and writing. At any given time, I might be reviewing arrest or crime reports, reading thousands of pages of interview transcripts from internal misconduct or use of force investigations, and researching relevant policies and procedures, guidelines, and pertinent case law. Our day-to-day work also involves viewing various forms of recorded media and digital evidence, such as body-worn camera and in-car video footage, as well as surveillance or security camera recordings tied to the cases under examination. I regularly meet with top LAPD officials to discuss various issues, to get their perspective on specific cases, or just to build a strong and open working relationship between the OIG and the LAPD.

What are some challenges in this role?

Our office, like civilian oversight agencies in general, grapples with managing public expectations regarding its role, its authority (or, sometimes, its lack thereof), the constraints on the impact of our reviews and recommendations, and our ability to proactively prevent instances of officer misconduct. The OIG consistently conducts independent and thorough analyses of evidence and impartial examination of facts, draws evidence-backed conclusions, and communicates our findings to the Police Commission, the LAPD, and the public. Although we can propose recommendations for change, requiring or compelling their full adoption or implementation often remains beyond our control.

Balancing public demands while maintaining the rigors of day-to-day monitoring and accountability tasks presents an ongoing challenge. Furthermore, we often encounter difficulties in crafting narratives around our work. Given the sensitive nature of our tasks, detailed findings from our work cannot typically be shared with audiences beyond the Police Commission, the LAPD, and the City Attorney. Consequently, building awareness and garnering support for our findings and recommendations is also challenging.

However, our office excels at fulfilling its core role, skillfully identifying issues or deficiencies – whether they pertain to individual cases like use of force incidents or personnel complaints against officers, or more extensive and broad-based concerns with departmental policies or procedures.

Tell us about a career highlight.

Throughout my career, I have had the privilege of contributing to numerous accomplishments that remain a constant source of pride for me. From spearheading the expansion of social services for children ages 0-3 as well as critical support for their families, to orchestrating the opening of over 24 city recreation centers to serve as temporary homeless shelters at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, my journey has been marked by many meaningful initiatives.

Among these achievements was my role in crafting the LAPD’s critical incident video release policy, which set the precedent for the State of California. I led the establishment of the City of Los Angeles’s inaugural bridge housing site, propelling a significant expansion of our interim housing system to address the pressing homelessness crisis. In partnership with USC’s Keck School of Medicine, I pioneered the City’s groundbreaking street medicine program, ensuring that critical medical care would reach some of the most vulnerable individuals wherever they were located.

A standout moment in my career was the creation and launch of the City’s unarmed alternative 911 response initiative for non-emergency situations involving individuals experiencing homelessness – the Crisis and Incident Response through Community-Led Engagement program, or CIRCLE. The pioneering CIRCLE program was first introduced in the Venice and Hollywood communities, which have some of the highest concentrations of unsheltered homelessness in Los Angeles and generate many calls to 911 involving the unhoused population. This innovative program has since expanded to encompass almost every corner of the city.

At its core, the CIRCLE program unites street outreach workers and mental health clinicians as cohesive teams, stationed within targeted areas, actively engaging with homeless communities every day of the week. Additionally, the program established a round-the-clock response team to attend to non-emergency LAPD calls (both 911 and the non-emergency line). The CIRCLE program also strategically placed “decompression centers,” where CIRCLE team members bring unhoused individuals. These centers provide a tranquil, welcoming setting for unhurried discussions, far removed from the tumult of the streets.

The CIRCLE program has emerged as a successful example of a program that offers vital support to those facing homelessness, steering them away from unnecessary encounters with law enforcement and repeated cycles through the criminal justice system. This not only reduces barriers to addressing their housing challenges, like a criminal record or costly fines, but also allows the police to focus on other law enforcement priorities. Ultimately, this improves the overall safety and security of our communities.

What are some changes you would like to see in the criminal justice system?

Some of the changes I would like to see in the criminal justice system that are vital to achieving a more equitable, just, and effective system for everyone include:

  1. Expansion of Crisis Intervention: Expand specialized programs and policies to more effectively handle situations involving individuals experiencing mental and/or behavioral health issues. These programs and policies should involve specially trained non-law enforcement clinicians and practitioners as well as co-responder models that pair law enforcement with clinicians to respond to appropriate incidents, such as domestic violence, sexual assault, or human trafficking. Increased collaboration between law enforcement and clinical professionals can lead to more positive outcomes for everyone involved in such incidents.
  2. Reduction of Mass Incarceration: Implement policies to reduce the over-reliance on incarceration, especially for non-violent offenses. Alternative sentencing options, such as community service, diversion programs, and probation, can be more effective in addressing underlying issues.
  3. Elimination of Racial Disparities: Implement comprehensive measures to address and eliminate racial disparities at all stages of the criminal justice process, from policing and arrests to sentencing and parole.
  4. Police Accountability and Transparency: Strengthen police accountability through enhanced oversight mechanisms, independent investigations of misconduct, and transparent reporting of use of force incidents. Building trust between law enforcement and communities is crucial for effective policing.
  5. Community Policing and Engagement: Continue building and promoting community policing models, such as the LAPD’s Community Safety Partnership, that encourage officers to work closely with communities and to build trust by addressing local concerns. Engaging community members in decision-making processes can lead to more effective and responsive policing.

These changes, among others, are essential steps towards creating a criminal justice system that prioritizes fairness, justice, rehabilitation, and the overall well-being of individuals and communities.

Do you have any guiding principles that inform how you approach your work?

The fundamental principles of fairness, equity, upholding constitutional and professional standards, and the pursuit of justice serve as guiding principles for how I approach my work, as well as life in general. I am committed to engaging in continual self-improvement by seeking out and being open to receiving thoughtful and constructive feedback; creating a diverse, inclusive, and equitable working environment; and ensuring I always participate in thoughtful, open-minded, rigorous, and evidence-based academic exploration and consideration of ideas, systems, policies, and programs.

In addition to the varied professional experiences and opportunities that have shaped my professional career path, like anyone, I also have personal experiences that have shaped me as well. I am married to a limitlessly wonderful person, and together we have two amazing daughters. Our oldest daughter has a rare genetic disorder, which affects her mobility and several other parts of her life. Having a child with a disability makes you keenly aware of barriers and issues of access and equity, and we have had to fight for her entire life against systems and policies that have placed obstacles in our path. Advocating for her and watching her learn to negotiate school and friends as she maintains a positive and optimistic attitude toward life has been one of greatest learning opportunities for me. It has made me keenly aware of the need for inclusive educational environments, like the one that’s been created at Bovard College, in every part of public life. I will always fight for more open communication, for inclusive and transparent policies, and for the reduction of barriers to accessing critical services and supports, no matter what your particular need might be.

What excites you about teaching students at USC Bovard College?

Teaching at USC Bovard College fills me with excitement and purpose on multiple levels. One of the most inspiring aspects is the diverse and dynamic group of students that Bovard attracts. Interacting with individuals from various backgrounds, life experiences, and perspectives enriches the educational environment and fosters vibrant discussions that contribute to a deeper understanding of the subject matter.

The focus on real-world application and practical skills aligns perfectly with my teaching philosophy. Witnessing students apply theoretical concepts to real-life scenarios and seeing them develop skills that directly impact their careers and personal growth, is immensely rewarding.

Ultimately, the opportunity to be part of USC Bovard College’s educational journey is a source of continuous inspiration. Witnessing the transformative impact of education on students’ lives, their careers, and their perspectives is a privilege that fuels my passion for teaching and reaffirms the significance of the work I get to do here.

Learn more about the MS in Criminal Justice program.

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