In 1992 I was a small child watching cartoons when Dan Rather suddenly interrupted to alert the country to the riots in LA. At the time I understandably had no concept about what was going on (I was living in Alabama), nor did I have an ability to comprehend what may have caused the uprising. However even then I felt that the response wasn’t entirely irrational. Today we look over the devastation “caused” by people who supposedly lack the moral clarity to “remain civil” in the face of a system that continues to give a full legal endorsement to killings motivated by white supremacy. Thus it is time to undeniably and defiantly assert that our political and judicial systems remain throughly infested with the virus of racism. However at the same time, recognizing the reality of this problem is an incomplete political awakening. If we truly do not want Michael Brown to have died in vain, it is time to forcefully push for a dramatic re-envisioning of what we desire our Police Departments to look and act like in the years ahead.
I used to work in the legislative department with the City of Long Beach, a “majority minority” locale with a political system that is structurally biased in favor of the whiter, higher-income suburbs. As a result of this arrangement (and an insanely powerful Police Union), public safety costs continue to fluctuate anywhere between 50 to 75 percent of the annual budget. This figure also does NOT include special allocations for extra (many times federally subsidized) appropriations for materials that the City Council more or less rubber stamps whenever they are put forth for a vote. Whenever this problem of the metastasizing Police budget comes up, labor groups largely defend the costs, as they are cognizant of the politically tenuous place that all public sector workers face in our Prop 13 strapped city. Meanwhile despite or perhaps because of record low crime rates (which I personally believe are achieved via the tried and true practice of “juking” the stats), the white suburbs of Long Beach are more than content with retaining our garrison state at the expense of any other form of community investment.
What I have described above is not in anyway a unique political reality. In fact across the US despite massive cuts to the public sector as a whole, the Police and other “first responders” retain a special ability to grow and solidify their place as the supreme concern for municipal constituencies. In fact in some places, including Ferguson, the Police are helping to assist cash-strapped local governments in collecting revenue through what are essentially regressive forms of taxation against people with no real means to properly defend themselves against this obvious form of discriminatory theft. Additionally with people of color losing their influence as a political block thanks to voter suppression, corruption amongst their local representatives, felony voting rights laws, and gerrymandered districts (etc), there is little hope for the ballot box to act as the ultimate solution to this problem.
You can see the problem of political regulatory capture locally in Long Beach. For example 9th District (and LBPOA endorsed) Councilman Rex Richardson can write & receive praise for a stirring letter relating his own experiences to Michael Brown, that never once mentions the role that the police had in Brown’s death, nor did Richardson offer any substantive reforms to our own very flawed Police Department. Yet that same councilman probably represents the best hope that activists have towards engendering some change for police policies.
So what do we do? Well being an eternal optimist I do see a few major sources for statutory reform to the police that can also function as very good points for political organizing. None of these proposals will end “steroidal over policing” overnight, but I think that effective and well financed campaigns in support of these goals could advance the overall agenda of disarmament, and a re-balancing of community interests over those of the Police Industrial Complex.
1. Local Hire Provisions For Police Officers
Essentially a law like this would require that police officers who are employed by a particular locality must also be full-time residents of that same place. In a perfect world I would require that Police Officers patrol the same neighborhoods where they live, but as local hire requirements are only tenuously constitutional I’ll settle for a civil service reform that upends the current idiotic system where Police Officers enter a city each day as essentially an occupying force. Bridging the gap between the community and its sworn protectors requires instilling a congenial familiarity that the present tactics of “cruise around in your patrol car until something happens” inherently avoids.
2. Independent And Empowered Civilian Police Review Boards
An elected official whom I used to work with once gave this assessment of Long Beach’s beleaguered citizen review board; “it is toothless and useless”. In my city the Police Department and City Manager cynically use the CPCC process, which according to the City Charter itself has no real punitive power over the cases it examines, to essentially whitewash any investigation into Police misconduct. Every local police authority must have a separate, independently appointed and overseen entity, with actual demonstrative and statutorily defined ways of punishing officers who are found to have abused their power or acted negligently in the field. If Michael Brown’s death has shown us anything it is that the current judicial system makes it next to impossible to even obtain an indictment for an officer because of the way in which the district attorney office and police department rely on each other to work.
3. Statutory Caps On Police Armaments
I saw a tweet (but sadly didn’t screenshot it) from Long Beach Councilman Roberto Uranga in August that expressed some concern over “police militarization”. Frankly I don’t know why every politician in the country, regardless of their ethnic or political background, isn’t jumping on this growing resentment over the Police and their toys. If you are a public cost-cutting Republican or a Progressive Socialist mad at decreased resources to the poor this is an easy issue to address. Black, brown, and white folks all have their own reasons for getting uncomfortable when we start seeing tanks rolling around in our neighborhoods. That said there is a powerful economic lobby behind this arms race, and the insidious way in which these expenses creep into local budgets rely on continued fear and/or complacency amongst average voters.
So if we are to reverse this trend we need to re-imagine what purpose our Police Departments serve. Are the Police essentially the local military wing of the state, serving the interests of whomever is in charge at the time with some varying degree of restraints depending on the circumstances? That description of our current reality might make people feel uncomfortable to acknowledge, but to blindly assert that people dressed for fighting ISIS exist to “protect and serve” is patently absurd.
Instead let’s take a cue from Firefighters, entities with a shared purpose that has radically changed from their original mission (fighting fires), to a more general raison d’être of responding to medical emergencies. Perhaps our we can require our Police to think less of their job revolving around their weapon, and focus more on their secondary role of being the first responders to incidents of domestic violence, the overuse of drugs and alcohol, and quality of life crimes. Police who see their jobs as “social workers with a badge” are far less likely to kill unarmed civilians, and we can engender this sort of conceptualization for their job ONLY IF their is a political will to do so.
4. Citizen Participation In City Attorney Races
The City of Long Beach has paid millions of dollars to families whom our Police Department improperly killed in the line of duty. We could have paid far less money, but our City Attorney (possibly at the behest of the LBPOA who endorsed him for re-election) decided to litigate instead of settling and admitting liability. And despite a record amount of money spent on this race in 2014, not that many people really seemed to care about who filled this incredibly important position. The result of this complacency should serve as a reminder that community activists, especially those who seek to influence public policy at the local level, of the need to bring a broad awareness of ALL positions of power to the voters in every cycle.
5. Body Cameras
This is the short-term, but potentially very powerful policy solution to this problem of officer-involved violence. Body cameras can be expensive and there is a legitimate privacy concern about creating yet another facet of our surveillance state, but like the effort to tape all police interrogations I can’t see a particularly powerful argument against using technology to force a new degree of openness and transparency between the police and the people they serve. Additionally the Police themselves are protected by these cameras when their actions are being unfairly misconstrued by an understandably upset criminal, and given the free-wheeling way in which Police Departments accept public money for new toys it could be relatively easy to make receiving more funds for men and materials conditional on adopting these devices at large.
These five proposals are just a sample of the major reforms that are necessary at the local level to prevent another tragic altercation like those between the Police and Mike Brown or Douglas Zerby. None of these proposals will immediately undo the “occupation” mindset of our Police, or stem the racially based fear that allows the political system to uphold this sort of violence against people of color. However with effective, well financed campaigns that address specific fixes like these, we can start the long overdue process of deescalating this war on the poor that has claimed way too many people in the last few years.
On the other hand If we are unwilling to pursue this new course of action, the alternative is to become comfortable with “Fergesons” occurring with an increased regularity and tenacity.