The whole damn system is guilty as hell: Taking control of police

Democratic community control of the police transforms the power dynamic between police and citizens.

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SOURCEPopular Resistance
Image credit: Monique in Fight Back News.

In 2012, about 100 people met in Chicago to develop a plan for community control of the police. Now, 60,000 people have signed petitions and there are 19 members of the Chicago City Council, 40 percent of the council, who support it. This weekend, 1,000 people attended the re-founding of the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression where the centerpiece of discussion was democratic control of the police.

We interviewed Frank Chapman, who has been involved in the work in Chicago to create a Civilian Police Accountability Council (CPAC) from the beginning, on our radio show.  Chapman puts the issue into context describing how for a brief period after the Civil War, communities controlled their police. But the reversal of Reconstruction ended that. He says that communities getting control of police should be recognized as central to black liberation.

Chapman explains how they have organized to build support for the issue with grassroots activism, holding community meetings, going door-to-door and tabling, gathering signatures and electing people to the city council. 

The centerpiece of the Chicago bill is democratic community control. The bill for a Civilian Police Accountability Council gives broad powers to the elected council. These powers include complete control of the police:

  1. Appoint a Superintendent of Police; 
  2. Adopt rules and regulations for the governance of the Department of Police of the city; 
  3. Serve as a board to hear disciplinary actions for which a suspension for more than the 30 days expressly reserved to the Superintendent is recommended, or for removal or discharge involving officers and employees of the Police Department in the classified civil service of the city; 
  4. Promulgate rules, regulations, and procedures for the conduct of the CPAC’s investigations consistent with the requirements of collective bargaining agreements, due process of law and equal protection under the law; 
  5. In those instances where CPAC’s investigation indicates that a member of the Department of Police has committed a crime, petition the Chief Judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois to convene a Grand Jury if one is not already convened, and present CPAC’s findings of criminal activity to the Grand Jury to get an indictment for Deprivation of Rights Under Color of Law pursuant to 18 U.S. Code § 242; 
  6. Review, approve and submit to the City of Chicago the annual budget of the Department of Police; 
  7. Provide required educational opportunities for CPAC members to become familiar with citizens’ United States and Illinois constitutional rights, learn law enforcement oversight techniques, and undergo victims’ assistance, sexual assault and domestic violence certification training; 
  8. Establish officers, committees, and subcommittees for the effective conduct of CPAC business;
  9. Protect the rights guaranteed to the citizens of Chicago by the United States and Illinois Constitutions; 
  10. Review and sign off on all complaint investigations; 
  11. Review and sign off on all new Department of Police policies and special orders; 
  12. Disallow the use of the Department of Police by outside law enforcement agencies to commit crimes; 
  13. Negotiate and approve contracts with the police unions. 
  14. Remap the City of Chicago police districts as needed as determined by the CPAC.  

When asked what the difference is between the elected council and the increasingly common Civilian Police Review Boards, Chapman responds: “Accountability.” By being democratically elected, the Chicago model holds the council and the police accountable. Review boards chosen by the government too often include people who are friends or allies of the police.

Democratic control is essential

This November 4, the city of Rochester, NY passed a referendum creating a Police Accountability Board with 75 percent of voters supporting it. Between 2001 and 2016, citizens filed 923 allegations of excessive force. The Chief of Police sustained 16 of these allegations, only 13 led to discipline. 

The board will be able to independently investigate civilian complaints, subpoena information for its investigations, and determine whether individual officers have committed misconduct. It will also create disciplinary guidelines, with an opportunity for input from the Chief of Police and the police union. If the board finds, after a hearing, that an officer has committed misconduct, the Chief of Police is required to impose discipline consistent with disciplinary guidelines. The board will also recommend changes to the Police Department’s policies, practices, and training. The police union is expected to file suit to stop this board from taking effect. 

The board will be composed of nine unpaid Rochester residents: one appointed by the Mayor and eight appointed by the City Council; four of the Council’s appointees will be nominated by a coalition of community organizations, the Police Accountability Board Alliance. The potential Achilles Heel of this new law is the lack of democratic control by the people.

As a result of a November 2001 referendum supported by over 76 percent of the electorate, Miami created the Civilian Investigative Panel (“CIP”). Voters sought oversight because of a series of suspicious police shootings, throwdown guns and officers lying to grand juries. The CIP only makes recommendations to the police and has weak powers granted to its 13 members. They have lost their fight to be able to subpoena police officers due to the state’s Law Enforcement Bill of Rights. This approach has been judged as a failure. Sixteen states have a Law Enforcement Bill of Rights, which gives extra protection to police under investigation and makes it impossible for police to be judged by anyone but other police officers.

Lessons from the experience with police oversight include the importance of the democratic selection of oversight boards, not boards appointed by elected officials, clear powers that are not merely advisory for the board and, in states where relevant, confronting the Law Enforcement Bill of Rights.

Cities are spending large shares of their budgets on police at the expense of social services, health care, infrastructure, and other needs. Oakland spent 41 percent of the city’s general fund on policing in 2017. Chicago spent nearly 39 percent, Minneapolis, almost 36 percent, and Houston 35 percent. A recent study documents how a living wage, access to holistic health services and treatment, educational opportunity, and stable housing are far more successful in reducing crime than police or prisons.

Democratic community control of the police transforms the power dynamic between police and citizens. Black communities policing the police in their neighborhoods to confront the long term racist roots of policing in the United States. Community control of police needs to become the unified goal of movements seeking to end police violence, create police who serve the community and liberate black communities.

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Kevin Zeese is an American political activist who has been a leader in the drug policy reform and peace movements and in efforts to ensure a voter verified paper audit trail. Margaret Flowers, M.D., is a Maryland pediatrician seeking the Green Party nomination for the US Senate. She is co-director of PopularResistance.org and a board adviser to Physicians for a National Health Program and is on the Leadership Council of the Maryland Health Care Is a Human Right campaign.

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