Uniting To Transform US Policing

Above: During #FergusonOctober people occupied the city hall and presented demands to the mayor.

The Post-Michael Brown Agenda Provides Goals For The Movement To End Racist, Militarized Policing

And, Actions We Need to be Taking Today to Make Transformation a Reality

Throughout the nation the issue of police brutality, including killings of unarmed people, is a common problem. It is part of a criminal enforcement system that has pitted police against people in ways that are very destructive to the fabric of the nation.  DOJ is taking or has taken action involving three dozen law enforcement agencies during the Obama era.

To turn this moment of awareness and activism into an effective movement, we need an agenda to transform policing so police play a constructive role in the community. At the inspiring FergusonOctober actions, protesters put forward a list of demands that provide an agenda for a movement to fix policing in America, including:

1: Body cameras on all police.
2: Empowered civilian review boards.
3: Independent review of fatalities.
4: End of military surplus going to police.

Long-time Washington, DC community activist Kymone Freeman, a co-founder of We Act Radio, has been participating in organizing a series of powerful protests in Washington, DC around Michael Brown and police abuse. Freeman testified before the DC City Council on behalf of #DCFerguson and put forward an agenda consistent with the Ferguson one, adding one more: police should live in the communities where they serve. He also wants police who are involved in a shooting of an innocent civilian to be automatically prosecuted.

Police Know That Racist Militarized Policing Is Destructive

Many police officials recognize the destructive nature of the current militarized policing that is often racially unfair.  Former Seattle police chief Norm Samper, writes in The Guardian:

“It’s difficult to view citizens as partners when you’re looking at them through a Kevlar helmet and a riot shield – or when you have failed to build a culture of trust and then you add military equipment and tactics to a combustible mix of racial discrimination and little police accountability. This explosive combination makes policing significantly less effective, and dramatically less safe for everybody.”

Samper should know because he was the chief during the 1999 ‘Battle of Seattle’ and admits he mishandled that protest in part because “the way we looked – and the way we behaved – provoked and exacerbated the violence.” Military-policing was just one of the problems; in addition rights to Freedom of Speech and Assembly were not respected. Often violent conflicts can be avoided if police respect constitutional rights as we saw recently with an antiwar protest in New York City, which for the first time in three years was not marred by the presence of threatening police.

The Post Michael Brown Proposals

Cameras: There is a lot of promise in requiring police to wear body cameras and on police vehicles. One California city, Rialto in San Bernadino County, saw an 88% drop in claims of police misconduct in one year with police wearing cameras along with a 59% drop in use of force incidents. Police should recognize the benefit as they will have videotape to prove their innocence. And, people will feel more confident in the police knowing that their encounter is being recorded.

However, there have been multiple incidents where the police have failed to have the camera on at critical moments.  There is a need for written policies on the use of video cameras, currently one-third of police forces that use cameras have no written policy. The failure to turn on the camera during an encounter should raise doubt regarding the officer’s version of events. Written policies should also require the video be made available to a victim, if deceased to their family and attorney. And, they should require the video and any data associated with it be destroyed in a specific amount of time. Police cameras should not be an excuse to create a data base of citizens.

People should not wait for the police to be required to wear cameras, Cop Watch programs, where people are trained to videotape police encounters should be organized. People should be trained to use a video camera in a legal, credible and safe way, e.g. 7 rules for recording police. Police officers need to understand it is legal for someone to film them while they are performing their duty and there should be no retaliation against people who film police encounters.

Citizen Review Board: There are citizen review boards in many cities across the country but as Freeman testified, they are usually a “paper tiger.” There are three things that are essential to make review boards effective (1) The power to initiate investigations of police on their own; (2) The power to subpoena witnesses to testify under oath; (3) The power to indict police officers who have committed crimes or abused their power.

An empowered citizen review board will make it clear that police work for the people and are accountable to the people.  A letter sent to President Obama this summer by civil rights, good government and democracy activists this summer said: “Police departments should not be solely responsible for investigating themselves. These departments are funded by the public and should be accountable to the public.”

Relying on the police to investigate themselves is insufficient. Relying on prosecutors who work closely with the police to indict police officers often results in no indictment for actions that are ‘on their face’ criminal. The grand jury process, conducted in secret by a prosecutor is too easy to manipulate in favor of the police (which is why I urged the Wilson family to file a civil lawsuit now). An indictment by a Citizens Review Board means there is probable cause, not guilt. Police officers will still have the right to defend themselves in court and it will remain difficult to convict police for a variety of reasons.

Beyond a citizen review board more citizen involvement is needed. Norm Samper urges local political leadership to “put together a large, representative, credible crisis team to work with the police, communicate systematically with the community and, most importantly, elicit grassroots suggestions for resolution of the conflict.” Further he urges “a group of citizens, officers, politicians and civic leaders to craft and quickly implement a statement of non-negotiable standards for the performance and conduct of each and every police officer: for example, any officer should be fired if found to be using racial or ethnic slurs or excessive force.”

While we urge people to push for these actions, people should organize now to develop standards for police conduct as well as crisis management. Too often we wait for government to solve these problems when we have the power to take action ourselves.

Independent Review of Fatalities:  Whenever there is fatality as a result of a police shooting there should be an independent review outside of police and prosecutors. Civilian review boards can be equipped and directed to take on this responsibility or cities can create an independent investigator to do so.

In addition, guidelines should be enacted for routine response, i.e. removal of the officer from patrol, taking away weapons; depending on the circumstances, e.g. if the person killed was unarmed there should be immediate procedures to follow that would be different from cases where the person is armed.  Kymone Freeman of #DCFerguson calls for automatic action against police who shoot at innocent civilians testifying including them being automatically fired and indicted.

These procedures should be developed by a cross section of the community including elected officials, police and members of the community.

Demilitarization: The militarization of US police is a new phenomena that is being routinely misused. In the early 1970s there were no paramilitary police units, now they are common in every police force, even in many small towns. They are used routinely to serve search warrants, respond to protests and even to patrol neighborhoods. Radley Balko, author of Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forceswrote in the ABA Journal in 2013that SWAT teams “smash into private homes more than 100 times per day.”

The militarization has been spurred by federal policy that makes military equipment available to local police, even school police. Colin Jenkins reports in Coming Home to Roost: American Militarism, War Culture, and Police Brutality, that military equipment has flowed to police across the country: “They possess everything from body armor to high-powered weaponry to tanks, armored vehicles, and even drones.” The ACLU reports  $4.3 billion in equipment has been transferred to 17,000 law enforcement agencies from all states and territories.

It is time to demilitarize US police and create stringent standards that make the use of paramilitary units are rarity rather than the rule. A letter to President Obama by more than 120 institutions says:

“Deterring crime and protecting communities should not involve military weaponry. Effective policing strategies and community relationships will not be advanced if police departments continue to act as an occupying force in neighborhoods. The Administration must suspend programs that transfer military equipment into the hands of local police departments and create guidelines that regulate and monitor the use of military equipment that has already been distributed.”

Samper urges police to immediately begin demilitarization and greatly limit the use of paramilitary units writing: “prohibit SWAT operations for anything other than school shootings, armed hostage situations and other immediate crises when negotiations fail and lives are at stake.”

The Obama administration should take three immediate steps to advance demilitarization of police (1) Stop providing military equipment to police by suspending the program; (2) Direct police who received military equipment to limit their use and provide guidelines for when to use paramilitary units; (3) Let local governments know they can return military equipment to the federal government.

Police Living Where they Work: The debate over police living in the communities where they serve is a long one.  The issue has been raised anew because, as CityLab notes, Officer Darren Wilson did not live in Ferguson, but lived a half hour away in a community that was 96% white. When the governor sought to calm the unrest he brought in Missouri State Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson who came in saying “This is my neighborhood,” as he grew up in Ferguson and lived nearby in the bordering city of Florissant.

It used to be common for police to live in the cities where they worked but Pew reports residency requirements are increasingly rare: “Philadelphia police several years ago negotiated a contract provision that allows them to live outside the city after five years on the job. Minnesota repealed the Minneapolis residency requirement in 1999, and Missouri lifted residency requirements for St. Louis police in 2005.”

CityLab reports “Detroit is one example of what can happen when cops are freed from these requirements. After the state of Michigan eliminated the city’s residency restrictions in 1999, many officers started moving out. By 2011, incoming mayor David Bing noted, more than half of the city’s police lived outside of Detroit.”

The benefits of police living in the community are obvious; police get to know the community and build relationships.  A 2012 report by the Abell Foundation of Baltimore found “many residents like the idea of police officers living in their communities because they view them as a deterrent to crime and because they believe officers would have a better understanding of neighborhood problems if they had homes in the area.”

While it may not be possible to have all police live in the communities they patrol, because housing may not be available or affordable, or the communities may be fragmented into small towns as in the St. Louis area, there are steps that can be taken to increase police living within the city limits.  The Abell Foundation suggests incentives like rental subsidies or assistance with home down payments. They report “Over a period of 14 months, a police housing incentive in Atlanta, for example, attracted 71 participants in the program, or about 6 percent of all the officers living outside the city.”

Abell argues that even a modest increase in the number of officers living in the city could improve public safety in their neighborhoods and foster better relations between the department and local residents.

Do Not Forget the Root Cause Issues

The proposals coming forward in the aftermath of the killing of Michael Brown would make a tremendous difference if implemented but there are underlying issues that must also be faced. These include the long history of racism, especially in policing, going back to enforcement of slavery through the era of Jim Crow and continuing today. But racism in the United States continues despite Civil Rights laws and this has a big role in police abuse in Ferguson and the rest of the nation. Training, education and strong action against racism are central to remaking policing.

Another underlying issue is the wealth divide and unfair economy that has people protesting the wealthiest Americans and big business interests. Too often police take the side of protecting the wealthy against the people.  Police need to make protecting the people and their exercise of constitutional rights a priority. Prosecutors across the country and at the Justice Department need to increase prosecutions of people who rip-off the economy, workers and undermine the environment for extreme profits. There has been a corporate crime wave without a response from law enforcement.

One of the comments on Popular Resistance about Ferguson connected the dots on the issues of police abuse and rebuilding communities, it is worth quoting in full:

“Part of rebuilding communities is having local control and local medical clinics and doctors, local teachers and school boards with power, and local police who live in communities and know the people. We also need better educated police and prison guards. Those who police or wield power over others need to be psychologically fit, and well educated, with ongoing programs of education. The laws protecting police put in place since the 80´s should be repealed, and they should be held more accountable for their lapses in judgment and actions, not less. Violations of law should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, along with counts of failure to follow procedure, abuse of public trust, and abuse of authority. We need to stop legal harassment for the crime of being poor, and start community based job creation via community banks. Legal charges and brutality up to and including murder for jaywalking or minor offenses are crazy. Police need to be more broadly educated on what constitutes justice, and be more willing to fulfill a social service role of warning or advising, referring people to services, and hey! maybe serve their communities in a non-threatening fashion.”

People need to unite around the resulting agenda from the killing of Michael Brown and so many others across the country. At the same time, people need to act on their own to create the world we want to see, e.g. instituting Cop Watch and forming citizen groups to define the police they envision. Finally, we need to recognize the connections between police abuse with the broader issues of an unfair economy, environmental destruction, racism and government corruption. Uniting to build a mass transformative movement is the only path to the changes that are needed.

Kevin Zeese wrote this article in his role as Attorney General for the Green Shadow Cabinet. He is an organizer with Popular Resistance. He can be followed @KBZeese.