The One Radical Proposal of Campaign Zero/BLM

I’ve discussed previously how many policing decisions are not made through democratic processes, but are made by ‘police fiat.’ In other words, police departments are making unilateral policy decisions about whom to arrest and for which crimes without any meaningful input by citizens. Consider the debate in New York City to decriminalize public urination (yes, you can be arrested for this; boldface added):

…another, often neglected, factor is that law enforcement officials can, with little or no citizen and civilian official input, make serious policy decisions. Give someone a badge and a gun, throw in a lack of oversight, and you have an unelected policy maker.

Police routinely make decisions about whom to stop or arrest. Even when those decisions are based on some sort of policy (e.g., don’t waste time hassling quiet, non-violent homeless people, or don’t ticket ‘moderate speeders’ who appear to have control of their cars), this often isn’t a policy that has been approved directly by citizens or indirectly by elected officials

There are actual costs to treating this as a violation–as the article notes, this can make it difficult for people to get jobs. While I think people should be discouraged from public urination, giving someone a criminal record for this ‘crime’ is absurd.

Importantly, this should be decided by the citizens of New York City and their elected officials, not the Police Chief.

I think this ‘police governance creep’ is one reason why marijuana legalization efforts in cities are so popular: people are tired of seeing young men turned into ‘pre-criminals‘ for simply having some weed.

While jaywalking tickets aren’t a life-or-death matter, this too is a sign of the transfer of power from elected officials to unelected police departments (boldface added):

What I do not understand is who exactly decided this would be policy. Essentially, the LAPD is making a policy decision: they are attempting to retard the shift towards walking. It does have an effect–if Boston, D.C., or New York police officers ever decided to enforce a similar policy, that would probably be the one thing that could get every single elected official voted out of office. Cities require walking.

Yet the LAPD has decided that Los Angeles doesn’t. Is this a Ferguson-style attempt to raise revenue? Is this an attempt to fill monthly quotas (if they truly exist)? Probably not. Instead, it seems like the Police Department has decided, unilaterally, to try to limit pedestrian fatalities–a good thing to do. However, they clearly didn’t ask any elected officials, as shown by Councilmen Bonin’s and Huizar’s reactions.

While jaywalking obviously isn’t an issue of life and death, this is one example of how a police department, when there is no oversight, can de facto enact urban planning policy; this is all the more disturbing when most police officers and officials are not residents of the communities in which they are making these policies.

The murder of Samuel Dubose in Cincinnati by University of Cincinnati police, who weren’t bound by agreements the city police had made, is a tragic case of the breakdown of democratic oversight.

Campaign Zero, a policy initiative put together by Black Lives Matter activists, is an excellent series of proposals. Most of them have been adopted (usually piecemeal) by police departments around the country. But, as Radley Balko notes, there is one element that is radical–and as you probably guessed given the prelude–absolutely necessary (boldface mine):

Here, BLM is calling for citizen police commissions to set policies for police agencies. BLM wants any current or former cops and their relatives to be barred from serving on these commissions, and for the commissions to have the power to discipline and fire cops (including police chiefs) and to have a say in the hiring of police chiefs. In addition, BLM is calling for separate civilian review boards to not only review complaints, but also to issue broader, data-driven reports on police stops, arrests, use of force and so on.

This is probably the most radical part of the BLM plan, but only because it’s so foreign to what happens today. In theory, the idea that in a democracy the police should be accountable and answerable to the people they serve doesn’t seem all that radical at all. But in the past, this has mostly happened by way of the political process. That is, the people elect the politicians who are supposed to hold the police leadership accountable, and the leadership is then entrusted to hold individual officers accountable. This hasn’t worked out so well, mostly because there’s very little incentive for politicians to remain a check on cops. A politician needs only a majority of votes to stay in office. The number of people abused by police is naturally going to be pretty small when compared with the number of people who vote to elect someone to office. And the communities disproportionately affected by police misconduct will be a small percentage of the overall population. Most people want to feel safe and believe that empowering the police is the way to do that. There’s very little electoral incentive, then, for politicians to demand more accountability from law enforcement.

In practice, this section of the BLM agenda would take police agencies from being answerable to no one but themselves to making them answerable to everyone but themselves. That’s a huge and substantial change. No profession will give up that kind of arrangement easily. But we’re talking about law enforcement here, a profession that can be politically powerful, is great at winning public sympathy and has a long tradition of looking out for itself. Given all that, the fact that these proposals are inherently more democratic — and just make a hell of a lot of sense — may end up being beside the point.

Despite all the BOOGA BOOGA we hear from the right about government taking their guns and from all quarters about the NSA, for many Americans, the single most tangible threat to their liberty is an unaccountable police department. Campaign Zero/BLM is absolutely right about this–and this should be–and must be–the centerpiece of reform. Sadly, I think what will happen is that some of the other pieces will be incorporated, but the restoration of democratic control over the power to detain and arrest essentially will not happen.

I hope I’m wrong though.

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