For ‘Police Accountability With Teeth,’ Citizens Demand Elected and Empowered Oversight Boards

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NYPD officers block the entrance of the Manhattan Bridge during protests against police brutality on June 2, 2020. (Scott Heins / Getty Images)

Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant recognizes that the national uprising against police brutality is “threatening to the right-wing and reactionary agenda of Donald Trump.” The president’s tweets confirm that he is unsettled by what he claims is “the Radical Left takeover of Seattle.” But what Trump sees as threatening, Sawant sees as an opening to achieve fundamental change in Seattle as nationally. So the council member is not just defending the activists who have established a “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone” in a Seattle neighborhood; she is also proposing bold responses to the police oversight and accountability issues that protesters say must be addressed.
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Declaring that she is determined to “take this historic moment to win real victories against police violence,” the Seattle socialist told a CNN interviewer that she’s working to “defund the police by at least 50 percent and divert those funds for community programs, for restorative justice, so we begin to address the systematic racism.”

“But we need [to go] beyond that,” she added, “we need an independently elected community oversight board, which has full powers over the police.”

Sawant was talking about democratic oversight of policing long before the death of an unarmed African American man, George Floyd, in Minneapolis police custody stirred an outcry over policing in cities from coast to coast. Now, however, the discussion about these issues has taken off, as protesters demand genuine community control over the police.

For ‘Police Accountability With Teeth,’ Citizens Demand Elected and Empowered Oversight Boards 1

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This is not a radical demand or a foreign construct. We live in a country where civilian control over the military is enshrined in our Constitution. This premise is so vital to the American experiment that retired Marine Gen. James Mattis made a point of reasserting it when he was under consideration to serve as defense secretary—telling the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2017, “I recognize my potential civilian role differs in essence and in substance from my former role in uniform. Civilian control of the military is a fundamental tenet of the American military tradition.”

It follows that cities should recognize the importance of clearly defining, and maintaining, civilian control of the police.

Yet in cities across the country, there is a lack of clarity about oversight of policing. The actions of police chiefs and police departments are often overseen by obscure boards and commissions, which lack the authority and the resources that are necessary to demand accountability.

That lack of clarity has been highlighted in recent weeks, as the outcry over Floyd’s death has opened a nationwide dialogue about how we might, as Representative Ilhan Omar says, begin to “reimagine public safety.”

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“This is a time for us to do real soul searching,” says Omar, a Democrat who represents Minneapolis. “We can’t continue to be on this path, where we continue to find ourselves in this place. There has to be real systematic change on the city level, on the state level and on the national level.”

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