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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.
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.
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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.”
“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.”
In Minneapolis, the majority of City Council members now support a move to dismantle the city’s police department and replace it with what the Minneapolis Star Tribune refers to as “a new community-based system of public safety.”
In San Francisco, Mayor London Breed last week announced a plan to demilitarize the police that includes “an explicit policy barring the use of military-grade weapons against unarmed civilians.” The proposal would “divert non-violent calls for service away from SFPD to non-law enforcement agencies” that can dispatch unarmed professionals in response to calls involving mental health, homelessness, and school discipline concerns. San Francisco Chief of Police Bill Scott joined the mayor in announcing the initiatives and spoke of the need to “embrace courageous changes to address disparate policing practices.”
Some of the most striking proposals for new approaches to public safety seek to realize the promise of civilian control that Sawant recognizes when she talks about the need for “a democratically elected community oversight board in Seattle, with full powers to hold police accountable, including setting department policy and procedure.”
Sawant is not alone in arguing for a democratically elected oversight board. In Salt Lake City, the group Utah United Against Police Brutality is pushing to replace an existing Police Civilian Review Board with a democratically elected board that would have clearly defined oversight and accountability powers. In Tallahassee, Fla., members of the Tallahassee Community Action Committee are arguing for the creation of a democratically elected Civilian Police Accountability Council that would have the power to hire and fire police chiefs and a role in budget debates and police union contract negotiations. They are asking the people of Tallahassee to “Tell the City Commission: We Want Police Accountability WITH TEETH.”
In New York City, there’s now an energetic campaign to replace the city’s weak Civilian Complaint Review Board with an Elected Civilian Review Board (ECRB). “We need a board that actually has the ability to discipline cops,” explains Tammie David, who has been active with the Campaign for an Elected Civilian Review Board. The members of the proposed ECRB would be chosen at the neighborhood level in a process that would have strict campaign finance rules. The elected board would have subpoena power, as well as the authority to address police misconduct with investigations, disciplinary actions, and retraining orders. The board would maintain neighborhood offices, organize regular community meetings, and do outreach with communities that have been affected by police misconduct and violence.
Backed by elected officials, candidates, unions, Black Lives Matter activists, and Citizen Action, the Campaign for an Elected Civilian Review Board also seeks to establish an elected special prosecutor position in order to assure that there is unbiased prosecution of police officers who are accused of crimes.
Democracy reforms are rarely easy to achieve, especially in places where local and state rules may have to be restructured to create new elected positions. But campaigners in New York are confident that the time has come to “shift power into the hands of communities by empowering accountable representatives in every neighborhood to respond to cases of police abuse.”