For a NYC elected civilian review board — A visionary campaign to fight for genuine police accountability

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Ferguson. Baton Rouge. Milwaukee. As this goes to press, another Black body falls to police bullets. Rage has sparked protests across the country, reminiscent of the fire-filled street rebellions of the ’60s. For African Americans, the murder of their sons, daughters and neighbors at the hands of police has long been a bitter reality.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes to his son in Between the World and Me, “The police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. … The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. … All of this is old news for black people.”

What is new is that now the outcry is often louder and immediate. Cell videos have exposed the brutal reality of police violence in graphic detail. Through Twitter and social media messages of anger are instantly shared. Over two million posts on racism are tweeted daily, according to a recent Pew poll.

But as the list of victims multiplies, it’s clear that to #staywoke is not enough. The issue is — how can this anger focus on making changes that will protect people from police bullets?

What to do? The movement is starting to figure it out. Between the protests and speak-outs, activists are meeting to carve out new reforms to fight police violence.

One such effort is New York City’s Campaign for an Elected Civilian Review Board. Initiated by grassroots activists and organizations including the Freedom Socialist Party, the campaign is fighting to create an independent, elected body of paid community members with power to investigate misconduct and discipline police, including firing them. This board would have a Special Prosecutor, independent of the District Attorney, who would work in tandem with board members to investigate and prosecute crimes by cops.

Over 200 police “oversight” bodies in U.S. cities currently exist. But they have proven unable and unwilling to challenge the institutional policies, power and culture of police harassment, abuse and violence.

The reason? They are not independent or empowered. The vast majority, including New York’s current Civilian Complaint Board, investigate only a fraction of complaints and can only recommend penalties. Most of these boards were established in response to public outcry to give the illusion of accountability and oversight.

It’s in the details. In a fundamental break from the existing dummy boards, the proposed Elected Civilian Review Board (ECRB) in NYC and other efforts like Chicago’s Civilian Police Accountability Council would provide an elected body outside the police department that would investigate misconduct and direct discipline for abusive acts.

According to organizer Leland Gill, “The ECRB will essentially allow civilians to hold the police responsible for their crimes — a right that has been withheld from the general public for too long. A key focus of this new review board … will be regular open meetings, and all board members will be subject to immediate recall.”

The envisioned board would broaden representation to include those always excluded by the current system, such as former prisoners and undocumented immigrants. Affirmative action practices would be implemented in hiring investigative and support staff. “By representing those most harmed by police abuse,” says Gill, “this new review board will be a true force of the people and for the people.”

What it will take. Anticipating strong opposition from the police union and city establishment, ECRB campaign organizers know that it will take a grassroots movement strong enough to pressure the City Council and stand up to the NYPD’s political heft. Current developments suggest the time is ripe to build such a movement.

Endorsements for the NYC campaign are multiplying, including groups such as Shut Down Rikers (NYC’s notoriously brutal jail) connecting the issues of incarceration and police accountability. Other community campaigns for accountability reforms have emerged in Los Angeles, Oakland, Calif., and other cities.

Review board campaign activists caution that no reform within the existing economic system can guarantee complete community control of the police. According to member Emily Woo Yamasaki, “We don’t have any illusions about changing the fundamental nature of the police as an institution that was originally formed to catch runaway slaves. But until we can overturn the bigger profit system the police serve, we urgently need a review board to help curb the violence and empower the community to hold cops accountable.”

Making the connections. Recognizing that police violence against Blacks and other targeted groups is embedded in the systemic racism that also impacts housing, education, jobs and other spheres of life, campaign organizers see their work as part of a larger movement building effort.

Shamecca Harris sees this radical approach as critical to the effort’s success beyond a single reform. “At the heart of the campaign is empowering the community — not just to implement the review board, but ultimately to fight all the oppressions that Black, Brown and all poor people are up against, because ultimately, they’re all part of the same system we want to replace.”

To learn more or get involved in this campaign, visit its Facebook page,
or contact your local Freedom Socialist Party branch.

Jed Holtz is the organizer of the NYC Freedom Socialist Party and lives in Brooklyn. Contact:

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