How to curb the epidemic of police violence

Ashley Hair, 17, writes a message in chalk on the street during a rally against police brutality in New York City, April 14 2015. Photo: Eduardo Munoz
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Public outrage and organizing against police brutality has been continuous since the Civil Rights movement exploded in the late 1950s and ’60s. That the Black community took the lead in this vital offensive makes perfect sense. The first police units in this country were southern slave patrols hired to hunt down runaways and prevent rebellions.

Today, police guardians of the ruling class have a widened range of dissidents to target: all dark-hued residents, union militants, LGBT populations, immigrants, leftist radicals, street gangs, feminists, the homeless, anti-war and Occupy protesters, anarchists, environmental and animal rights activists. The battle against epidemic police brutality has become a survival issue for every social justice movement in the land.

How bad is it? Police shootings, rapes, racist slurs, gay bashing, attacks on protesters, etc., occur every day of the year, but accurate statistics are impossible because it’s all covered up. The ones we know about become news when high-volume protest erupts.

That’s just what happened on July 21 in Southern California. Anaheim police shot to death two Latino men in two days. When a crowd of neighbors, mostly mothers and children, protested the first shooting, cops fired rubber bullets, tear gas and beanbags at them, unleashing a police dog. Bigger demonstrations erupted. The media and city leaders tried to blame the violence on protesters. Escalating police violence sparked more outrage in Anaheim and across the country.

Three thousand miles away, New York City’s racist “Stop and Frisk” law is also under furious fire. In June there were several protests against this policy, the largest a march of thousands on June 16. Civil rights, union, gay, civil liberties, feminist, and political activists marched together. They denounced a practice that authorizes police to harass someone for looking “suspicious” or “furtive” — that is, for being Black or brown. In 2011, 87 percent of those stopped were Black or Latino.

New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly staunchly defend the program, unbothered by these facts. Since 2003 when Bloomberg was first elected, stop-and-frisks increased 600 percent, but the NYPD can’t prove that they reduce crime. In 2011, NYPD made a staggering 684,330 such stops. Nine out of 10 people harassed were neither arrested nor given summonses.

Federal decrees not the answer. Intervention by the U.S. Dept. of Justice (DOJ) through its Civil Rights Division over the last decade has raised hopes that the federal government will solve the problem of “rogue” city police departments. DOJ investigations have been completed or are still in process in nearly 20 cities. Los Angeles’ experience with this method of police reform is instructive.

First there was the LA rebellion in 1992 after the acquittal of cops who beat Rodney King nearly to death. A few years later the Rampart Scandal revealed widespread police crime in the anti-gang unit of the LAPD Rampart Division. It became one of the most well-documented cases of outrageous police misconduct in U.S. history. Rampart was hardly the only division that engaged in criminal activity. The federal government was asked to intervene, and eventually a consent decree was established in 2000 that allowed the DOJ to oversee and monitor LAPD reforms for five years.

Did much change? Not for the police. But things got worse for victims. “Law and order” rule was vastly expanded. California politicians pushed hard for passage of three-strike legislation that throws away the jailhouse key after three felony convictions, and Proposition 21, sending children to adult prisons. During the pre-recession economic spurt, what grew were jails and prisons, not jobs, schools or justice!

DOJ signed highly publicized decrees in the summer of 2012 with New Orleans and Seattle, both cities having come under tremendous public protest for police brutality and discrimination. In both cases, the DOJ’s findings were highly critical, very extensive, and not terribly surprising. But the remedies were also not new, despite the hoopla about being “historic” and “ground-breaking.”

The reforms required by the consent decrees are left in the hands of police departments! Both agreements assign a federal judge to oversee progress over a number of years, both list pages and pages of changes in police procedures and practices. Any new personnel are appointed by the mayors. Nobody independent is elected to do the job, and certainly not a civilian review board.

The real solution. Cities need strong civilian review boards to reduce police crime. They must be elected, community-controlled boards, independent of the police department, city attorney, and downtown politicians, with the power to investigate and fire police, and to change department policies and procedures. Boards need an elected special prosecutor with full subpoena powers and access to crime scenes. Those crimes include police physical and verbal abuse based on race, gender, sexuality, politics, citizenship status, religion, ethnicity or union membership. Whistleblowers within a police department, who are largely minorities, women and gays, must be protected from retaliation by other cops and supervisors.

Review board members need to be full time, well-paid public employees, as should the special prosecutor be, whose salary needs to match the city attorney’s. A strong review board should contain a punitive damages clause that makes individual cops liable for their abuse, damages that cannot be passed on to the city. A sum of $50,000 to $100,000 should be awarded immediately to victims’ families, who are unable to mount a full-scale legal challenge.

Most of these ideas and conditions were developed by Seize the Time for Oppressed People, formed in Seattle in 1973, and the Los Angeles Coalition Against Police Abuse, founded in 1976. Both groups led broad-based, multi-racial and democratic campaigns in which the Freedom Socialist Party was deeply involved.

Civilian review boards powerful enough to eliminate police abuse will not be allowed under the current economic system. But they are worth fighting for because the struggle can provide life-and-death defense against cop violence, and train organizers in the struggle for radical change and human dignity.

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