New bill filed in NYC for community control of cops

As others stand by, a Black woman speaking into a microphone. She is raising her fist, and wearing a sweatshirt with
March 24, 2021. Press conference announces elected police review board now on city council agenda. PHOTO: Javier Roa Photography
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“The police were arrogant in their actions towards my son. … They were in plain clothes and shot him within nine seconds of leaving their vehicle. None of the officers were prosecuted. … When I look at the death of my son, I realize that if the investigation had gone through an elected review board, it would have gotten justice for him.”

This is what Eric Vassell, whose son Saheed Vassell was killed by the NYPD on April 4th, 2018, has to say about the Community POWER Act, now before the New York City Council. It seeks to directly challenge the power of the police by creating the first-ever community-elected board with the authority to fire police officers.

A board with power. In late March, 2021, the Freedom Socialist Party, community groups and families stood with New York City Council Member Inez Barron as she introduced the Community POWER Act, or Community Police Oversight with Elected Review Act. The bill was a result of five years of grassroots organizing by the Campaign for an Elected Civilian Review Board (ECRB).

The bill creates a neighborhood-elected body that would have the power to investigate, try and fire abusive and violent cops. It also establishes an elected independent prosecutor who would take up all criminal cases involving the police. This would remove these cases from the District Attorney’s office to ensure unbiased prosecution.

Simply put, the Community POWER Act gives the public the power to fire and prosecute killer cops, a change whose time has come!

Opposition to bill. The massive outcry over police killings has Democrats scrambling to present reforms such as the congressional George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. Their hope is that a patchwork of legislative tweaks to the policing structure will pacify an angry public, and at the same time leave the power of the police intact. The Senate is fully expected to negotiate away what’s good about this Act. Neither Democratic nor Republican party bosses want reforms that give the community any measure of control over cops.

Since that is exactly what the Community POWER Act does, New York City Hall has fought its introduction tooth and nail from the very beginning. The speaker of the NY City Council, Corey Johnson, had his staff stall progress of the legislation for over three years.

They made multiple attempts to gut the Independent Prosecutor provision and weaken language that empowers the board to impose binding discipline on cops.

In response, activists waged an aggressive campaign of calls, emails, and social media callouts to defend the full bill and protest the long delay. Thanks to community support against any givebacks, Barron and the other primary sponsors stuck with the grassroots activists and introduced the bill with the core tenets intact.

Even as support for the bill grows, some in the movement reject the effort, including anarchists who disavow all police reforms short of abolition, and socialist groups like the Revolutionary Socialist Network, who oppose civilian review boards because they “leave the state structure intact.”

It is true that many existing review boards are politically compromised and don’t have any real power over the police. But supporters of the Community POWER Act say this is exactly what makes their effort different. An elected board that could fire cops would give the public tools to hold them accountable when they abuse their power. An elected independent prosecutor could, with enough grassroots pressure, put killer cops in jail and off the streets. People of color especially need survival reforms, as well as disarming the police.

Making it happen. To pass the bill will be an even bigger fight, as it faces opposition from conservative Democratic leaders like NYC Mayor de Blasio who cherishes his cozy relationship with the NYPD.

But the dedicated activists in the campaign are ready to take on both the do-nothing Democrats and the cops. They know winning the power to hold police accountable is a life-and-death question.

Support for the bill has grown from families of those killed by the NYPD, like Eric Vassell and Juanita Young, whose own son Malcolm was killed by the NYPD in 2000. Campaign organizers point to these parents as examples of who should serve on the board to represent those who suffer most from police violence.

Advocates for the bill have been building widespread support from all sectors of New York workers. Endorsing unions include City Workers Local 1503, Legal Services Staff Association Local 2320, and Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, UAW Local 2325.

Former investigators from the current appointed and toothless Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) are also joining the fight, citing their direct experience within a failed system. One of them, Sheena Otto, jumped at the chance to support real change:

“For the past 20 years I have seen the same obstruction, political squabbling, gross mismanagement, and heartbreaking indifference keep the CCRB a watchdog agency in name only. This new legislation will give the agency actual power to enforce its decisions and hold board members accountable to the public.”

 The debate around police reforms will continue, including the Defund Police demand. ECRB organizers stress, however, that even with a defunded force, cops will continue to oppress poor Black and brown neighborhoods with violence.

Winning genuine community power to fire and prosecute them is one way to build working-class confidence and skills to take on the whole racist policing system. It’s a survival reform worth the dedicated fight.

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