The almost daily killings and abuse by the police of Black and other people of color has garnered national attention. This murder epidemic spans the United States. According to The Guardian newspaper, 234 Black and 159 Latino people have been killed by police in 2016.
Residents of the Pacific Northwest know that cops routinely zero in on people of color. Cops equate skin color with lawlessness. A case in point was the unnecessary arrest of William Wingate, a 70-year-old African American man, for walking in Seattle with the aid of a golf club.
The Northwest is also the scene of deadly police violence. In January, Tacoma police killed Jackie Salyers, a young Native American woman. In February, Seattle police killed Che Taylor, an African American man. In October, King County Sheriff’s deputies killed Renee Davis, a 23 year-old pregnant Native American woman.
Many people of color already live in a police state. Failed attempts by officials to address these killings by the cops have made no fundamental difference.
Seattle Cops under fire, but no real change
Since 2012 the City of Seattle has been under a federally mandated consent decree, because of Seattle cops’ history of using excessive force. The Department of Justice was prodded into investigating biased policing in Seattle after outrage over police abuse, including the 2010 murder of Native American woodcarver John T. Williams, forced the issue into the spotlight.
A Community Police Commission (CPC) was formed as part of the consent decree. The commissioners, appointed by the Mayor, include community members and representatives of the Seattle Police Officers Guild and the Seattle Police Management Association. They engaged in months of discussion with police department representatives, city officials and the City Attorney.
The Commission advocated for three entities, each with its own budget and civilian staff: An Office of Professional Accountability to investigate complaints, an Office of Inspector General to investigate and review the handling of complaints, and maintaining the current Community Police Commission to review the accountability system, but not to influence actual investigations of police abuse.
The city and the Commission agree that each entity can make recommendations about policy and procedures, but none would have the power to require discipline or systemic changes. But with no enforcement power, these entities are window dressing that leave the cops still unaccountable for misconduct.
Some activists hoped that the Community Police Commission would create a path to end police brutality. It has not. Instead, it obfuscates the lack of any real change in policy and misrepresents it as a vehicle for effective police reform. The CPC’s role is to lend credibility to the process.
This has been tried elsewhere. There are already over 200 police “oversight” bodies in U.S. But they do not challenge the institutional policies, power and culture of police abuse.
Why? Because they are not independent. They investigate only a fraction of complaints and can only recommend actions. Most of them were established in response to public outcry to give the illusion of accountability and oversight.
We call on Community Police Commission members to reject the Mayor and Seattle Police Department’s attempt to use the CPC as cover for their refusal to seriously address police abuse. Instead we urge the CPC to call for an independent Elected Civilian Review Board with enforcement power.
Guardians of the elite
The nature of our capitalist economic system is predicated on the enrichment of the few over the many. Cops are the guardians of the super-rich and their property. Racism, like sexism, is a tool to keep the working class divided and blinded to the machinations of the real power brokers and wealth hoarders.
The division between the police and public reflects class divisions. The police uphold the authority of the 1%. They protect the inequality of the status quo and as such they align with elements that pose no threat to the system, such as scabs and the ultra-right.
Police, regardless of color or gender, are not immune from practicing bigotry and this is what leads to the needless and systemic killing of people of color. Civilians of color are always viewed through the lens of racism and subject to a blow from a cop’s baton or bullet.
Elected civilian review board
In order to curb abuse, excessive violence and murder by cops, we need a way to assert working-class authority and override the control held by the super wealthy.
Let’s start with an independent civilian review board that is not beholden to the police, the bosses or the state. Its members would be elected from the community, including from groups most severely affected by police abuse and it would have its own source of funding. It would not include representatives from the police unions.
This civilian review board must have real authority. That means power to investigate and resolve all complaints of police misconduct, including assault, discrimination, infiltration of community groups, sexual harassment, abuse of sexual minorities, and false arrest. If officers are found guilty of misconduct the CPC could order more training, suspension, demotion or even firing. It could protect whistle-blowing cops, and it could require the city to pay for damage caused by police. To give the civilian review board political bite it needs full subpoena powers and the leadership of an elected special prosecutor, independent of the city attorney’s office and the City Council, to handle all criminal cases against police officers.
Anything less than this changes nothing and continues the epidemic of murder and abuse.
The Freedom Socialist Party has long been an advocate of police reform. We would welcome the opportunity to collaborate with individuals and groups interested in working together on a Civilian Review Board. Please stop by our community center or give us a call.