No Longer Above the Law - Thoughts and Next Steps in Fighting Police Murder
The public outcry following the murder of Oscar Grant by Bay Area Rapid Transit Officer Johannes Mehserle again brings the issue of police abuse and accountability to the fore. For decades, black and Latino people in particular have been victimized by law enforcement in almost every way imaginable – beatings, choke holds, and of course shootings. Every step of the way, those communities have stood up and challenged such acts through protest, rallies, and even large scale rebellions.
However, what has been particularly missing in the police accountability movement – especially in recent years – has been the development of a clear, sustained movement that will result in changes of policy, procedures, and power dynamics within law enforcement.
While such shortcomings are due in part to the organizing ability and skilled messaging of police agencies and advocacy groups that defend their officers at all cost, the disunity and short-sightedness among community groups fighting police murder hasn't helped either.
Whenever the issue of police abuse becomes major, various individuals and groups jockey to exert influence over the philosophical direction of the movement. As a result, fruitless sectarian battles between revolutionaries – who see police misconduct as opportunities to spur mass rebellion – and moderates – who are searching for ways to negotiate – occur. This scenario leaves families and communities with no solutions and fails to provide a serious challenge to unified law enforcement.
The time has come to achieve tangible victories in the movement to end police murder and abuse.
● Be clear who the target is
It is common after an instance of police murder or abuse for masses of people to rise up and demand accountability and change. In Los Angeles, those demands are often levied at the police commission or chief of police. However, it is important to know that neither the commission nor Chief Bratton have final say in disciplining police officers. That power exclusively belongs to the LAPD Board of Rights, an unelected three person panel, which consists of two high-ranking LAPD officers and a so-called civilian. Their decisions are final and cannot be overturned by anyone, including the Police Commision or the Chief. An additional concern is that the Board of Rights disciplinary hearings are now closed to the public. This undemocratic process stems from outgoing City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo's misinterpretation of a 2007 state Supreme Court decision. In the end, the community has to depend on police officers holding their wayward colleagues accountable in closed door sessions. As one can expect, police officers are rarely punished or admonished.
While LAPD Board of Rights is part of the City Charter, it is supported by the California Police Bill of Rights, which was passed in 1976. The Bill of Rights provides enormous protections to police officers accused of wrong doing. If we are going to hold police officers more accountable, they need to get fired for misconduct. To do so, we must repeal the California Police Bill of Rights and challenge any efforts to make police disciplinary procedures private. Locally we must replace the LAPD Board of Rights with an independent civilian board that can fire, demote, subpoena, and investigate criminal cops. In addition, we need to put cops that commit murder in jail. To do so, we must elect a City and District Attorney willing to prosecute them or create a special prosecutor office that will.
● Win the messaging battle
Whenever public attention has turned to the issue of police murder and abuse, the law enforcement political machine does a skillful job at changing the discussion. When we confront them about officer misconduct, they will respond with the high level of violence within black and Latino communities. Law enforcement spin doctors will also call murders "bad shootings," and regard greater accountability and transparency as threats to the lives of police officers and their families.
We must remember that the issue at hand is police accountability. Therefore, we must reject the premise that we have no right to demand that police officers who commit murder go to jail. Unlike any other group in society, police officers routinely get cleared of murder, abuse, and corruption. Examples of officers being excused to commit crimes has become so common that law enforcement agencies act as if murder is in essence legal if a police officer does it. Police officers should enforce the law, not break it. Not only do officers who commit crimes get excused for perpetuating violence in vulnerable communities, they are often rewarded for their acts through "transfers" (a.k.a. promotions) to other departments or law enforcement agencies. These same officers go on to terrorize other poor and marginalized communities by committing the same crimes over and over again. Due to interpretations of state law, the files of officers are not open to the public, leaving community members unaware of the murderers that walk their streets.
As public employees, police officer personnel files should be made available to the community. Furthermore, when police officers commit murder they should get fired and go to jail. Until this happens, families will continue to grieve the murder of loved ones, taxpayers will continue to pay hefty multi-million dollar settlements to abuse victims, and officers who want to genuinely serve the community will pay for the deeds of their rogue comrades.
● Involve the community and – the "good" cops
In order to stop the rampant murder and violence of police officers, we must involve those who have lost loved ones to police murder, community residents and activists in a grassroots movement that will bring substantial and sustaining policy changes to law enforcement. We must also involve those officers that are sincerely dedicated to making communities safe and who will not stand for the violence committed by their comrades. These changes must result in clear and transparent measures to define and enforce police accountability so that the lost lives of Oscar Grant, Christian Portillo, Deandre Brunston, Carlos Rivera, Dontaze Storey Jr. and countless others will not be in vain.
Coalition for Justice Against Police Murder (CJAPM)