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Ending police violence
Body cameras, community policing, toothless review boards are phony solutions
Bernadette Kelly
volume:  
volume 37
issue 6
December 2016
imagestuff

The spirited campaign for elected civilian review boards in New York City. Photo: FSP-NY

What reforms can stop cop brutality? This is the question activists are urgently trying to answer as the murdered bodies of unarmed victims of the police continue to mount.

Pinpointing the role of cops under capitalism is one part of the puzzle. Police don’t exist to serve and protect Black, Latino or other workingclass communities. They do exist to protect the rich and private property. Their function is to guard wealth and maintain the current unequal public order — by force if necessary.

In the U.S. the police forces evolved from a racist and despicable history. The “thin blue line” of today started as patrols to catch runaway slaves. Later, as cities grew, cops were employed as well-armed strike breakers by America’s industrialists. To hold such an institution accountable requires a radical fight for complete community control, and a determination to accept nothing less.

Blind oversight. What is not working is civilian review or oversight boards of the police. In cities, large and small, these boards are powerless and undemocratic.

The Civilian Complaint Review Board of New York City is one such example. All its members are appointed by the mayor, city council, and police commissioner — not elected by the public. If a complaint against an officer has merit, the board makes a recommendation for discipline to the police commissioner. He has the power to act on the recommendation or to overrule and dismiss it! The board has no enforcement powers of its own. This is typical of more than 200 review/oversight boards of police around the U.S. At least the NYC board publishes the number of complaints it receives annually. In many municipalities complaints are sealed from the public and expunged after a few years.

Technology isn’t a fix. Requiring the police to wear body cameras is another popular but failed response to stopping police misconduct.

In Chicago and New Orleans, cops turned off their body cameras during shooting incidents. Ten state legislatures have passed bills, or have bills pending, to exempt body camera footage from public record requests. The claim is that the footage is part of a crime scene and therefore must be sealed. And here, let’s be clear. While it is the cops who are killing people, it is the politicians, both Democrats and Republicans, who shield the police from accountability. This doesn’t mean these same politicians aren’t willing to spend a whole lot of taxpayer money to “fix” a problem they have no intention of fixing.

Non-lethal weapons such as tear gas, pepper spray, concussion grenades, and Tasers are promoted by manufacturers as alternatives to guns. This high-priced reform is no solution. If police misuse their guns and are not held accountable, giving them other weapons will not stop the abuse.

Andrew Washington, a 21-year-old African American from the San Francisco Bay Area, died after being tased 17 times in three minutes. The Guardian reported 47 Taser-related deaths of people in 2015. Moreover, police departments aren’t trading their revolvers for non-lethal weapons, but adding them to the arsenal.

And what an arsenal it is! The North Dakota state legislature passed a law in 2015 that cleared police to operate drone aircraft weaponed with tear gas and Tasers. The national media covering protests in Ferguson, Missouri showed everyone the face of the increasingly militarized police force.

The unjust justice system. The police especially act like an invading army in communities of color. And the same city, state and federal governments that are arming police forces to the teeth are protecting cops from liability for their misconduct.

Even when police are caught killing someone on video, as happened with Eric Garner and Tamir Rice, prosecutors almost never bring indictments. Their jobs depend on keeping good police relations. The mother of 12-year-old Tamir Rice put it this way after the county prosecutor failed to get an indictment against the officers who killed her child: “Prosecutor McGinty deliberately sabotaged the case, never advocating for my son, and acting instead like the police officers’ defense attorney.”

Any real reform must include a Special Prosecutor independent of the District Attorney’s office.

All lives will matter when Black Lives Matter. According to The Guardian, on its website, “The Counted,” more than 915 people have been killed by U.S. law enforcement since 2015. The U.S. averaged 562 causalities per year over the eight years of the Iraq War. Statistically, that makes the war at home deadlier than the war abroad.

The abuse of African Americans and all other working-class people at the hands of the police must stop. Reform is possible and it will be built on the dedicated, hard work of anti-police brutality groups. Activists have struggled for decades to hold the police accountable. When protests erupted following the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, the movement had already been growing in communities of color across the U.S., spurred on by every injustice and death.

“What reforms exist are the result of pressure from activists at different points in history. But the ruling class gives fake solutions to release that pressure instead of fundamental change,” said Jed Holtz, an organizer to stop police violence in New York City. “Now we’re at a point where the pressure can be turned up, as the Black Lives Matter movement is doing. Now it’s possible to demand real reform — this time enforceable and controlled by the people targeted by police brutality, poor people and people of color.”

A positive effort taking place is Chicago’s Civilian Police Accountability Council, linked to the Black Lives Matter platform. In New York City, a campaign for an Elected Civilian Review Board (ECRB) is in full gear, fueled by activists and organizations including the Freedom Socialist Party. Unlike the current toothless board, the ECRB would be elected by the communities affected by police brutality and have the power to investigate, discipline and fire abusive cops.

To learn more or get involved in the New York City campaign visit its Facebook page at www.facebook.com/StopPoliceViolenceNYC.

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