New Orleans Many cities and some states are wrestling with what to do with unaccountable and too often brutal and abusive police forces unable or unwilling to police themselves. The proposals are wide ranging from defunding and decentralizing public safety to barring certain tactics like chokeholds, neck restraints, and other physical maneuvers. There is also uproar over the modern militarization of the police with many communities questioning or curtailing the use of tear gas or tear gas like substances, rubber bullets, and full-scale tanks and assault-geared officers on the streets to deal with citizens.
These issues are almost ancient. Citizens and their organizations have been calling for police accountability consistently over the last fifty years with only marginal success. Citizen review boards were thought to be critical, but their institutionalization has been hard fought and limited. Community policing as a dominant practice has waxed and waned. In New Orleans for example, community liaison officers are the first to be eliminated and put back on the street when there are any crime spikes or funding issues.
Accountability requires information in order to make the right decisions. This is a challenge. The New York legislature is reportedly now debating repealing a law there that seals any record of police discipline and abuse from public inspection and knowledge. Think about it. If that had been the law in Minnesota, none of us would know the prior records of the police officers involved in the killing of George Floyd. We would be puppets on the strings of the information officers of the local police department.
Long time Little Rock citizen activist, friend and former ACORN staffer, Jim Lynch, reached out to me recently with a small but powerful suggestion. He noted that in the wake of several deaths in Little Rock around 1997 at the hands of police, a proposal had been made to the city directors to implement a regular Police Accountability Report Card. Certainly, this doesn’t sound revolutionary, and that might make it possible to implement universally.
The report card was simple, but thorough. It required a quarterly report in several categories: firearm discharge, physical force, complaints, employment, and lawsuits. With such information everyone and anyone would know how to evaluate their force and the individual officers. Citizens would be able to determine progress not just in crime reduction statistics that are the only things reported now, often in a jumble of questionable categories and classifications, but in relationships with the community, all the community.
The proposal died then, but deserves to be revived now. There is much to be done. A report card seems simple, perhaps elementary, but perhaps that is where we are in reining in the police. Besides, it just might work as one piece of the puzzle.