Baltimore Burns Along With Our Trust in Police

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Law enforcement agencies are supposed to serve and protect. That paradigm is shifting and more communities are losing confidence in their officers. From Baltimore to Charleston to Ferguson to New York we see the same story with different backdrops. This pattern of police brutality and murder drive public outrage and civil unrest in cities where “law enforcement” is operating above the law. For decades this type of police misconduct has been allowed to spread like a fungus while police and city management turn a blind eye or cover-up material evidence that may have resulted in the removal of the bad cops before they commit more violence adding to public distrust. Part of the problem is the police code of silence where police cover up for each other by hiding the truth and withholding information that would otherwise expose the bad seeds. The proliferation of smart phones and social media has made this misconduct more evident. Police corruption is no more common than before but now it is more readily available via twitter, facebook and instagram. Social media has effectively broken the code of silence by delivering evidence directly to the world.

On April 4, 2015 former US Coast Guard Walter Scott was shot and killed while fleeing from officer Michael Slager following a traffic stop. Slager was terminated, arrested and faces murder charges because the incident was caught on video. Without that recording there would be no proof against Slager who planted evidence on Scott and lied in his report to cover up the murder. He lied claiming Scott was the aggressor who took his taser. Other officers quickly arrived and failed to assist the victim thereby implicating themselves in the lie that police attempted to resuscitate Scott who is seen in the video handcuffed face down on the ground until his body was placed in the ambulance. Without the video the Scott family would have no chance at finding peace or justice. This is one of many stories of why civilians need to oversee their police.

My city, Pasadena California is the midst dealing with the issue of police oversight. I am one of many members of Pasadena’s Coalition for Increased Civilian Oversight of Police. We organized after attempts by the city manager and the police officers union to withhold evidence regarding the police shooting of Kendrec McDade. Documents were recently revealed indicating that the Pasadena police acted outside of their own policy resulting in the fatal shooting of a 19 year old unarmed male being shot multiple times in the back as he fled from police who were chasing him by car and on foot. So far the city has provided excuses instead of support regarding civilian oversight. Our new mayor elect takes office in May. He ran a progressive campaign so I hope he continues to side with progress and public safety over the status quo.

Absolute power corrupts absolutely. We can no longer trust police to police their own when they continue to operate above the law. History has proven that self-policing models are flawed and encourage misconduct and corruption. Each community must insist on its own civilian oversight plan to monitor cops. Remember they work for us, we pay their salaries and they answer to us, not visa versa. Communities are in the best position to identify and uproot the bad seeds in order to preserve the trust that is necessary to foster healthy relationships between police and communities. The role of city management in this process is to empower the public and help create these oversight bodies instead of fighting with citizens who are working for the safety and security for their families and neighbors. When city government opposes such models it makes me nervous. Perception is reality and when cities are afraid to pull back the curtain on police conduct the perception is that there must be skeletons in the closet. Transparency in government and law enforcement is a necessary prerequisite to healthy democracy. Today both our nation and our democracy are far from healthy and denial is not the remedy.

Not all cops are dirty. Just like everyone else police can be honest and noble or they may be bad seeds that create animosity, anger and sow public distrust. That distrust has driven negative public sentiment that has gone from a slow simmer to a rapid boil. For too long the bad seeds were left to grow and spread like weeds. We need honest, confident, outspoken cops to weed their own yards. Until that happens the only solution is to insist on civilian oversight to check our cops before they murder one more member of the communities they “serve.”

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Invest in Community, Not in Prisons, the Case for CA Prop 47

Prop 47

This November Californians will decide whether or not to improve our “justice system.” Our state prisons currently house some 136,000 individuals. For years we ranked first in largest state prison population in America. Recently Texas surpassed us but we’re still a strong second wearing the shiny silver medal of dishonor, the bronze goes to Florida with over 100,000 prison inmates. Since 1980 our prison budget has increased nearly 450% while our higher education budget consistently suffers. We’ve prioritized prisons over education. Our sky rocketing prison budget is not about California having more “criminals,” it’s about implementing policies that criminalize more Californians. Private corporations and lobbyists have succeeded in driving up our prison spending to nearly $12 billion. The numbers are alarming, especially when we focus on the disparate impact on black and Latino men who represent some 70% of our prison population.

Our penal codes need to be amended and unfortunately the state legislature has not had the courage to make necessary changes out of fear of appearing “soft on crime.” They also want to maintain support of the state’s multi-billion dollar prison industry. California voters have a rare opportunity to make the necessary change now by voting for Proposition 47 on the November ballot. This prop will certainly not fix all of the injustices in our criminal system but it does provide for some excellent prison reform for non-violent offenders. The language of the proposition is narrowly tailored to include 6 penal code sections pertaining to drug possession and minor theft or fraud offenses involving less than $950. The proposed language reduces these offenses from felonies (which carry possible prison sentences) to misdemeanors which carry a maximum sentence of one year in county jail. Anyone currently serving prison time for these minor theft or drug possession offenses may be re-sentenced as misdemeanor offenders and will serve a maximum of one year in county jail along with any additional probation terms that a judge deems appropriate. The language of prop 47 excludes persons with violent criminal records including rape, molestation or any other strike priors. A drug user or shoplifter with a violent prior strike conviction is excluded and will still serve prison time so there is no risk of releasing violent offenders.

Having served as a public defender for six years I’ve seen many good people with addiction and mental health issues sentenced to lengthy prison terms because of their history of substance abuse and non-violent crime. Upon release these felons are excluded from most employment opportunities and are stigmatized for what are often relatively minor offenses. Our prisons are full of non-violent offenders who need mental health counseling and drug treatment but instead of rehabilitation we spend billions on housing, feeding, clothing and incarcerating them for years while never addressing the root of the problem. Prop 47 does address some of these root causes. The estimated $150- $250 million per year in state savings will be re-allocated from prison spending to mental health and substance abuse treatment (65%), k-12 education (25%) and victim trauma recovery services (10%). This reallocation will address some of the root causes that result in high recidivism rates when left unaddressed.

As long as corporate money and fear drive political policy our legislature will never propose a bill like this. This is our opportunity as voters to show the rest of the nation that Californians do not see incarceration as a solution for addiction, mental health issues and non-violent theft offenses. This prop is supported by the San Francisco and Santa Clara District Attorneys, former San Diego Police Chief, California Teachers Association and numerous organizations that value individual life and public safety while rejecting the fear tactics presented by opponents. This prop is entitled “California Safe Neighborhoods & Schools” because it invests in our neighbors and schools, NOT in private prison corporations. Incarceration is only a temprorary fix that does not make us safer, investing in our communities does.