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.”