‘Defund the police’ won’t work. Here’s how to put cops under community control


June 16, 2020

The Sacramento Bee

In our many collective decades of covering and engaging in local, state and national politics, we have been frustrated by the failure of city councils, boards of supervisors, state legislatures and Congress to effectively eradicate abusive behavior by the minority of law enforcement officers who are nurtured and protected by a culture of corruption in many jurisdictions.

While we respect the dedicated men and women who serve and protect our towns, cities, counties and states, we have zero tolerance for those who, under the color of law, harass, beat, maim and murder our fellow citizens. Most often the victims are poor, Black, Latino and Asian. Too often, the perpetrators go unpunished.

The question facing communities across the country is this: How can civilians at the local level gain control over law enforcement agencies in the same way the Constitution subjects the armed forces to civilian command?

Of course, many social service interventions that police now handle should be re-allocated to other agencies along with funding. But the answer to “what is to be done?” is decidedly not “defund the police” – a frightening slogan that suggests a naïve belief that we would be better off without law enforcement. Rather, we should be advocating community control — independent and empowered civilian review of police conduct.

Sadly, the principal obstacle to independent civilian review are police associations, which see “outside” interference as a threat to standards and practices, chain of command and especially collective bargaining for wages, pensions, promotions and job security.

Police associations are essentially labor unions, just like carpenters, teamsters, steelworkers and teachers. In most places, having the imprimatur of the police unions remains critical to electoral success, often creating enormous conflicts for elected officials.

This is particularly true for Democratic candidates, who are routinely derided by their Republican opponents as being “soft on crime.” Being able to boast of the endorsements of rank-and-file police officers through their police associations is often viewed as an antidote to these attacks.

But such endorsements are often based not on legitimate law enforcement issues, but rather the candidates’ support — expressed publicly or often in closed-door meetings or in undisclosed questionnaires — on union issues such as binding arbitration, the right to strike, working conditions and pensions. And being in political debt to police unions can cause Democratic officeholders, who would normally be expected to speak out most strongly against unfair treatment of minorities, to mute their criticism or hedge their responses when such incidents occur.

One thing we are both sure of: Given the times we are in, with massive public support for policing reforms after the killing of George Floyd, candidates and elected officials, regardless of party, should come down on the side of supporting the public interest, not pandering to police unions for fear of being branded as weak on public safety by an opportunistic opponent. That means supporting civilian control of the police.

One community that has addressed the issue of civilian control is New Orleans, with its Office of the Independent Police Monitor, created in 2008 after six years of meetings and study that researched more than 100 U.S. cities with some form of civilian oversight of police.

Sunnyvale, Calif., doesn’t have a police department per se but a fully integrated Office of Public Safety, in which police, fire, and emergency medical services are provided by officers trained in all three disciplines.

Democrats in Congress have recently proposed the Justice in Policing Act that to ban chokeholds, limit qualified immunity for police officers, create national misconduct registry, end use of no-knock drug warrants and make lynching a federal crime

Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York has proposed “Say Their Name” legislation to make public all police conduct records, criminalize false police reporting and more.

These kinds of reforms and approaches to community control are all worthwhile. But whatever form it takes, the single most important principle and practice ultimately is civilian control.

To make that happen, state legislatures and Congress should condition funding on establishment of some form of independent civilian review of police behavior with – despite almost certain police union opposition – the authority to discipline and/or discharge police officers proved to have engaged in abusive behavior.

Phil Trounstine served as political editor of the San Jose Mercury News, communications director for Gov. Gray Davis and now is editor and publisher of Calbuzz. Garry South has managed four California campaigns for governor and played leading roles in three presidential campaigns.