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Could elected civilian oversight boards help to curb police lawlessness?

We must redress the long history of appointed boards that have failed to act on police violence

Canadian PoliticsPolicingSocial MovementsUSA Politics

Toronto Police and Ontario Provincial Police officers near the intersection of King Street West and University Avenue during the protests surrounding the G-20 Summit in Toronto, June 27, 2010. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

If police abolition does not emerge as a realizable goal in the near future, we have to find ways of defending ourselves in the interim. A directly elected, recallable civilian oversight board with an independent prosecutor, with access to all police department records and the capacity to create and institute policy directions—along with control over police discipline—is emerging as a viable tool to achieve that goal.

How can we be assured that an elected civilian review board will understand and be motivated to carry out an anti-oppression mandate? Only by requiring a form of ranked balloting that guarantees representation of marginalized groups. The wheel does not have to be reinvented when there is a plethora of democratic and representative balloting methodologies available.

Black Lives Matter and several of its proponents have already popularized demands to defund, disarm, dismantle and demilitarize existing police forces—critical demands that have gained traction in the wake of unprecedented global protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25. But moderate reform efforts to enhance the independence, transparency and accountability of existing civilian police review boards are bound to fail. That is because such boards are baked into a system subject to decisive influence emanating from those with wealth and property whose interests the police were historically established to protect.

As American socialist scholar George Novak pointed out in Democracy and Revolution, “In class society, governmental power inevitably gravitates to the strongest section of property holders.” This was most recently made apparent by the June 29 decision of the Toronto City Council to defeat a vote calling on the police to cut at least 10 percent from its 2021 budget. Instead, under the influence of Mayor John Tory, the majority decided to increase the highly inflated budget (already well over one billion dollars), by five million dollars more. The default position for some of the wily incumbent councillors was to embrace the status quo.

Tinkering with the police won’t cut it

Tinkering with existing police complaint oversight bodies won’t cut it. As Toronto criminal lawyer Clayton Ruby pointed out recently in a letter to the editor in the Globe and Mail:

All existing police supervisory bodies investigate large numbers of complaints but lay virtually no charges, and those few rarely result in convictions. Whether the police do it, or independent investigators do, the results have equally approached zero. Systems are designed to produce the results they inevitably achieve.
We should rethink the process and do something quite different if we are to have any impact on police lawlessness.

The existence of police “unions” and their political influence has proven to be the insurmountable obstacle to effective control of police abuse. As senior Globe and Mail writer Doug Saunders tells it, “The insecurity of targeted communities is exacerbated by police unions—which bear no resemblance to, and are opposed by, actual labour unions. They exist to resist reforms and block prosecutions of violent or crooked cops, and to insist, in what amounts to a racket, that uniformed police be used for all manner of rudimentary security duties.” Keep in mind that at least 17 misconduct complaints were laid against Derek Chauvin, George Floyd’s killer, without derailing his career with the Minneapolis police force.

Seattle politician Kshama Sawant calls for an elected oversight board

Photo by Taymaz Valley/Flickr

One of the several advocates of an elected and empowered oversight board in the United States, Seattle City Council Member Kshama Sawant, says that she’s working to defund the police by at least 50 percent and divert those funds to community programs in order to begin to address systemic racism. “But we need [to go] beyond that,” she told a CNN interviewer in June. “We need an independently elected community oversight board, which has full powers over the police.” Hers is only one voice that prioritizes that demand as essential to “take this historic moment to win real victories against police violence.”

Sawant’s popular call for “a democratically elected community oversight board in Seattle, with full powers to hold police accountable, including setting department policy and procedure” is echoed by numerous groups such as Utah United Against Police Brutality in Salt Lake City and the Tallahassee Community Action Committee in Florida, to name only two. Elsewhere, Black Lives Matter and the Democratic Socialists of America in New York State have sponsored a Campaign for an Elected Civilian Review Board, which is seeking to replace New York City’s weak Civilian Complaint Review Board. Backed by elected officials, candidates, unions, activists and even former Black Panthers, the campaign calls for such an elected board to “have subpoena power, as well as the authority to address police misconduct with investigations, disciplinary actions and retraining orders. The board would maintain neighbourhood offices, organize regular community meetings and do outreach with communities that have been affected by police misconduct and violence. The members of the proposed ECRB would be chosen at the neighbourhood level in a process that would have strict campaign finance rules.”

Appointed boards are toothless dead ends

There is a broad consensus that appointed civilian oversight boards are overwhelmingly co-opted by police forces whose conduct they are supposed to assess and wind up justifying the police in almost all instances.

Every decade or two, governments commission reports—in Ontario, for example, the Maloney Report, the Lewis Report, the LeSage Report the Iacobucci Report—and nothing happens, even when the Chair of the Toronto Police Services Board was a racialized NDPer—Alok Mukherjee. The inescapable conclusion is that control of the police must be removed not only from the police themselves but also from those who intentionally fail to assert control over them; namely, our politicians. They are the ones who created the boards that typically have no subpoena or discipline power, no access to police records, no ability to compel evidence or produce police notes, and only the power to make recommendations to the Chief of Police or for prosecution. The typically massive escalation of annual police budgets, more often than ever equipping police with military-grade surplus weaponry, shows that the police have more influence over the politicians than the politicians choose to exercise over the police. The Democratic Socialists of America contend that appointed board members are more accountable to whomever appoints them and tend to serve their interests rather than those of the wider public.

Shift power into the hands of communities

An elected civilian oversight board would shift power into the hands of communities by empowering accountable and recallable representatives in every neighbourhood to respond to cases of police abuse. The wave of municipally appointed oversight boards that numbered over 200 in the US in 2015 are largely window-dressing. Hundreds of others since the 1950s have been completely sabotaged by police associations. The different iterations of oversight institutions in Canada that have appeared (and disappeared) since the 1960s tell the same sorry tale.

In New York City, the Campaign for an ECRB has proposed an amendment to the City Charter to select proposed board candidates from the local community over the political systems in place. The 17 neighbourhood districts combined with existing municipal districts would reflect Black, Latinx, LGBTQ+, sex workers and other communities that are among the first victims of profiling, gratuitous violence and systemic discrimination.

Communities in Canada that face similar abuse need to raise parallel demands. In Ontario, the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) and most appointed municipal police boards can be supplanted by the election of oversight board members coinciding with scheduled municipal elections. Ways should and can be found to ensure that candidates will reflect the same roots and backgrounds as the victimized communities and marginalized groups they are responsible to represent. These citizens can become allies of the racialized groups whose spontaneous resistance has put the need for control of police on the daily agenda.

Unity through political action and the capacity to mobilize targeted communities into supportive public action is critical to act as a bulwark against oppression by armed bodies whose raison d’etre is to enforce laws that protect those with property against those without it. Nothing less will work.

Harry Kopyto is a retired legal advocate who lives in Toronto. He is a member of the Courage Coalition and New Democrats for Leap. Harry’s articles on legal topics have been printed in publications including the Globe and Mail, *Boing Boing, and in law journals across Canada and around the world.

Gord Doctorow has a long history of involvement in municipal politics through the NDP. Gord is the former Co-chair of the ONDP Left Caucus and Antiwar Committee. His background in anti-racist activities goes back to his involvement in support of Black Civil Rights in the 1960s.


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