Voters in communities across the country approved measures on Election Day toughening civilian oversight of law enforcement agencies, including some that took years to reach the ballot but grew in urgency after global protests over racial injustice and police brutality.
The measures take aim at a chronic sore point in many communities, particularly among Black residents: that police departments traditionally have little oversight outside their own internal review systems, which often clear officers of wrongdoing in fatal civilian shootings.
“Recent events opened up people’s eyes more to how much this type of oversight is needed,” said Monica Steppe, a San Diego councilwoman who championed a successful proposal predating the protests that will dissolve the city’s current police review board and replace it with a more independent body with investigative powers.
However, the oversight boards don’t address other points of contention, such as the lack of diversity in many departments, and the perception of a different standard of police for Black residents than white.
In San Jose, California, voters approved an expansion of an independent police auditor’s powers, including the ability to undertake investigations even without a citizen’s complaint.
The proposal was in the works for three years, but the City Council voted to place it on the ballot in the wake of protests that erupted after George Floyd died in May after a police officer pressed a knee against his neck for several minutes while Floyd said he couldn’t breathe.
“It ended up being great timing for us because as the national spotlight shined on police excessive use of force and police brutality and certainly demands for oversight, we already had everything in the works,” said Councilmember Raul Peralez, a former full-time San Jose police officer and now a reserve officer.
And in Los Angeles, voters approved a measure requiring that at least 10 per cent of county general fund revenue be set aside for alternatives to incarceration. But statewide, voters rejected a measure to replace cash bail with a system based on public safety and flight risk.
Critics of cash bail say it discriminates against poor people, including the disproportionate number of minorities in the criminal justice system. New Jersey in 2017 essentially eliminated cash bail.
In Portland, Oregon, voters approved a City Council-backed measure that gained momentum after the spring protests to create an independent commission overseeing misconduct investigations of Portland police officers. The measure already faces a police union grievance trying to stop it.
In Seattle, voters gave the King County Council the ability to specify the sheriff’s public safety powers. The goal was providing an alternative to some policing practices, such as expanding the use of social workers to respond to emergency calls of people in crisis. The referendum grew directly out of the reckoning that followed Floyd’s death, said Councilmember Girmay Zahilay.
A successful Philadelphia ballot issue creates a new civilian review commission and places it under the control of the City Council in the hopes of making it more independent. In Pittsburgh, a charter amendment requiring police officers to co-operate with the city’s civilian police review board passed overwhelmingly.
“If you’re going to have oversight of police actions, then you need the officers who have performed those actions to be transparent, and for other officers who witnessed it to bring their testimony,” said Rev. Ricky Burgess, a Pittsburgh council member who pushed the measure. “Right now neither is required.”
The law enforcement community remains concerned that such oversight boards — which often don’t involve police input — are punitive and automatically assume wrongdoing by officers based on their prejudices, said Jim Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police.
“Because they come from a flawed premise, in many instances they’re going to lead to flawed conclusions and therefore the remedies they would propose are going to be equally flawed,” he said.
In Columbus, voters approved the city’s first-ever police review board. The measure was strongly supported by Democratic Mayor Andrew Ginther, who made its passage a top priority.
The Columbus police department had already faced criticism after a number of episodes, including the 2016 shooting of Henry Green, a Black man, by two undercover white police officers working in an anti-crime summer initiative.
Later in 2016, a white officer fatally shot a 13-year-old Black teenager during a robbery investigation. In 2017, a video showed a Columbus officer restraining a prone Black man and preparing to handcuff him when an officer who was also involved in the Green shooting arrives and appears to kick the man in the head. The city fired that officer, but an arbitrator ordered him reinstated.
Columbus police have a “significant disparity of use of force against minority residents” that the city must address, according to a report by Matrix Consulting Group last year for a city safety advisory commission.
The Columbus review board and an accompanying inspector general’s office will have the ability to pursue parallel investigations of police misconduct alongside the police department’s own internal affairs bureau.
The board wouldn’t have the authority to discipline an officer, but its report would end up on the desk of the city’s safety director, who does.
Details of the Columbus review board will be worked out in upcoming negotiations with the police union representing the department’s 1,800 or so officers.
Many officers want the process to be fair and don’t feel as if they were treated fairly by the city during the months of unrest, said Keith Ferrell, executive director of the union representing Columbus officers.
“Fair to the officers, fair to the citizens, and quite honestly doesn’t put the citizens at risk because officers are afraid to do their jobs,” Ferrell said.
The Columbus review board is not about demonizing the police, but is instead about accountability and restoration of trust, said Nick Bankston, the measure’s campaign manager.
“We heard loud and clear from the community that we currently have a system where it’s the police policing the police,” Bankston said. “That just doesn’t make sense, and there’s not trust that’s there.”
Associated Press writer Gillian Flaccus in Portland contributed to this report.