Friday, May 24, 2019

Slicing and Dicing Citizen Oversight of Police in Tennessee and the USA

Wendy Zuniga (with bullhorn) and Memphis citizens urge City Council to reinstate oversight (July 2015)

Toward the end of the day, standing at the back of the room, Community Oversight Board First Vice-Chair Jamel Campbell-Gooch expressed the takeaway from NACOLE’s regional meeting in Nashville May 17:
“Listening to everyone, we see there are so many different ways to go about this,” said Campbell-Gooch. In Tennessee vernacular, we might say, “More than one way to skin a cat.” By whatever description, this was not only a “takeaway” – it was an understatement. 
Leading officials of community police oversight boards from across the country gathered at Nashville’s main library for a regional meeting of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement. They came from Denver, Chicago, St. Louis, Atlanta, Washington DC, Knoxville, Memphis, Nashville and elsewhere for the one-day event. 
Nashville’s COB, voted into power by a public referendum in November, was the shiny, new player at the event. Many COB members and its newly appointed executive director, William Weeden, showed up to soak in whatever they could as COB establishes how they will operate. So did several community members whose activism through Community Oversight Now had launched the referendum.
OVERSIGHT SMORGASBORD
What Campbell-Gooch meant was this: There are many different “models” for a community to operate a citizen board. Taking in the smorgasbord of how citizen boards operate, in all their nuances, was the day’s food for thought. 
A citizen board, for example, may take on the role of directly investigating every single citizen complaint about police abuses and mistreatment. An example would be the  Chicago Office of Police Accountability, which has a staff of 150, including 90 investigators, and an $18-million budget, according to its chief administrator, Sydney Roberts.  Citizen complaints first come directly through COPA. They fielded 4,200 complaints in 2018, she said, and 70 per cent of those they forwarded along to Chicago Police Department internal affairs.

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Nicholas Mitchell of Denver, Sydney Roberts of Chicago and Nicolle Barton of St. Louis share their experiences with citizen oversight

COPA investigates such things as shootings by police, showing up alongside Chicago Police Department officers and command staff to interview witnesses, go to the hospital, etc.  Although Chicago had other oversight mechanisms prior to COPA, Robert’s office was established by ordinance in 2017 and after the 2014 police shooting of Laquan McDonald. That led to an investigation by the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division of CPD’s “patterns and practices” and a consent decree which became effective March 1.
At the other end of the spectrum in its authority and size was Memphis’ Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board (CLERB), which has a staff of two and is allowed to hear citizen complaints only after police internal affairs has completed its investigation and notified the complaining citizens of its decision. CLERB Administrator Virginia Wilson represented the Memphis board and served on a panel at the NACOLE meeting.
RIGHT SIDE OF THE LAW
While police unions, associations and Fraternal Order of Police fight citizen oversight tooth and nail, Knoxville Chief of Police Eve Thomas showed up at the Tennessee General Assembly in March to object to a GOP bill which limited oversight. The bill bans citizen oversight boards from having direct subpoena authority such as Nashville’s COB and Knoxville’s Police Advisory and Review Committee (PARC) have by local ordinance.

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Knoxville Chief of Police Eve Thomas

Thomas also was the only active member of law enforcement to show up at the NACOLE event. She had some memorable insights.
“I had an ‘aha’ moment. My ‘aha’ moment was in 1994,” Thomas told the gathering.  “I made a stop. It was a gentleman of color. I was very professional.
“At the end, he said, ‘You were respectful. You did everything right. But you were rude.’”
Thomas was puzzled.
“You didn’t ask me how my day was going,” the man told her. 
I touched base with Chief Thomas again yesterday to make sure I understood her meaning.
“It was more of a realization of the need to be courteous and more thoughtful in my interactions,” she said, “rather than ‘business-like.’ I learned from this gentleman to put more emphasis on treating everyone the way I want to be treated rather than being sure I say the right things  -- in a robotic manner.”
Thomas said she was hopeful that today’s young officers will be less prejudiced than previous generations.
“They are great on the technology,” Thomas said. “The thing is, we have to train them how to communicate with people.”
However, it’s the young officers, such as in their mid-twenties, who seem to most often shoot young, black men who are trying to get away. Talking would have been a great option over shooting. In fact, a key characteristic of a successful officer is an outgoing personality. 
CONSENSUS
If the takeaway of the day was variety, there was consensus on many subjects, such as community outreach, opposition from the FOP and the race-based source of most complaints. 

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NACOLE Regional Training and Networking in Nashville May 17, 2019

Nicolle Barton, executive director, City of St. Louis Civilian Oversight Board, was formerly a sworn officer, and she worked in the criminal justice system in the probation department in Ferguson, MO, when officer Darren Wilson murdered Mike Brown Jr. Aug. 9, 2014. As a former officer, Barton gives lie to FOP’s cliché complaint that only police can police the police.
“The FOP fought against us from the beginning. Our FOP rep had a physical altercation with an activist at a Town Hall meeting,” Barton said.
“They think, ‘Why would a body of citizens who don’t know anything about what we do tell us what to do?’”
Even worse: “During peaceful protests after (St. Louis) officer Jason Stockley was acquitted of murdering Anthony Lamar Smith, police had undercover officers in the crowd to watch citizen protesters. 
“Police maced and beat protesters – and even one of our own undercover officers!” Barton said.
“Continued community outreach is important,” Barton noted. “I attend public safety meetings, Town Hall meetings, neighborhood meetings. I am a member of the Association of Latin Professionals.”
Susan Hutson is the Independent Police Monitor in New Orleans, serving since 2010 to oversee the city’s consent decree with the DOJ.  She spoke about their mediation program between officers and citizens.
“At the heart of every single one of these conversations is race,” Hutson said. “The officer thinks, Well, you were walking around with your pants hanging down.”
Panelists also agreed that members of the community should be at the forefront of policy making.
“People should have a seat at the table on policy, not just a bunch of experts,” said Denver Independent Monitor Nicholas Mitchell.
“We need to meet the community where they are, where things are happening,” said COPA’s Roberts. “We need to establish those relationships ahead of time.”
Memphis’ CLERB and Nashville’s COB, among other oversight boards, have called on the Atlanta Citizen Review Board as a resource. CLERB investigator Arthur Robinson spent a few days in Atlanta in 2017 studying their process. We talked with Samuel Lee Reid II, ACRB’s executive director, during a break in the meeting. We will give him the last word, along with a link to our video interview.

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ACRB Executive Director Samuel Lee Reid II

“These oversight boards grow out of something that happened,” Reid said. “And then the community demands it.” 
But later, apathy can set in, Reid said, “and the community moves onto something else… We have to keep the community engaged and our work fresh.” 
One example of outreach was a short video that ACRB produced, “Don’t Run,” urging citizens not to run from police. “Running away” has triggered an emotionally wrong and unconstitutional impulse in officers who have shot and killed non-violent citizens who were trying to get away. The list is long, but it includes Daniel Hambrick in Nashville, Darrius Stewart in Memphis and Justus Howell in Zion, IL.


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Atlanta oversight board developed ‘Don’t Run’ video

ACRB also puts on know-your-rights workshops, which not only explain the rights citizens have, but the responsibilities citizens have.
“We do the know-your-rights workshops at libraries, churches. We will come to your family barbecue,” Reid said. “We will go anywhere, any time. That’s how important it is.” 
Our feature documentary, Who Will Watch the Watchers? examines citizen oversight of police, drilling down on the Memphis movement to bring back its CLERB, which had been secretly disbanded by Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton in 2011. The film also takes on profiling, filming police, the First Amendment in the Trump era and other contemporary issues. 

Sunday, March 3, 2019

On Your Uber Ride to Downtown Nashville, Watch Out for Those Political Potholes

While taking an Uber ride to the second Community Oversight Board meeting, I realized I had underestimated the rancor and divide in Nashville.

Here is our story in Daily Kos: "On Your Uber Drive in Nashville, Watch Those Political Potholes" 

COB member Phyllis Hildreth (right) laments distrust in the community 


Saturday, January 26, 2019

Community Oversight: 7 Ways New Nashville Board Can Connect

As Metro Nashville Council fills appointments to the new Community Oversight Board, what will soon matter most to the board and administrative staff is this: Make Connections. 
Not the good ol’ boy, Nashville-standard-operating-procedure connections – but connections to the community, and especially those that are left out of the usual Nashville network. 
Here are seven things on our Connections Laundry List:
1—The first message out of the box has to be: We’re open for business, and this is how we work. While COB was adorned with broad powers by the historical referendum citizens approved in November -- and it has a lot of levers to pull -- the centerpiece is to give platform to citizens who believe they have been wronged by law enforcement. 

2—Keep mass media in the loop, even after the new wears off. In a local and national atmosphere where media and the community are mindful of excessive force by police, media are in a high state of on–the-story. But as time wears on, it will be important for COB and staff to guide the narrative and tell its own story. Be pro-active at providing news and feature stories for media to consume. Be as transparent as citizens want police and government to be. “Media relations” includes keeping the press interested in covering every meeting. 
3—On social media, COB should be as visible and engaging as any department of Metro government or any business. 
4—Show, don’t just tell. Posts that include video get more views. COB can produce its own video packages –  for example, a walk-through of how to make a complaint, or what to do if police pull you over. Short films can be created to use for group presentations. Atlanta Citizen Review Board, for instance, made a super-short sequence entitled, “Don’t Run from Police.”
5—Be approachable out there. Be visible in the schools, churches, community centers and wherever they will have you (such as businesses and law offices). Know Your Rights role-playing workshops are one type of presentation. Duplicate yourself by getting students at Metro schools involved in conducting their own Know Your Rights Theater
6—Video every meeting. Live-stream, but also produce high-quality video files of the total meeting, and re-mix into a meeting “highlights” not to exceed 15 minutes. Archive your videos because citizens, media, filmmakers, historians and courts will have occasion to use them in the future. Metro Nashville already does this with certain events and meetings, such as police officers being promoted, but watch for push-back from some quarters to the perception of “dirty laundry” being aired over city channels.
7—Have a user-friendly website where citizens can make complaints online. Your own story-telling video packages, how-to’s and all sorts of stuff can be resources for the public. Website should include meeting agendas, minutes and news. Cases that have been adjudicated should have a synopsis, because it is instructive to know what kind of complaints the board receives and how they are making decisions. 
NOT CONNECTING LEADS TO THIS
An example of what not to do -- how to fail to communicate with the community despite good intentions -- can be found in the Memphis Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board. CLERB recently decided to drop monthly meetings and meet every other month due to a dwindling case load. CLERB heard only 10 to 12 cases in 2018, according to CLERB Chairperson Casey Bryant.


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CLERB Chair Casey Bryant: “People don’t know they can complain.”

“People don’t know they can make a complaint,” Bryant said.  “The letters that the police internal affairs sends out after making a decision are not understandable to most people…It’s not clear what a citizen’s recourse is.”
In Nashville, citizens may make complaints directly to COB, but a Memphis citizen must first complain through police internal affairs before appealing to CLERB.
“So that’s why I want to do some more outreach and get people in the public to understand our role and the possibilities. The first thing to do would be to have an accurate website that is up to date and user-friendly. 
“To make sure we get all this out is tough,” said Bryant, who is a lawyer. “We could have a Facebook page. We talked a couple of months ago about putting on panels, with academics or members of law enforcement.  And going around town and educating people on issues. 
“We were trying to have meetings in different parts of town, hoping  people would come, but we just weren’t able to publicize it.
“I did an interview last night with Fox 13 news,” Bryant said after a Jan. 10 CLERB meeting. “Scores of people said they saw it. The TV story was playing off people’s unease about police brutality and wanting to see something change about it.  I think CLERB is positioned to bring some light to those issues. 
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Casey Bryant swears in complainant Trent Collier
“But we need to be out in public. We have to demystify whatever people think this is.”