Back in the good ol’ days before our collective cheese slid completely off the cracker, The Observer did quite a bit of police reporting. We talked to every square on the Rubik’s Cube over the years: cops and crooks, inmates and turnkeys, prosecutors and defense attorneys, honorable judges and the wholly dishonorable, lowly paid public defenders and criminal defense wunderkinds who don’t get outta the king-sized bed at their lake house for less than 400 clams an hour. Doing that gave Yours Truly a unique perspective on crime, along with the looming suspicion — echoed over and over again by folks up to their eyeballs in policing and civil rights — that eventually, if we kept ignoring the issue, a shitstorm of epic proportions was gonna blow through over police use of force, racist police tactics and the killing of young black men by officers.
Hope you have your umbrella, because that righteous and wholly necessary shitstorm appears to have come.
It occurred to us over the years that part of the issue is maybe people just don’t know how to pick the leaders who can effect real change. People — and The Observer is not immune to this — will go with the tough-talking one or the smart one or the one with the Million Dollar Smile, assuming that person will also know their beehole from a posthole when it comes to issues like basic fairness, cultural competence and social justice. In The Observer’s experience, those qualities are rarely standard equipment for the creatures known as politicians.
But, as is often the case, the good news and bad news are the same news: We pick our leaders, and those leaders pick the leaders of the police departments. That means that if you’re mad as hell and aren’t gonna take it anymore, you don’t actually have to take it anymore. All you’ve gotta do is register to vote, cast a ballot for the people who are dedicated to holding the powerful to account and convince a couple ten thousand of your friends to do the same. Presto! A whole new world.
Of course, you’re saying: But how, Dear Observer, do we weed out all non-hackers who don’t pack the gear to serve our beloved city?
Well, besides scribbling everything down legibly and accurately, the other part of reporting is asking questions, and The Observer got pretty good at it, if I do say so myself. Therefore, if you care about these issues, we have some ideas on what to ask the next vote-seeker who runs for office in your city, town or humble village to separate the Big Talkers from the folks ready to put some work in on policing reform. Here, in our never humble estimation, are five pretty good questions to ask the next person seeking your vote:
1) Do you believe police departments in America have an issue with systemic racism, harassment and police brutality toward African Americans? If they say no, or hem and haw, they may be unworthy of your vote.
2) What specific steps will you take to root out systemic racism in our city’s police force, and to make sure there is zero tolerance for cops who express or act on racist sentiments? If they give you only platitudes, or dissemble, they may be unworthy of your vote.
3) What specific steps will you take to work toward ensuring that a majority of our police officers actually live in the city they police? If they mumble about hiring, or why that can’t be done, they may be unworthy of your vote.
4) What specific steps will you take to help make sure officer-involved shootings and use-of-force cases are reviewed by a civilian review board that is just, fair to both officers and the public, and has the ability to not just make recommendations but to remove officers or place them in positions where they no longer interact with citizens in a law-enforcement capacity? If they get mealy-mouthed, or don’t have a plan to help push that wheel on their first day in office, they may be unworthy of your vote.
5) What specific steps will you take to make sure that the more affluent parts of our city are never again policed with velvet gloves while poorer neighborhoods are policed with an iron fist? If they haven’t done some serious thinking on ways to make policing colorblind, class-blind and wealth-blind by the time you talk to them, they may be unworthy of your vote.
Not to get too “V for Vendetta” on you (there seems to be a lot of that going around as it is), but our politicians and police should be afraid of the judgment of citizens, not the other way around. We need leaders who know that allowing out-of-control, racist, violent and/or burnout cops to remain in positions of power over the public isn’t just an issue, it’s THE ISSUE, because the first two decades of the 21st century have given us ample evidence that you cannot effectively police a population with fear, only with empathy and love, coming from people who live in and know that city.
We’ve just got to find the people who will make that happen, and put them in office. That’s a hell of a lot harder than asking five questions, or voting for the person who can answer them to your satisfaction. But you’ll never make it to the mountaintop if you don’t start walking.