Sunday, March 22, 2015

People's Tribunal in Albuquerque

Last Sunday, ABQJustice conducted what they called a tribunal with regard to the long and disreputable record of the Albuquerque Police Department's racist and violent policing.

I wasn't able to attend, but I have seen the videos (Part I and Part II) of the event and I've read the report that formed the basis of this tribunal.

This wasn't really a tribunal as there was no means of adjudication and only certain testimony was allowed. There was no "other side" in other words. Thus there was no way to weigh the testimony and evidence. Further, the focus was not on racism and violence by APD, it was on historical resistance and utilized the indirect testimony from victims of APD's history of racism and police violence.

Nevertheless, I am a strong advocate for People's Tribunals and courts as a means of highlighting social problems and solutions, and of making a public case for change while holding those who commit public violence responsible to the public.

Such tribunals can be very dramatic and very effective -- at least as long as they stay focused on the issues they're organized to examine and they are able to render a judgement based on the evidence, including testimony, presented.

Unfortunately, that wasn't the case here. I can only speculate on the reasons why.

Part of the problem may be that APD's rate of killing has fallen dramatically since last July, when for all intents and purposes, the killer cops were told to stand down -- and to a degree I never anticipated, they did.

With the kill rate so surprisingly reduced, the point of the protests and actions against police violence in Albuquerque may have been lost, or there may be some other agenda in operation, one that sees the killings that triggered so much outrage in the spring and summer of last year as merely a starting point. I don't know.

At any rate, while the report on police racism and prejudice in Albuquerque is welcome, it lacks the kind of statistical basis and focus on police violence that I would like to see and that I think is necessary to catalyze real and lasting reform -- if reform is even possible and the desired outcome.

For example, if you're going to accuse the police of racist and prejudiced policing, it can help immeasurably to have and to show statistics that back it up. Unfortunately, the report lacks those statistics, though there is plenty of evocative testimony that suggests as much.

The objectives of the report are not entirely clear, although there is a list of desired "Expectations" which include:

1. An independent agency with the authority to discipline officers and make policy changes. 
2. Routine extensive outreach to collect complaints against APD.
3. The acceptance of anonymous complaints against APD. 
4. The decriminalization of homelessness. 
5. Police officers who use unjustified force must be held criminally accountable. 
6. The publishing of all officer shift rosters at the end of each week, and the immediate online posting of all lapel camera video. 
7. The recruitment of officer candidates who hold degrees, or have experience, in, social work or allied fields. 
8. Limiting promotion to officers who have experience in, or show an inclination for, community-based policing.
I don't know how ABQ Justice came to these expectations, but they seem in the aggregate to lack cohesion. Even if adopted by APD and the city -- which is unlikely -- they don't lead to reform (assuming reform is the desired outcome.)

What is most surprising to me is that they aren't based in concepts of racial and social justice. Instead they are aspects of information desired and the interests of those who developed the report.

Let's go one by one:

1. An independent agency to discipline officers and make policy.

As far as I know, no police department anywhere in the country has such a truly independent agency. The issue is "independence." How do you judge that? How to you ensure that? Police departments are the creations and creatures of civic authority, authority which is nominally vested in the elected representatives of the citizens, but which is actually almost always controlled and implemented by appointed officials, usually the City Manager or the equivalent. You can create a commission or review board or oversight agency, but the vexing problem is assuring its independence and authority outside the chain of command of the city's government. This is quite apart from the problems of oversight caused by police unions and their enforceable agreements. There is no "independence" in other words. Discipline has historically been a contractual matter, pursued internally; policy is ostensibly the purview of the elected representatives of the citizens, but policy recommendations are largely and implementation is entirely at the discretion of the City Manager and his/her delegates -- such as the police chief. If you want to change that, you have to change the whole structure of authority in city governments.

2. Routine extensive outreach to collect complaints against APD. 

By whom? Police? Nonsense. The problem that is mentioned in the report is that those who might be making complaints of police abuse and misconduct are terrified of the police. Police, therefore, are not the appropriate civic authorities to do such outreach, but who is? Social service organizations? Perhaps. But the problem for most of them is that they are already overwhelmed and severely restricted in their abilities to perform services as it is. How are they to add further outreach to their responsibilities. And who would they report to? What would be done with these complaints? Would they go to a powerless quasi-independent agency to languish and eventually be dismissed -- as most complaints typically do? Or what?

3. The acceptance of anonymous complaints against APD.

That should be a no-brainer, but acceptance doesn't mean action.

4. The decriminalization of homelessness.

Homelessness per se is not a crime. Sleeping on the sidewalk or urinating in public may be crimes. The problems of homelessness are manifest, and the solutions are relatively obvious, but for whatever reason, policy makers largely refuse to employ them (ie: provide housing.) Using the criminal justice system (such as it is) to deal with homelessness is stupid. The issue isn't so much the criminalization of homelessness as it is a public policy of harassment and humiliation of the homeless, using the police and the so-called justice system to make already miserable lives worse.

5. Police officers who use unjustified force must be held criminally accountable.

Who decides what is "unjustified?" Again, the problem is lines of authority and where decision making lies. In theory, police are already held accountable for the use of unjustified force. The problem is that the police and district attorney in concert decide that (almost) all uses of force are "justified." The public may disagree, but the public has no control over the process and decision-making. There's no current mechanism to ensure that this expectation becomes operative.

6. The publishing of all officer shift rosters at the end of each week, and the immediate online posting of all lapel camera video. 

The objective? The rosters should be available in real time, and there should be a secure (tamper-proof) lapel camera footage repository. In other words, camera footage should be uploaded as it is acquired rather than stored in the camera itself and uploaded at the discretion of the police. On the other hand, making all footage immediately available to the public seems counter productive.

7. The recruitment of officer candidates who hold degrees, or have experience, in, social work or allied fields.

While I understand why this could be desirable, I don't agree that police should be assigned to social work responsibility. This has been one of the major issues of hundreds of police involved shootings every year. Police are sent on calls that need social or medical worker intervention or services, with too often deadly results. Even when the police sent on these calls have special training and experience. The answer is to send social and medical workers, not police. But that means changing policies and protocols, and it means increasing the numbers of available non-police workers to go on such calls.

8. Limiting promotion to officers who have experience in, or show an inclination for, community-based policing.

Who will define the terms? "Community based policing" needs to be defined here. Then policies can be implemented and promotions made on the basis of those policies. Until then, this proposal is too vague to be useful.

If there had been a real tribunal last Sunday, there would have been charges presented against the city of Albuquerque and certain of its employees including the Mayor and the City Administrator and named police officers who have engaged in egregious or violent conduct.

A real tribunal would have then heard testimony from individuals who have been victims of police violence or other mistreatment and abuse, and the city authorities and police would have had an opportunity to present a defense either directly or by proxy.

Then the tribunal would have made a judgement and recommendations.

Instead, the report was presented as a fait accompli. The tribunal made no recommendations itself, nor did it render a judgement.

I like the tactic of a People's Tribunal, and I'd like to see it continued so as to make clear what the policing problems are and what to do about them... and to point out who is responsible.

This report and tribunal didn't quite do that.

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