A demand for Black community control of police

Protesters talking to police, Dec. 1
Protesters talking to police in North Minneapolis, Dec. 1

Mike Freeman’s decision not to charge the officers for the killing of Jamar Clark shows once again that reforms of law enforcement policies and practices have proven inadequate remedies to the long-standing, systematic police repression of Black communities.

Some 40 years ago, Black activists raised the demand for Black community control of policing practices and who patrols their communities. It is time to put this back on the agenda. The word “control” is necessarily a strong word and cannot be defined in a sentence, but will become clearer in the details that follow.

Briefly defined, community control means active involvement in recruitment, hiring and oversight of police. Decisions would rest with the community in collaboration with law enforcement and elected officials. To be clear, this means police chiefs, commissioners, police unions or city councils would no longer act as sole authorities in selecting law enforcement staff or setting practices. As a friend of mine often says, currently Black taxpayers pay for a law enforcement system that acts as an oppressor in their own community.

Many in the White political establishment will deem such a demand as too controversial and unrealistic — meaning not salable to Whites. Yet is it any more unrealistic than what the demand to end segregation was once considered?

Today, arguments for reparations for slavery and for Jim Crow injustices are being discussed in the mainstream press. Being politically realistic does not advance democracy, solve social ills or heal wounds.

Other solutions have failed to protect people of color from a system of policing and policies that result in harassment and the shooting of unarmed human beings. We know this does not happen under similar circumstances in White neighborhoods. And today, a Black person is still 10 times more likely than a White person to be stopped or arrested given the same situation.

I categorize the demand for Black community control as one that expresses what Malcolm X meant when he said “by any means necessary.” It is a reasonable and necessary means given the inability of law enforcement to police itself and stop the systematic violence and harassment emanating from its ranks.

We are more aware of police brutality today only because of the widely distributed telecommunications technology in the hands of victims and observers. History cautions us, however, that knowing what is going on does not prevent it.

We should not be lulled into thinking body cameras will solve the problem. Nor will more cell phone videos of the latest murder, beating or profiling. This history, both contemporary and of the last 400 years, argues for Black community control of police. Nothing else has proven effective.

Simply put, Black community recruitment, hiring and oversight of police is an extension of democracy. Existing hiring procedures across the nation typically fall under the sole jurisdiction of law enforcement officials and educators. Minnesota, is no different, where the selection, training, oversight and hiring of officers is also conducted by enforcement personnel.

As well, the recruitment process is largely self-selective, in that individuals who want to become law enforcement officers simply enroll in a suitable academic program. Depending on the state, there may be some checkpoints along the way for psychological fitness, but given the routine, persistent levels of police brutality and harassment, these are clearly ineffective.

Outside input and accountability is minimal, even during an officer’s probation period. Police supervisors typically conduct probation reviews. Citizen input, if any, is informal. New officers, who may not be psychologically fit or hold racist beliefs, know they just need to perform their duties for the probation period and then they will be protected by contractual agreements that make it nearly impossible to fire them.

Even the most conscientious, well-intended law enforcement educators may not suspect problem trainees or feel reluctant to raise questions of suitability given the time a candidate has already put into schooling and training. Adding community members at the different stages in this process would add an effective layer of scrutiny and accountability.

Dustin Schwarze and Mark Ringgenberg had been investigated for overzealous policing and/or profiling while employed by other police departments, yet were hired by Minneapolis. A hiring committee that was majority Black might have come to a different conclusion.

In a community-based hiring process, final hiring authority and disciplinary actions should be weighted in favor of the community, with some provision for appeal processes. During officers’ probationary periods, citizens of a neighborhood where officers are assigned can provide valuable perspectives on their fitness and conduct. As a result, mistakes in hiring are less likely to occur.

Potentially, Black community control could create a relationship between officers and citizens leading to safer neighborhoods, less crime and more rewarding work for law enforcement. In some ways this might be thought of as a truth and reconciliation process, only it takes place during the training, interview and probationary periods.

In light of the public outcry over the ongoing incidents of officers killing unarmed African Americans and other people of color around the nation and in the Twin Cities, it is difficult to imagine any other route to fair policing and safer neighborhoods.


Wayne Nealis welcomes reader comments to wynnls@hotmail.com.