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We’ve been fighting the battle against racism for far too long. We need an action plan to transform our communities. Start here.
*NOTE: The following list is not meant to be exhaustive but rather a running list that I will update as I research new matters and face new challenges on this road called life. I have hopefully made each point short enough that people will take the time to read the entire list and fight for the issues that fit the needs of their particular community. The power is yours.** See Part 1 of this series here. This is a five-part series. Read the rest of the articles in the series: Part 3. Part 4. Part 5.
FOCUS AREA 1: LOCAL GOVERNMENT POLICY
It is time to tell the truth. We are a republic, not a democracy. A republic is a representative form of government where we elect persons to (hopefully) act on behalf of our best interests to pass laws that collectively improve our communities. We, everyday citizens, do not make the laws or policies; we elect others to do that. Because of the politics necessary to pass what sometimes seems like a simple law, all change seems slow. How do we keep the pressure up? By focusing on policy change at the local level.
All change happens at the local level. Martin Luther King, Jr. did not start out speaking on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. He started out as a Baptist minister in Montgomery, Alabama helping organize a bus boycott with E.D. Nixon, Ralph Abernathy, Rosa Parks, a fresh out of law school attorney named Fred Gray, and a network of churches in the Montgomery Improvement Association. The impact that they had at the local level reverberated throughout the South and forever impacted the lives of persons of African descent and everyone else here in the USA.
Local government affects us our daily lives more than any other form of government. Most city and county councils meet at least twice a month. Unlike at the state and federal level, there are no extended recesses for months at a time for local lawmakers. If you want to make change happen and happen fast you have to start locally. To make a difference you must be engaged and voting alone is not enough. Voting is just one part of the civic engagement process.
The following are strategies, policies, and practices that organized persons and groups can pursue in order to create a more just, equitable, and anti-racist community.
But before you dive into specific issues you must first…
1. Know who your local representatives are in your district or ward. In a republic, the hired change agents are your city council members or aldermen. These are the people who make the policies in your community (like the board of a corporation). This applies to your county council and school board members as well. Who is your Mayor or City Manager? Does your city have a strong mayor or council-manager (weak mayor) form of government? These are the people who typically execute the policies and laws in your community and pass down those duties to people like the Chief of Police who deputizes other officers to execute those laws and policies. When federal dollars are distributed, your local representatives are typically the ones who determine where and to what neighborhoods those dollars will go. Learn how many votes from city council it takes for an ordinance to become law. It is typically a simple majority. Know that number and use it to your advantage. A simple Google search of “who are my city council members” plus the name of your city/town should give you the information you need. Same applies for school board and county council members. We do not know this because it was never taught to us in school (see the education section below). We suffer because of lack of knowledge. None of the other steps below matter if you skip this step.
2. Have coffee with your city council representatives. Policies follow beliefs, so find out what your representatives believe in. Hear them out, get to know them, and tell them your story. Collective change happens through building relationships; relationships change hearts and minds. Our political institutions are systems compromised of rules created by people. If you are going to change the system and the rules you have to change the hearts and minds of people. You change people by building relationships with those that vote on the issues that matter to you.
3. Attend City Council meetings. Speak on the issues that matter to you. Show up and keep showing up. Introduce laws and ordinances that you would like for your city, county, and school councils/boards to consider. If you have built a relationship with a city council or school board member have that person introduce the local legislation. Instead of marching on Washington, march on City Hall and civically engage with your local representatives.
4. Join or Create a Neighborhood Association. Neighborhood Associations are an organized collection of neighbors in a certain part of communities that have a direct line to city councilpersons. City council members attend neighborhood association meetings because they recognize that this is a group that will likely participate in local elections. If you do not have a neighborhood association, learn how to develop one. If one exists but does not speak to your issues, find some like-minded neighbors and infiltrate your local neighborhood association to focus on the issues that matter to you.
5. Join and Donate to Agencies that Work to Eradicate Racism & White Supremacy. Examples include the ACLU, NAACP, SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice), Southern Poverty Law Center, the National Urban League, Black Lives Matter, etcetera. When you do not have political, economic, or legal power, you must have people power. You cannot do this work alone. You must be organized. Learn more about your local chapters of these national organizations, but before you donate a ton of money reach out to the leadership and ask them “what is your plan or agenda to address the issues in African, Latino, Indigenous, and other historically marginalized and underrepresented communities?” If they have no plan, do not give them your money. Rather join and infiltrate them in order to implement a plan to address the historical inequities that these communities continue to face. There are other local organizations in your area that are also doing the work. Seek them out.
Justice & Policing Policies You Can Fight For
I believe that our issues are deeper than just policing. However, for better or for worse, police officers are the first and most accessible government agents that most persons encounter daily. And unfortunately, the most accessible person in government also has a license to use deadly force. Policing concerns are legitimate but at the end of the day, we must also strengthen the economies of all neighborhoods and communities. The economic recommendations will follow the policing recommendations, but they are just as important. If you don’t address the economics, the policing issues will always be there. It is not this or that, it is both.
6. Community Incidents Response Team (CIRT). They say that when an airline pilot commits an error that all pilots are retrained so that the error does not happen again. When an incident happens locally or nationally there needs to be a community response team that takes swift action to prevent things like that from happening in your community. They already have Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT) for natural disasters, so why not have one for human disasters that cause a breakdown in community-government relations? Like CERT, the work of CIRT is community education; proactive prevention work through policies, practices, procedures, and training; transparency into what we are doing as a local municipality to address community concerns; and an effective, united community response when incidents do take place. This team keeps its hands to the pulse of the city and makes sure that we are addressing community concerns in a proper and effective manner. When there is a national (or local) incident this team implements mandatory retraining of all officers and/or other involved city-county employees. Community meetings should be held to discuss what is being done and what policies are being implemented to ensure that those incidents never happen or happen again in our community. This is how you build trust in the community and get ahead of the curve.
7. Required Community Policing and Engagement Policies. The motto of the police is “to protect and to serve”. But the motto lacks a subject. To protect and to serve who? We need police officers to be community guardians, not warriors. Community policing is not a chance for the police to show up at a neighborhood meeting and read off crime statistics. Instead, they should be building relationships and it should be required that every officer engage with all members of the community. Walk the streets. Play with us. Give us a line of communication to the department decision-makers. In European culture, if it is not written it does not exist. We need mandatory community policing on paper and once it is on paper the officers need to be adequately trained on what community engagement is and how to do it. Engagement starts from the top and should carry on throughout the entire police force. It should be a mandatory part of the job description of the Chief of Police, his captains and lieutenants, as well as beat cops. Leadership that fails to engage with all communities as required under policy should be removed.
8. Reflective Workforce Mandate. If you want to reduce racial profiling and bias policing, then officers should look like the communities that they serve at all levels of the police force. What is the demographic make-up of your community? Is law enforcement reflective of your community makeup? Request that the department reflect the community at ALL levels. Who are the people getting promoted? Does the community have a voice in the hiring of leadership? There should be policies and metrics implemented to ensure that police departments are making genuine efforts to mirror the community.
9. BBQ Becky Criminal Ordinances. From Cornerstone Caroline to Permit Patty to Central Park Karen, there are a number of European Americans, especially European American females, who try to weaponize the law in order to bring persons of African descent to heel and “put them in their place.” BBQ Becky ordinances would make it a crime for persons to make frivolous calls to the police knowingly or recklessly against non-European Americans because of the color of their skin. Laws like these would hopefully make people think twice and check their biases before they call the police.
10. Anti-Racial Profiling Ordinances/Laws. Color of Skin is not a crime, nor should it be reasonable suspicion to stop someone. And there should be laws in place to ensure that profiling residents based on the color of skin is a banned practice and that there is a disciplinary procedure in place to terminate officers that violate this policy. There are examples all around the country: Here, Here, Here, and Here. Any law or ordinance should also be accompanied by a plan to address racial profiling. To truly be effective, every law needs a plan on how to implement it.
11. Data Collection on Stops. To ensure that people are not being racially profiled, information from all stops by law enforcement must be tracked. This information should include, at a minimum, the date, the time, the location, the race or ethnicity of the person, if a search was conducted, and what, if anything, was discovered. This is crucial because we do not want groups being targeted and traumatized solely because of the color of their skin. This leads to a disproportionate number of people of certain races being stopped, yet we are no closer to removing illegal guns or drugs from the streets. Some may call it a temporary inconvenience, but for those affected it is a traumatic experience that leaves them shaken. The data collection should be reviewed by a…
12. Community Review Board. Why is it that law enforcement can police themselves? Police officers are paid with taxpayer money and many believe that for that reason, police actions should be reviewed by those who pay them. If there is a Human Rights/Relations Department they can conduct independent investigations reducing possible biases. The board should be required to review all evidence regarding any resident complaint by the board and they should have subpoena power. There are countless examples of community review boards but they do not all have the same power or reach. The ones that are likely the most effective are ones that have the power to independently investigate the actions of law enforcement officers and other city employees.
13. Body Cameras. You will never be able to end all racists or foolish acts. Some people just don’t follow the rules. And for those people it is good to have physical evidence of whether the policies and laws of the department and city or county were violated. The best way to capture that evidence is by demanding body cameras for your law enforcement offices, including city and county jails. Body cameras take out some of the guesswork regarding whether excessive force was used, or if the officer racially profiled an individual or group. There should be rules and procedures on keeping the camera on and disciplinary procedures in place if the camera is not on or if the battery dies due to the negligence of the officer. If a complaint is filed, video evidence must be reviewed by an independent body such as a community review board.
14. Community Recruitment & Internship Initiatives. There should be a school-to-public servant pipeline rather than a school-to-prison pipeline. Working with the local school district, police departments can create training programs at the high school level that prepare the next generation of public safety officers and offer them scholarships to continue that training in local community colleges or universities. Community outreach should be required prior to posting employment opportunities for all first responder positions (police/fire), training community members on what it takes to be a police officer or firefighter. “If you post it, they will come” is a fallacy. The thought should be “if I can see it then I can be it”. Cities should constantly engage with schools and create internship programs, etc. exposing youths at a very young age on the possibilities within government. This applies to more than just police officers. Persons should see a reflection of themselves in all city departments including city planners, engineers, city managers, parks and rec managers, transportation, attorneys, architects, firefighters, etc.
15. Community Meditators. Some situations do not need to involve the police. There are people that have issues with their neighbors which have not escalated to a crime but could lead to, at minimum, a disturbance if someone does not mediate the issue. Voluntary mediations can take place to settle neighborhood disputes and build better relationships between residents. There are examples of cities that have community mediators here, here, and here.
16. Housing Requirements for Police Force. Some believe that if you police the community, you should live in the community. Some cities have policies that require police officers and other city employees to live within the limits of the city where they work. This is a way to build trust and create familiar faces that can readily reach out to the community and speak with them without the need for SWAT gear in times of trouble. To be fair, there are some who question the effectiveness of having officers live in the city. If your representatives will not make living in the city a requirement, then the compromise is a housing incentives program for city employees that, for example, gives persons who live in the city a certain amount for a down payment on a home, or improvements to their current home, and points bonus points for a police applicant that lives in the city.
17. De-escalation Training and Blue Courage Intervention Policies. Persons with guns should be trained to de-escalate a situation so that the need to fire a weapon becomes minimized. However, research has shown that most police departments place little to no emphasis on de-escalation training. There is no uniform standard. Some cities report that using mental health counselors in lieu of police officers has been effective. Officers should take every step to ensure that they are not placing themselves or other persons in danger. Everyone should get home safe. There should be mandatory de-escalation training in your community. Police officers should also be trained on how to intervene if fellow officers are using excessive force on civilians. Officers who use recklessly or purposely excessive force should be punished both as an employee and as a citizen. Intervention policies would make officers liable for violations of other officers against civilians if they do not intervene. If law enforcement is a brotherhood, then as a family if one does wrong and you do nothing to about it, everyone gets in trouble. Officers should have the “Blue Courage” to stand up for what is right even if they are scorned by their fellow officers. Training and policies need to be put in place to ensure that what happened from Rodney King in 1991 to George Floyd in 2020 does not happen again.
18. Create and Support Local Human Relations and Equity Departments. Does your city or county have a local civil or human rights/relations office? Who investigates the employment, housing, public accommodation, education, financing/credit, and municipal practice rights of residents? If your community does not have a local human relations, human rights, civil rights, or equity office then you have the right to demand one. Even if there is one at the state level, you need one at the local level that can keep its eyes and ears to the pulse of issues in the city. But beware, most of these offices are understaffed and underfunded to address as large of a task as eliminating and preventing discrimination against the city or county’s residents, workers, and visitors. Budgets reflect priorities, so demand that a certain number of dollars per resident are used to fund the work of the office that is commissioned to protect all rights with the government’s jurisdiction.
19. Citations, Community Service, or Counseling for Minor Infractions. During COVID-19 when there was a danger that prisons could become coronavirus hotbeds, many police departments begin to issue citations for minor infractions rather than making arrests. If they were able to issue citations during the pandemic, then why not do the same on a regular basis? Are we not a nation of second chances? If so then citations, fines, and counseling should become the norm rather than incarceration. Despite being called “the land of the free”, the US incarcerates more persons than any other nation and it is by a wide margin. If we can avoid placing a person into an unforgiving system that will impact their ability to find housing and jobs in the future, we should do so unless incarceration is absolutely necessary. Speaking of minor infractions…
20. Decriminalize Marijuana. Across the country, some states are either decriminalizing but more importantly legalizing the use of marijuana. This brings more revenues and funding into your state and communities to hopefully address issues of education and opportunity. One day, marijuana will be legal federally but that may still be some years away. Even if municipalities cannot legalize the use of marijuana, they can certainly decriminalize or de-emphasize marijuana use making it only a minor infraction. Municipalities around the country have already done it. Research has demonstrated that there are racial disparities in marijuana arrests and that despite similar usage rates, African Americans are 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than European Americans. Decriminalization works towards minimizing those disparities.
21. Prosecutor Accountability. Like police departments, many prosecution offices police themselves and state bar associations are not holding public prosecutors to the same professional ethics that private attorneys are held. If a prosecuting office does not have evidence to prosecute, then they should not press forward with a case forcing a person to take a plea or probation by hanging the threat of a conviction over a person’s head. Prosecutors who pursue cases for the purposes of increasing their numbers, that withhold evidence favorable to the defendant, or pursue a case when they knowingly or recklessly do not have the evidence to meet the requisite standard of conviction should have their law license revoked for violating the attorney oath of upholding justice. When there is no evidence or if evidence is lacking, the just thing to do is to drop the case. New York State has taken the lead on this issue and residents can use the brave steps of New York as a model for what municipalities can require of their prosecutors at the city and county level.
22. Equal Funding for Public Defenders. Most public defender offices are understaffed, overworked, and criminally underfunded. Fellow prosecuting offices are three to four times more funded and staffed despite typically operating under the same form of government. If we believe that all persons are truly innocent until proven guilty and that the Sixth Amendment right to adequate counsel is a right that should be afforded to everyone, then public defender offices should receive at least the same amount of funding as prosecuting offices. When we fail to adequately fund public defense, you have people who plead guilty and accept pleas who aren’t guilty and overworked lawyers who can make mistakes on trials resulting in innocent people going to jail.
23. Community Deliberative Dialogues. Forget Town Halls. Most of them are all talk and very little substantive actions come out of them. Some politicians are skipping them altogether. Deliberative dialogues are different. Deliberative dialogues are forums where members of the community sit down and discuss the issues that they face, focusing on solutions. Dialogues like those hosted by the National Issues Forum, allow attendees to vote on the top ideas at the end of the discussion and then formulate next steps for the community to take. Deliberative dialogues are a method to give residents a voice, improve communications, and build stronger relationships which can lead to racial healing. A properly funded human relations office can lead the discussions with other government leaders and departments.
24. Required Police Encounter Transparency. Every time the police make a stop, they should give out their business card that indicates their name, badge number, their supervisor’s contact information and a contact number if people have any questions, comments, or concerns about their encounter with an officer. The purpose is not to increase the number of complaints but rather build relationships. If there is a concern or crime in the area, people need to know who to contact. By building relationships and sharing information we can create safer communities for everyone.
25. Cultural Competency Training for All Government Employees. If you work in diverse communities, you should be trained on how to engage with them properly. If you happen to be in the United States and not work in a diverse community, you should be trained to consider why that it is, and work to address it. These trainings would not just discuss implicit biases but explicit biases, stereotypes, prejudices, microaggressions, and just everyday common decency and civility when dealing with people who are different from you. Solely addressing implicit bias is an evasion of the real issue: racism (in addition to other -isms and phobias). Systemic racism should be at the core of any discussion on biases. If you want to effectively address implicit bias, you must address explicit overt and covert racism both past and present. This training should not just be for an hour or day, it must be ongoing and it should require persons to move across the cultural competency continuum in order to remain employed as a government worker or educator.
26. Ban on Hiring of Police Officers who have Violated Professional Standards. Officers should be held to the highest standards. Therefore, if an officer was fired or resigned from a law enforcement department for serious infractions such as excessive use of force, perjury, falsifying/planting evidence, racial profiling, police brutality, unlawful killing, or for crimes committed while off-duty then they should not be allowed to police in any city. Cities should pass policies that prohibit that person from being eligible for employment in their municipality after violating the professional standards of another jurisdiction. This would send a clear message that we don’t want officers who violate our standards in our city.
There is talk out there about “defunding” police departments. Complete defunding of police departments will not happen in my lifetime and will most likely not happen during yours either. We must operate in reality. Reality is that we are a nation of laws, so there will always be someone to enforce those laws. The reality is that the departments that enforce the law can be improved upon to do their jobs in a more just and fair manner. The reality is that funds can be shifted from policing to other areas that address the underlying socio-economic issues of wealth inequality, neighborhood investment, health disparities, quality education, etcetera. The ideas mentioned above are not novel or far-reaching, we only need the political courage and will to make them a reality.
Stay tuned all week for the entire series.
This article was written by Joshua V. Barr, Director, Des Moines Civil & Human Rights Commission. Connect with Joshua on Twitter or Email.