The recent shootings of unarmed black men across the nation by law enforcement has once again reignited the discussion among community activists on both sides of the Hudson River regarding law enforcement’s use of force policies, training of officers, and investigations of complaints of questionable actions of officers.
This Thursday, at 11:30am, at the US Attorney, Preet Bharara office in Foley Square in Manhattan, New York. Hudson Valley residents in Westchester and Rockland will demand investigations of the many deaths by black men by the hands of law enforcement. (read Where there no Justice, theres no Freedom)
Before any necessary and true reform can take place, there must be admittance from those in policy-making positions that there is a need for critical review of law enforcement policies in Westchester. To this date, Westchester County elected officials and law enforcement management have refused to publicly recognize the need for transparency and accountability of law enforcement policies and procedures concerning the use of force, investigations, and violations within the many law enforcement departments in Westchester County.
The ongoing dialogue and demand of accountability of law enforcement policies by taxpayers should not be looked at as being anti-police or anti-law enforcement. Rather it is a public requesting the need to examine and if necessary reform the organizational structure of how their community is being policed. In Westchester, community organizations have come together to request independent investigations and some form of civilian review board of law enforcement’s policies and procedures in Westchester County. Concerned citizens requesting oversight is a means of changing police organizations through policy and a process of reducing officer misconduct.
Earlier this year, Members of the Westchester Coalition for Police Reform converged on the Westchester County office building in White Plains, holding signs and demanding answers. (watch video here) They demanded county lawmakers to institute reforms to prevent more people from dying in police-involved shootings. Coalition members are not only calling for changes on the county level, but the state level as well. They want to establish a Special Prosecutor to investigate and discipline police misconduct.
With incident after incident and no clear outcome or plan on how to rectify these ongoing problems concerning questionable police shooting, brutality, and misconduct throughout Westchester and the rest of the nation. The continuous silence has shown that elected officials and law enforcement management are far behind the national and even international census on law enforcement oversight and accountability. A citizen complaint process is a mechanism by which a police department can make itself accountable to the people it serves, by hearing their complaints, investigating them, and, where appropriate, disciplining officers guilty of misconduct.
“Instead of trying to settle these cases and stepping up to the plate and admitting that they killed an innocent kid and then taser and brutalize my clients”, said Bonita Zelman Esq., “they are now attempting to defend an indefensible case in the only way they know how–by attacking the victims and delaying justice.”
The issue of whether some form of citizen review is appropriate may have been settled from the public’s viewpoint years ago. Three-fourths of the largest cities in the United States have established some form of citizen law enforcement review. Oversight, moreover, is an international phenomenon. Every law enforcement agency in the rest of the English-speaking world, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand,is subject to some form of citizen oversight. Despite having a reputation as being one of the most “progressive” and wealthiest counties, Westchester lacks any effective oversight mechanism for the 43 law enforcement municipalities.
“The Department of Justice has been investigating Yonkers Police for the last six year, said Gail Baxter, Community Activist, “and nothing has changed; what is the DOJ doing?”
Just recently, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) Demands End Of Police Criminality In America. A U.N. committee urged the U.S. Friday to stop police brutality, in light of the shooting of Michael Brown that set off the riots in Ferguson, Mo. Minorities, particularly African-Americans, have been disproportionate victims of racial disparities and police brutality, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination concluded after examining the U.S. record. read report
“We join the UN’s call for an end to police brutality in the US. On Thursday we add to this nation’s momentum and demand that Attorney General Eric Holder and US Attorney Preet Bharara investigate Westchester County police killings and initiate National Police Reform that upholds the dignity and humanity of people across this nation.” Said Sandy Bernabei, Founding Member of the AntiRacist Alliance.
These actions represent a de facto public finding that governmental oversight is an appropriate response to the problem of law enforcement malpractice. Citizens may indeed have an important role to play in law enforcement review, particularly in assessing policies and procedures and how they are implemented in the real world. Those on the law enforcement side of the debate need to recognize the public’s perceptions of the apparent inadequacies of internal review. After all, in Westchester, it seems every year there have been incidences of questionable high-profile police encounters. No amount of explanation will convince outsiders that abuses seldom occur and that misdeeds are dealt with in a stern nonbiased fashion by internal systems.
Ultimately, law enforcement leadership is the primary key to police officer accountability. It is largely the articulated principles embodied in the organizational culture that promote accepted behavioral norms. With all these issues, questions, protests, and rallies have occurred and the Westchester County Chiefs Association’s silence has been noted. The department chiefs can play a crucial role in influencing officer behavior, by setting rigorous selection standards to recruit and develop more intelligent, trainable, and restraint-oriented officers; instituting training programs relevant to today’s community policing.
Law Enforcement professionals, like government employees, are hired and paid for by the citizens of the community, and they are given the exclusive right in our society to exercise physical and deadly force if necessary, in requiring citizens to comply with the laws and their commands. Our system of government is based on checks and balances; each possessing the power to curtail the activities of the other. State and local levels use similar models with other departments to ensure those who represent the interest of the people, do so in accordance within the law and not abuse the authority they have been granted. Our law enforcement departments should not be any different. The use of an objective external review and input source, such as a citizen oversight committee, is just one of several tools that can be employed to help positively influence behavior patterns in a law enforcement organization and build a better relationship with the communities that law enforcement claims to serve.