A Task Force was appointed by the Ann Arbor City Council to consider a vision for a Police Oversight Commission — How would it work? Who would serve on it? What could it do, and how? That Task Force of people spent hundreds of hours discerning, deliberating, and at times, debating that vision. Then they drafted an ordinance.
In the end, the ordinance they proposed came into being because they listened to the community at large. At times, the community pushed them hard, speaking directly to trauma they and their family members have endured in connection to policing in Ann Arbor. These same leaders demanded substantive change.
The Task Force ordinance was representative of these community perspectives, along with a transformative vision. This ordinance proposed a Police Oversight Commission that is 1) entirely independent and 2) adequately funded, with 3) subpoena power and a 4) trauma-informed, confidential approach that works to protect residents who report policing complaints.
And… in response, the Mayor of Ann Arbor drafted an alternative proposal that undid all four of these. And… after appointing a Task Force to do this work, the City Council voted in the majority to replace the proposal with the alternative ordinance. The alternative ordinance is still being amended, but the ordinance of the Task Force is no longer on the table.
It appears that this vision for a Police Oversight Commission might provide oversight in name only. When they have so much to risk, will members of the Ann Arbor community, especially those most vulnerable and marginalized, come forward to voice complaints when their confidentiality is not going to be upheld?
Last week, as people in our nation watched the public hearings and testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh, many considered the excruciating pain involved when someone is invited to speak and re-live trauma with the potential ramifications of it being for naught. Alongside Dr. Ford’s testimony, many people found themselves remembering and re-living their own traumas. What happens when people endure these kinds of processes, but with no effective change? And at their own risk, sometimes severely?
Many people advocating for the vision of the Task Force saw similar dynamics in Ann Arbor last night.
The City Council empowered the Task Force to do its work, and in response, numerous people, particularly Black and Brown residents, vulnerable immigrants, people who experience homelessness, people with mental illnesses, and people with low-incomes spoke to their trauma. But then… nothing substantive changed. And then, the Mayor said that members of the community and their advocates had acted like bullies throughout this process.
Last week, the Mayor wrote a Facebook post about believing survivors of sexual assault, yet the people who wrote the confidentiality processes of the Task Force ordinance are survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence, and he removed those processes in his alternative proposal.
Will we believe our neighbors when it comes to abuses endured by police officers and systems of policing?
When this happened last night, I kept thinking about statistics I read in a very prescient book. That book looks at changes in racial demographics and changes in religious affiliation in the United States and pairs them to study much of what is happening culturally in our collective life.
“While the legal terrain has certainly shifted since the 1960s, serious racial disparities remain in the criminal justice system. According to a New York Times investigation published in the wake of the Baltimore protests, both official and unofficial statistics show that African American civilians are far more likely to be killed by police than white people. In records where the race of the victim is identified, about three in ten victims are black — two and a half times their proportion of the population. . .
“. . . Widespread social media usage, too, has allowed protestors to amplify their concerns in ways that weren’t possible even five years ago. In the wake of the Baltimore protests, President Obama emphasized that these clashes were part of an alarming pattern: ‘This has been a slow-rolling crisis. This has been going on for a long time. This is not new, and we shouldn’t pretend it’s new.’
“But for many white Americans, the stories of unfair treatment of blacks by the police and court system did feel new. And the fury with which African American protestors took to the streets after each death also challenged the cherished assumption that the country had moved beyond its racially troubled past into a ‘post-racial’ era. African Americans have contended for decades — or even centuries — that the criminal justice system is stacked against them, but many white Americans continue to believe that police departments and courts can generally be trusted to administer justice. Where African Americans perceive familiar configurations of abuse, many white Americans see isolated incidents. . .
“. . . in 1992, the same year that riots exploded in Los Angeles following the beating of Rodney King, an unarmed black taxi driver, by a group of white police officers, fewer than one in ten (8 percent) black Americans reported that they believed blacks and other minorities were treated the same as whites in the criminal justice system, while 89 percent disagreed. White Americans, by contrast, were almost evenly divided over whether blacks and whites received equal treatment in criminal justice (46 percent agreed while 43 percent disagreed). More than two decades later, the racial perception gap stands at more than 30 percentage points: only 14 percent of black Americans, compared to 47 percent of white Americans, agree that the criminal justice system treats minorities the same as whites. . .
“. . . Shortly after the April 2015 protests and riots in Baltimore, a PRRI survey asked Americans whether they thought ‘the recent killings of African American men by police in ‘Ferguson, Missouri, New York City, and Baltimore,’ were “isolated incidents’ or ‘part of a broader pattern of how police treat African Americans.’ Nearly three quarters (74 percent) of black Americans said that these incidents were part of a broader pattern. Among white Americans, only 43 percent saw the men’s deaths as part of a larger pattern; roughly the same number (45 percent) saw these events as isolated incidents. . .
“Among mainline Protestants — a white subgroup that one would expect to be more aligned with black perspectives because their denominations have a long history of official support for civil rights — the perception gap is no different from whites overall.”
(Portions of pages 151-154)
Will we believe our neighbors? Will will believe survivors of police violence?
All people, and all systems need checks and balances. When we give an immense amount of power to a few individuals or a category of individuals in any system — the same is true in politics and in churches, by the way — human beings are capable of abusing power and will even likely to do so. Remember the Standford Prison Experiment?
Shouldn’t we then provide real and effective oversight to policing, especially when it has the potential capacity to use violent force, separate families, create psychological trauma, and initiate harmful economic outcomes for people?
Or even more, shouldn’t we then transform how this works all together?
In Ann Arbor, our city leaders did not believe our neighbors last night (so often, it is perceived that Ann Arbor is too progressive of a city for police abuses to happen here) or at the very least, they believed it was more important to uphold the current system of policing quite closely to how it is already functioning.
It seems to me that if we want to live wholeheartedly with compassion, care, and protection among our neighbors, we have to believe them. Then we have to transform these systems.