Last week Mayor Robb Davis attended the annual NACOLE (National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement) conference in Spokane, Washington. He came away with a strong impression of what needs to happen in Davis.
He was impressed by the diversity of the group of people, which ran the gamut from activists concerned about police violence to people who serve on citizen’s commissions to oversee policy issues. Law enforcement was in attendance also, heavily represented by leaderships – chiefs and sheriffs and the like.
“What I was struck by was how few elected officials there were,” he said. Given the focus on policing in America today, “I expected that there would be a lot more elected officials coming to inform themselves as to what the policy options are relating to police oversight.”
He said, however, it was the most diverse conference he had attended, both in terms of professional background and ethnicity and race.
There were important discussions about transparency. “Transparency as a means to achieve accountability to build legitimacy of the police,” he said. “Transparency is really about sharing data on police stops, arrests, force, etc. Everybody that talked about it said that police themselves were fearful about releasing data – whether it’s numerical data or whether it’s data from body cams.
“However, the experience is that the more transparency there is, the less problem there is with community policing,” Mayor Davis explained. “In other words, the fears have been completely misplaced. Sharing and opening up the police to scrutiny has been an overwhelmingly positive thing for police.”
Second, he talked about the discussion around procedural justice. “Procedural justice really refers to how people are treated by the police in whatever domain,” the mayor explained. “The outcome – the ticket, the warning, the arrest – the outcome matters to how people experience the police. But equally or perhaps even more important is how the encounter happens.”
Here “there is a lot more focus to how the encounter with the police leads to greater trust, not just trust but a willingness to work with the police on solving problems in the community. There’s a training issue here. But this is a foundational identity piece for police officers – do they think about, are they really considering how they’re treating people as they’re engaging with them?”
He said there was a lot of discussion about procedural justice and how it can be used to build greater relationships between the police and the community.
One area that is “exploding” is how police deal with issues of domestic violence and sexual assault. He said, while it’s an area he personally does not know very well, “it all comes under the umbrella of trauma.”
What they are learning is that “quite often, police treat victims of those crimes fairly cavalierly,” he said. As a result there is an emerging domain of police training that goes into helping officers recognize that those victims “are facing trauma and how to engage them to hear their story, to gather information and to not run past the human engagement of someone that’s traumatized merely to get to a suspect, a result or an outcome.
“That area of trauma was a real third area that I was just fascinated by,” he said. He noted a whole movement in Yolo County to look at adverse childhood experiences. And how that relates to things as diverse as school outcomes to homelessness. “At NACOLE there was a real focus on trauma on both sides of the police-citizen encounter. The fact that many people who are being contacted by the police have experienced long-term trauma and that’s affecting their behavior.”
He also stated that “the police themselves experience trauma that largely goes untreated or uncared for. This creates very explosive situations.”
How does this relate to police oversight? He explained, “The ends of oversight are accountability and legitimacy. These are questions that really get at the legitimacy of the police in the community.”
An additional area that is important as we go forward is to understand what the metrics of success are. How do we know that we have effective oversight system in place?
“Our complaints are down,” he said. “I’m hearing from our officers, from our police leadership, that our complaints are down. But I’m also hearing that there are many people that do not feel safe to make complaints. Especially underrepresented groups in the community.
“Everyone is facing the same thing,” he said. “The question that I posed is how do we create spaces for those folks to come forward. The answer, I believe, is probably in places like Seattle. Maybe somewhat in New York City.
“Seattle struck me as important because there has been really significant outreach to community based organizations that work with underrepresented groups,” he said. They are creating forums and opportunities. “What it showed me is that the formal complaint processes that may come to an oversight board or citizen’s review board or ombudsman, or something like that – probably the doorway that is going to get people to that is a community-based organization.”
Partnership and relationship building with community-based organizations “is really a way forward,” he said. He believes that the current process to structure the future oversight model is going to really attempt to have forums that allow for these underrepresented groups to come forward.
“All of that relies on relationship building,” he said. “As an elected official, I need to be in relationship with the police chief, I need to build deep relationships with union officials, I have to been in close relationships with community-based groups with activists, and I need to make it possible for all those groups to be in relationship with each other.”
The final big issue, he said, is “the question of what are we going to do about police unions.”
He said, “Their power. Their ability through court cases and legislative remedies that have been put into place to really protect officers clearly to the detriment of community members.”
He said everyone was “talking about the challenges they face with the organized labor element and how difficult it is to overcome that barrier. Everybody agrees that the police officers on the street need to buy into the oversight but everyone also recognizes that (unions) take significant measures to protect officers from scrutiny and from consequences from their bad actions.”
He said no one really has an answer for that but he sees it as a problem for leadership as well as a political problem.
—David M. Greenwald reporting