We Need Courage to Transform Policing

Guest Author Rosa Aqeel is the Legislative Director for PICO California, the state’s largest faith-based community organizing network, representing half a million families. The post below is excerpted from her testimony at a May 26, 2015 hearing on community safety and police reform, conducted by the California Assembly Select Committee on the Status of Boys and Men of Color.

I’ve thought a lot about what I would say today, and really struggled.  There’s so much to say, and yet I can’t find the right words to express the deep and profound pain and anger that live in my heart, and is deepened every 28 hours with news of another Black life that has been taken.  

The stories of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Brother Africa, Alex Nieto, Rekia Boyd, and Walter Scott are just a few of the lives that have been taken in the last several months.  Lives that mattered to some of us, but not to all of us.  Lost lives that demand a conversation about courage and leadership and what changes we must make to prevent the unnecessary loss of life.   

The challenges facing our communities are great — communities of color do not trust law enforcement. Black and Latino mothers and fathers continue to have “the talk” with their kids about how to stay alive when they come into contact with law enforcement.  This isn’t hyperbole — it’s a sad fact and one that we must work courageously to change.

This year we have seen a plethora of legislation aimed at police reform.  Bills that require body cameras, more training, and our co-sponsored bills that require data collection will go a long way towards improving the status quo.*

But we must do more.  We must be bold and fearless in seeking real reforms that will change the way police officers police and the way in which communities experience those who vow to protect and serve them.  

I propose two reforms that have not made their way into this legislative session, but that our members across the state support enthusiastically.

The first involves independent investigations of police shootings with civilian oversight.  We know that police officers are rarely convicted of criminal misconduct, and are not often held accountable for their actions.  The wall of silence that exists among all law enforcement agencies — coupled with the need for district attorneys and local law enforcement to work together — make it very difficult to conduct independent investigations.

Civilian oversight experts agree that we must have independence from the beginning, to avoid planting and/or tainting of evidence that often impacts any subsequent prosecution.  A truly independent review process that puts outside, independent investigators at the scene of a police shooting at the same time as local police is necessary.  

Second, we need to take a close look at the Police Officers Bill of Rights.  These were laws that likely began as a way to protect the integrity of the important work done by police officers but have, over time, become a set of special privileges that make it nearly impossible to remove bad officers. Police officers accused of wrongdoing should not have rights over and above those of citizens like you and me.

One special right requires that interrogations of police officers shall be conducted at a reasonable hour, and if they occur while the officer is off-duty, he or she is entitled to be paid for that time. Others include the requirement that an officer must be informed of the nature of the investigation before the interrogation begins, that an officer may not be subjected to offensive language, and that an officer under interrogation shall be allowed to attend to his or her own physical or personal necessities.

I am certain that we would all love these special rights if we were accused of a crime. But they put officers above the law, are inherently unjust and unfair, and offend notions of equal justice.

I understand how politically charged my suggestions are — let’s not pretend that the decisions made in this building are completely based on notions of good public policy.  But if we are to make Black Lives Matter, and if we are to begin to build real trust between communities of color and law enforcement, then we will have to be courageous, and potentially risk a long political career in exchange for a shorter one that yields real and substantive change.

And law enforcement officers that know that change is needed within their own departments must also exercise courage and name and call out the injustices to which they bear witness.

Real change and real trust demands that all of us — policy makers, advocates, law enforcement and community — act bravely.  We can’t wait — soon, when another 28 hours have passed, another Black life will be lost.  What if that life is someone you love?  What must happen for us to feel the urgency of this moment?  

I pray that has already happened, and that we can work together now, courageously and unapologetically, to create a California where all lives matter.

*To check on the status of these and other bills, please visit http://allianceforbmoc.org