5 Critical Needs Beyond Ferguson

Police violence is only one facet of a criminal justice system permeated with racial disparities, and that criminal justice system too often serves as a substitute for failures in education or mental health treatment.

It’s been several days since a grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown. In L.A., as elsewhere, many people have taken to the streets.

Here, at the ACLU of Southern California, we recognize that racial inequities in policing, criminal justice and society have persisted too long and extend far beyond Ferguson. We remain committed to the work on issues of race and use of force in policing, and to the work ahead that needs to be done.

We need meaningful, independent oversight of the police. If the reaction to the Ferguson grand jury shows us anything, it’s that people won’t accept the judgment of a process they don’t believe is fair. There’s lots of reasons to question the Ferguson grand jury result: the significant differences between Wilson’s testimony about Brown’s aggression and the descriptions of steady escalation by the closest witness, Brown’s friend Dorian Johnson; the very different way prosecutors proceeded for a police officer who shot a young black man than for other crimes, in a way thatsuggests a strategy to avoid an indictment. The fact is that grand juries almost always return an indictment in most crimes, but almost never indict a police officer in a shooting.

Though these concerns arise specifically in Ferguson, the lack of independent oversight is a systemic problem. People don’t trust police to police themselves, nor do they trust prosecutors to make objective judgments about whether officers should be held accountable for a shooting when they work closely with police in criminal prosecutions, day in and day out. Locally, we’re working to bring civilian oversight to the L.A. Sheriff’s Department and to ensure the new LASD Inspector General functions as an outside, independent monitor; we’ve promoted stronger civilian oversight in Orange County, Riverside and across Southern California; and we’ll keep fighting to ensure there are independent entities to hold police accountable for misconduct and civil rights violations.

People don’t trust police to police themselves, nor do they trust prosecutors to make objective judgments about whether officers should be held accountable for a shooting when they work closely with police in criminal prosecutions, day in and day out.

We need more transparency in police use of force. Police must provide greater transparency for shootings and other serious uses of force. California laws are some of the most secretive in the country when it comes to police misconduct — it was only last spring that the California Supreme Court clarified that the names of officers involved in shootings could be released, but the details of investigations into shootings are often kept from the public. The Ferguson police waited a week to identify Darren Wilson as the officer who shot Michael Brown, but LAPD waited more than twice as long to release the names of officers who shot Ezell Ford. In Texas and Florida, where a police department has determined an officer violated policies or otherwise engaged in misconduct, records of the incident are public. That’s true in California for any government employee — except for police officers, for whom all personnel information is kept secret. Police officers have privacy rights, too, but that shouldn’t prevent the public from knowing the truth about misconduct or serious incidents like shootings.

We support use of cameras by police. Cameras don’t always end the debate over what actually happened, but they provide important evidence. Police should use body cameras for patrol officers in a way that allows officers to be held accountable for misconduct and to be exonerated from unfounded complaints. Departments must also work out policies that allow public access to video of important incidents while balancing privacy interests of officers and civilians in more routine encounters.

We need better data on uses of force and racial disparities in policing. Police should collect data and report data on uses of force and racial disparities. We live in an era of data-driven policing where law enforcement embrace Compstat, predictive policing, intelligence led-policing. But police departments aren’t required to track or report how many civilians are shot by officers, or any details of the shootings — the race and age of the person shot, the circumstances of the shooting, whether or not they were armed, whether they suffered from mental illness or other disability that might have played a role in the incident, whether the shooting was deemed in policy and, if not, what kind of corrective action was taken. If the lives of those civilians matter, police must be transparent about how they ended. If police were committed to eliminating biased policing, they would track and study racial disparities in their own actions as closely as they study crime trends.

peter-bibringWe need to fix the whole system. Observers have noted how the problems of race and police violence have roots in much deeper problems. Police violence is only one facet of a criminal justice system permeated with racial disparities, and that criminal justice system too often serves as a substitute for failures in education or mental health treatment. That’s why we’ve been working to reduce mass incarceration through the passage of Prop. 47 and advocating sensible diversion and pretrial release policies here in LA, fighting the school-to-prison pipeline and unfair police presence on campus. We see even our work on meaningful access to education as part of the struggle to make sure that kids have the same opportunities, and that those from some neighborhoods and backgrounds don’t get tracked for jail instead of jobs.

Peter Bibring
ACLU Southern California