The Case Against an Elected Civilian Oversight Board–Longer Version

–John Chasnoff

January 26, 2015

The Ferguson movement is headed into its next phase—one where we add to the continuing agitation our concrete work to build a better world with a better policing system. It’s crucial that whatever we do makes for real chanVote-with-Moneyge—constructive, revolutionary change—not meaningless reform that doesn’t actually make things better on the ground. Civilian oversight of police for the city of St. Louis has come up as one of the first things we can accomplish. It’s therefore a testing ground for us to sort out what we want, what qualifies as a revolutionary vision and what qualifies as a legitimate step to get us there.

Civilian oversight is hopefully a worthwhile reform that moves us in the right direction by creating greater transparency, greater public input into policy, and greater accountability.
Even for those who accept that reasoning, many folks are unhappy that the current bill for civilian oversight doesn’t have an elected board. I can see why. Policing is already controlled by the political class and they in turn are overly controlled by the monied elite. It’s no wonder, then, that the police and the laws they enforce are skewed against the disempowered, i.e. the poor and people of color. So it only makes sense that any agency set up to provide checks and balances on the police needs a healthy dose of grassroots representation.

Given that reasoning, an elected civilian oversight board (COB) seems at first thought to be the way to go. But there are serious problems, counter-revolutionary problems, with an elected COB. It isn’t the ideal solution (there is no ideal solution) and it isn’t the only way for us to approximate the ideal.

So here’s the case against an elected COB:

1) Our electoral system is skewed against the already disempowered. Citizens United is just one example of the problem. We should not equate elections with a system of grassroots democracy. Elections have largely been captured by the monied elite. We could well end up with an elected COB dancing to the fiddle of Rex Sinquefeld or Civic Progress. Of course, we can still overcome Big Money through people power. But so too can we overcome the flaws of many other selection processes with people power, and it’s not a given fact that elections give us our best shot at doing so.

2) When we elect people to office, what type of people do we get? The answer: politicians. Politicians are engineered by the system and the need to get re-elected to behave in certain ways. How many protesters have been routinely disappointed by politicians as we’ve been out protesting?
Politicians grandstand. They mug for the cameras. They take credit for other folks’ work. They act based on soundbites rather than principle because they need mass media to sway mass opinion to vote for them. They use one political office as a stepping stone to other positions with more power.

Of course there are exceptions. But even politicians of real character need to be held accountable by the kind of people power that digs deep into issues, pays attention to detail and doesn’t let the politicians get away with things.

Maybe there’s a different type of person, one not driven by a politician’s motivations, who would be better suited to serving on a COB. Maybe that person is the kind of activist who would never run for office but would be the person holding the politicians accountable in the first place. Maybe there’s a better way than elections to get that kind of person on the COB.

3) Since our city is so highly segregated and polarized, there is a strong possibility that an elected COB will be a dysfunctional COB. Representatives from some areas will clash with the representatives from others. With each side accountable only to their own electorate, there is no incentive to come together. Just look at Congress for an example of dysfunction in a polarized society. Perhaps the give and take that would be part of the nomination and aldermanic approval process will result in a more productive outcome.
4) Police need to be shielded to some extent from the vagaries of political influence and majority rule. That may not sound like a revolutionary statement on its face. But police are different than school boards or other government agencies where direct elections may make more sense.

Here’s why: police are tasked with providing equal protection under the law. They need to protect minorities as well as the majority. That means equal protection for unpopular opinions, unpopular life styles, unpopular sexual orientations, unpopular groups. In that role, police should often stand as a bulwark against the majority view.
If police are overly subject to the shifting winds of direct democracy, they can too easily become the enforcers of the “tyranny of the majority” rather than the protectors of civil liberties. There’s even a good argument to be made that any COB should over-represent those people who are historically most abused by the system. Otherwise the COB could just reflect the prejudices of those already privileged. Let’s not forget that we have a biased policing system only to the extent that we have a biased society. More direct democracy won’t fix that problem.

On the other hand, police can become so walled off from the community that they only represent special interests.

The trick with policing is to come up with the right balance of responsiveness and professionalism that gives us a community-based system that works for everyone. Since the COB is not a governing body, an elected COB might be one component of achieving that balance. But the more power you give it, the more balanced it needs to be.

We’re not too far from that balance in the system being proposed for COB selection. The process begins, if we make it begin at this point, with the community feeding names to our elected alderpersons. They in turn give recommendations to the elected mayor, ignoring community input at their peril. The mayor selects seven nominees, ignoring the alderpersons’ recommendations at his/her peril. The alders then have the obligation of approving the mayor’s nominations, pushing back if s/he has ignored them or tilted the COB too far in one direction or another.

The community has the opportunity to weigh in at mandated public hearings, a second chance for us to have our voices heard. In the end, if we are unhappy and believe so much in the electoral process, we can vote in new alders and a new mayor.

This system is not ideal, and it is not guaranteed to work for us. There is no designable system that comes with such a guarantee. Any system only works if we make it work. This one can work for us if we work it.

The trick for revolutionaries is to dream big and then create the practical steps for getting there. Never lose sight of the dream, but don’t let the very idealism of the vision paralyze us from doing what’s necessary to achieve it.

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