January 26, 2015
Many folks are unhappy with the selection process for the proposed Civilian Oversight Board (COB). They believe that policing is already controlled by politicians and money, so we need a healthy dose of input from the disempowered to make a COB work. That’s absolutely true, but are elections the way to get there?
Here’s the case against an elected Civilian Oversight Board (COB):
1) Elections are controlled by the monied elite already. With elections we could end up with a COB dancing to the tune of Rex Sinquefeld or Civic Progress.
2) When we elect people whom do we end up with? Politicians. They tend to operate to get re-elected which means they are prone to govern by soundbites, lack of principles and ambition. Maybe the type of person we need for a COB is an activist who would never run for office but would hold him/herself accountable to his/her constituency. Maybe elections are a bad way to find that type of person.
3) In a segregated city, elections based on geography could result in a polarized and non-functional board, with members always playing to their base and unwilling to work together. We’ve seen it in Congress. We don’t need a gridlocked COB.
4) Police are mandated to provide equal protection for all. To do so, they often have to protect unpopular ideas, unpopular groups—the minority—from the “tyranny of the majority.” If police are too influenced by the will of the majority they can become part of the lynch mob. We already have biased policing because we live in a biased society. More democracy won’t help that.
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. The process of COB selection in BB 208 fcomes close to that balance. It allows for grassroots input in submitting names to alders and at public hearings. It allows for aldermanic checking of the mayor through the confirmation process if s/he ignores their input. At each step along the way, elected officials ignore their constituents at their peril.
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. We shouldn’t cast aside this “bird in the hand” for a “two in the bush” that has its own flaws and is not necessarily as advertised.