Community Control Over Police

M Adams and Max Rameau have a forthcoming article titled “Black Community Control Over Police in the Wisconsin Law Review that they were kind enough to let me see in advance of publication. (UPDATE: Publication available here.)  The key argument of the article is that traditional ways of thinking about policing as a prejudice problem miss the mark, that the real issue is power: who controls the police. I first wrote a review of their article, then I went poking into the social science literature to see what research might say about these issues. These two tasks don’t integrate well into an essay so I’ll just present three disjointed sections: comments on what they wrote, a summary of what I found in the literature, and what I found in Wisconsin law, which seems designed to insulate police from “political” (i.e. democratic) pressures.

M Adams is a Black queer activist who is visible in Madison as one of the leaders of the Young, Gifted and Black coalition and co-director of Freedom, Inc.  I have had the opportunity to talk to M on a number of occasions and to be on panels together. I don’t think I’ve met Max Rameau, who is a Haitian born Pan-African theorist, campaign strategist, organizer, and author of Take Back the Land. Rameau, Adams and Rob Robinson are authors of Forward from Ferguson, a book on political strategy for the Black movement, which can be read on line or downloaded in PDF or epub form.

First the review: I laud this article for focusing on power rather than prejudice. That focus, to my mind, is spot on and consistent with a very large body of social science. It is structures that really matter much more than individual attitudes. It is simply historically true that police forces have mostly been organized around protecting the interests of the wealthy and powerful, not around protecting minorities from majorities and the weak from the powerful. And yet, the wealthy and powerful are better able to look out for themselves. Further, the “tyranny of the majority” is the great danger of democracy, as numerical majorities have often voted democratically to oppress numerical majorities. On moral grounds, I would argue (and I am sure that Adams and Rameau would agree) that the most important role of law and of policing is to protect the people who are least able to protect themselves from the predations of the more powerful or violent members of society.

If we accept that what matters is structure and bottom-up rather than top-down control of police, then there are things we can discuss around the edges about what kinds of structures are best. This article is a great starting point for such a discussion

Adams and Rameau propose a civilian control board that is randomly chosen from the residents of a jurisdiction and has power to set policies and practices of police within that jurisdiction. Most of their article is spent discussing the justifications for random selection rather than election. The basic rationale is that random selection will produce a higher proportion of less privileged people in the mix. It is still possible that more-elite people will dominate within such a group, but at least the group has a chance of being more representative of less-privileged people than an elected group would. Participants would probably have to be paid a living hourly wage (e.g. at least $15/hour, probably $20/hour) for their participation to make participating feasible for lower income people.

Adams and Rameau explicitly note that defining the boundaries of “community” is itself a contested political issue. They suggest that the “community” boundaries should encompass local understandings of community. One issue social scientists have addressed is that these locally-understood boundaries are not only ill-defined but they are always changing over time. The idea of relatively-homogeneous places that can be meaningfully called a “community” is itself a social construction that can be debated, and one could gerrymander police districts as easily as political districts. Even so, smaller districts however bounded are likely to be more responsive than large ones.

They also propose that the civilian boards will include only residents of areas, not landlords or business owners. They explain why they propose this, and I agree with the reasons, but still think that a healthy community needs positive relations with landlords and commercial enterprises and that there may be a way to obtain representation from these entities without letting them dominate.

This kind of board cannot solve all the policing problems in low income minority communities. Just as the article stresses that the problem is power, not attitudes, many of the problems of policing arise not just from police behavior, but from the larger political and economic structures in which the police are embedded. Low income communities need not only less aggressive policing and more self-organization, they need jobs, transportation services, stable housing, and grocery stores. Neighborhoods with locally-controlled police who don’t do what the rich and powerful want them to do are at risk of being punished by outside actors who might withhold needed resources.

Nevertheless, this article plays an important role in directing attention away from personalities and toward a real debate about what a community-controlled police force would be like.

I’m not an expert in the social science literature on policing and have not had time to do a comprehensive review, but I am old enough to remember debates about community control in the past. Sure enough, when I searched the sociology literature for the phrase “community control” with police, most of the hits came from the 1970s and into the 1980s, and there were zero hits after 2000. This is in itself pretty telling. The most interesting [to me, anyway] articles I found were written by Elionor Ostrom in the 1970s. (For those of you who don’t recognize the name, Ostrom won the economics prize from the Nobel committee in 2012 for her work in demonstrating the conditions under which communities can provide themselves with collective goods.) Ostrom conducted several research projects in the 1970s that found that small locally-controlled police departments for independent municipalities, including poor Black communities, were more effective than large urban police forces for reducing crime and benefiting residents. She argued against the wave of consolidation of urban police departments that was happening at the time. In general, my very superficial review of the literature suggests that the problem of controlling the police has long been recognized as an issue, not only in the US but around the world, that police departments do vary in how responsive they are to the community, that the class issues about who benefits from different police policies are well recognized, and that citizen review boards are problematic as sources of control over police. My superficial review did not turn up explicit discussions of alternate ways of organizing community control over police, so I am not able to comment on whether the principles such as random selection or smaller jurisdictions for control have been found efficacious in research, but theoretically I would expect them to be so. There has also been a lot of discussion about the best structures for ensuring democratic control more generally; again I have not systematically reviewed the literature, but it is my impression that the Adams/Rameau proposal is consistent with this literature.

Elinor Ostrom Stable URL:  1974 small community-controlled police more effective.  Policing in Chicago neighborhoods

I also discovered that Wisconsin statues dating from the 1920s (with revisions) are designed to insulate police and fire departments from immediate political control. They call for the creation of police & fire commissions that are appointed annually by the mayor for five-year staggered terms and have the power of hiring and firing the chiefs who, in turn, have the power to hire and fire personnel. These commissions also have the power to review charges of misconduct and discipline or terminate those found guilty, with the statutes providing more information about due process for those charged than about the grounds for discipline or termination.  These commissions optionally have the power to set policy and organizational structure. There are also guidelines for merging police and fire departments.   “(12) Legislative intent. Section 62.13 and chapter 589, laws of 1921, chapter 423, laws of 1923, and chapter 586, laws of 1911, shall be construed as an enactment of statewide concern for the purpose of providing a uniform regulation of police, fire, and combined protective services departments.”

UPDATE TO UPDATE: This article no longer appears to be available. UPDATE: An article written for the Progressive Dane newsletter by Greg Gelembiuk, Amelia Royko-Maurer and Nathan Royko-Maurer reviews the statutory situation and discusses both why ordinary citizens get little relief from the PFC and why elected officials DO have the legal power to constrain the police.