To Transform Policing, We Need Community Control

An elected civilian council could crack down on police abuses, and pave the way for longer-term transformations.

Jazmine Salas August 25, 2020

Members of the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression gathered at City Hall in Chicago on June 22, 2016, to demand civilian control of the Chicago Police Department by creating a Civilian Police Accountability Council. (Photo by Jim Vondruska/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Amer­i­can cities are at a cross­roads. We can con­tin­ue to live under the bru­tal threat of police vio­lence, or we can take back our com­mu­ni­ties. To break the chains of abuse, we need com­mu­ni­ty con­trol of the police: the pow­er to deter­mine what polic­ing looks like in our neigh­bor­hoods — who does the polic­ing and how.

To break the chains of abuse, we need community control of the police: the power to determine what policing looks like in our neighborhoods—who does the policing and how.

Specif­i­cal­ly, com­mu­ni­ty con­trol means a demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly elect­ed civil­ian coun­cil that would give res­i­dents final author­i­ty on police poli­cies and bud­gets, dis­ci­pli­nary actions and legal recourse, along with hir­ing and fir­ing pow­er over all police, includ­ing the super­in­ten­dent. Such a coun­cil would be able to inter­vene imme­di­ate­ly to reduce many police abus­es. It would also serve as a fun­da­men­tal first step toward longer-term trans­for­ma­tion of law enforce­ment. It would empow­er the peo­ple who suf­fer the most under police impuni­ty — Black, Lat­inx, Indige­nous and oth­er oppressed com­mu­ni­ties. And now is the time to fight for it.

We are in the midst of a his­toric upris­ing. Mil­lions around the nation have poured into the streets since late May, spurred to action by the hor­ren­dous mur­ders of George Floyd, Bre­on­na Tay­lor and Ahmaud Arbery. The move­ment has explod­ed in Chica­go, where I live, with protests and car car­a­vans led by, among oth­ers, Black Lives Mat­ter Chica­go and the Chica­go Alliance Against Racist and Polit­i­cal Repres­sion (which I co-chair), draw­ing thou­sands and shut­ting down major roads and down­town Chica­go. Among their demands, these orga­ni­za­tions are push­ing for an all-elect­ed Civil­ian Police Account­abil­i­ty Coun­cil (CPAC).

The move­ment is thriv­ing, with more than 60,000 peti­tion sign­ers. Nine­teen alder­men — sev­er­al of whom unseat­ed anti-CPAC incum­bents in 2019 — sup­port CPAC leg­is­la­tion; 26 are need­ed for a sim­ple major­i­ty on the Chica­go City Coun­cil. Chica­go isn’t alone: Cities like Min­neapo­lis, Jack­sonville, Fla., and Dal­las are also demand­ing com­mu­ni­ty con­trol of police. Many Black and brown com­mu­ni­ties are cry­ing for jus­tice after liv­ing under bru­tal police occu­pa­tion. We see our strug­gles reflect­ed in the move­ment that has esca­lat­ed in Minneapolis.

Chica­go, like many U.S. cities, has nev­er had a police account­abil­i­ty struc­ture that deliv­ers jus­tice to the sur­vivors of police crimes. Under our cur­rent sys­tem, the police offi­cers who have at least 10 com­plaints against them are respon­si­ble for 64 per­cent of all com­plaints against the police. Even with a proven record of abuse, police offi­cers are allowed to patrol the same com­mu­ni­ties they’ve harmed. Jason Van Dyke, the Chica­go police offi­cer who shot 17-year old Laquan McDon­ald 16 times in 2014, held 20 cit­i­zen com­plaints at the time of the mur­der, none of which result­ed in sig­nif­i­cant dis­ci­pline. This same blue wall of silence” allowed Com­man­der Jon Burge and his rogue Mid­night Crew to tor­ture more than 100 pre­dom­i­nant­ly Black men over near­ly two decades until a whistle­blow­er final­ly came for­ward. Com­mu­ni­ty con­trol boards would have the pow­er to inves­ti­gate all alle­ga­tions of tor­ture and mis­con­duct and act as the final author­i­ty on all dis­ci­pli­nary actions against police offi­cers, from ter­mi­na­tion to seek­ing crim­i­nal indict­ments. Remov­ing these cops from the force would mark a tan­gi­ble improve­ment in the lives of Black and brown peo­ple in the city.

Com­mu­ni­ty con­trol is about exer­cis­ing our fun­da­men­tal demo­c­ra­t­ic right not just to have a seat at the table, but to put the police under our over­sight. Every action, pol­i­cy and bud­get must be sub­ject to the will of the peo­ple, allow­ing for every­thing from changes to police depart­ment prac­tices to reduc­tions in police spend­ing. On their own, cor­rupt police depart­ments and com­plic­it city coun­cils are unlike­ly to deliv­er on move­ment demands to defund, demil­i­ta­rize or abol­ish police, but mem­bers of com­mu­ni­ty con­trol coun­cils would be account­able to the com­mu­ni­ties who elect them. Many cam­paigns for com­mu­ni­ty con­trol specif­i­cal­ly exclude cur­rent and for­mer law enforce­ment offi­cials (and their direct fam­i­ly mem­bers) from run­ning for a spot on the coun­cil. In Chica­go, CPAC mem­bers would be required to be res­i­dents of the dis­trict they rep­re­sent and have two years of expe­ri­ence work­ing toward the advance­ment of civ­il rights and social jus­tice. These guide­lines would give us the pow­er to car­ry out demands with­out the risk of the coun­cil being co-opt­ed by forces that serve the police.

Black and brown com­mu­ni­ties nation­wide are deter­mined to change the future of polic­ing, end­ing geno­ci­dal and racist prac­tices and tear­ing down oppres­sive sys­tems. To make these changes a real­i­ty, we first need com­mu­ni­ty control.

For a response to this arti­cle, read Com­mu­ni­ty Con­trol Won’t Fix What’s Wrong with Cops” by Carl Williams and Chris­t­ian Williams.

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