Would It Work Here? Policing the Police

By Jessie Wesley March 23, 2012 Published in the April 2012 issue of Seattle Met

NEW YORK CITIZENS, haunted by the murder of Sean Bell—an unarmed man shot 50 times by five local police officers—and leery of a new stop-and-frisk campaign, which reportedly stopped over 600,000 people last year (88 percent of which did not result in a conviction), have taken an organized, recorded stand against abusive police practices.

Robert Gangi founded the Police Reform Organizing Project to expose, address, and correct abusive police practices in NYC. PROP collects firsthand accounts of people who’ve unjustly felt the heavy hand of men and women in blue. A recently held PROP forum attracted over 250 New Yorkers. And a neighboring group, People’s Justice Coalition for Community Control and Police Accountability, organizes neighborhood watches and enjoins citizens to aim their handheld cameras at the police.

Here in Seattle: “There has been a pretty consistent pattern of police officers abusing their power, in particular with young men of color,” says Jennifer Shaw, deputy director of Washington’s American Civil Liberties Union. Noted incidents in the ACLU complaint to the Department of Justice last year include the fatal shooting of Native American woodcarver John T. Williams and a concussion sustained by a teen after an officer stopped him for jaywalking. The Department of Justice later found that Seattle police had shown a pattern of unconstitutional use of force.

Would a cop watch akin to NYC’s PROP make a difference? Seattle police spokesperson Sean Whitcomb has no objections if folks deem such an organization necessary. But Sergeant Whitcomb insists the relationship between the SPD and the public is already “overwhelmingly positive,” adding that the accountability the department already has in place is “one of the most robust accountability models in the country.”

The ACLU doesn’t agree. “I don’t know if I would call it ‘robust,’” fires back Shaw. “It certainly is complicated.” Still, she doesn’t believe that camcorder justice is a panacea for abuses by our police. The problem, she says, can only be curbed from within the department itself. “The most important accountability is up the line of officers to their supervisors, and that’s where we are seeing the biggest breakdown.”

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