Resistance: Make your police force less violent

Before we delve into the latest installment of ‘Resistance,’ a note: This entry is very much intended for people who are just starting to get interested in the subject of police violenc, particularly white, nondisabled people. It’s pretty entry level for those of you who have been working on this issue, and for those in communities disproportionately affected by police violence who are already aware of many basic, common sense solutions. If you’d like more stimulating reading, you can check out this piece from last year on race, disability, and police violence, exploring the intersectional connections between race and disability.

Onwards! In recent years, police violence has finally hit headlines, sparking a conversation about what society should be doing to make police forces less violent, and specifically to address the intersectional pressures that make police encounters more dangerous for Native Americans, the Black community, Latinx people, and disabled people. This is a problem that is going to get worse. At the precise moment when we started gaining ground, tackling the militarisation of police, and openly discussing the role of racism in law enforcement, we elected Donald Trump. That means that it is more imperative than ever before to address the issue, and some people may be flailing around for a meaningful action to take, which is where this post comes in.

Research shows that one of the most radically effective ways to reduce police violence is to have a clear, consistent use of force policy that police officers receive extensive training in and are expected to uphold, with actual consequences for violating it. Does your police department have a use of force policy? Who developed it? Does it speak to specific cultural issues and needs in your community? What are the penalties for violations? How often have infractions been reported, investigated, and penalised in the last decade? Who is responsible for adherence and making revisions to address changing situations? If a civilian wants to report and follow through on a violation, how easy is it to do so, and who is assigned to working with civilians?

Don’t know the answer to these questions? Don’t panic! Start with your department’s website, which may list the use of force policy online. If it’s not available, contact the chief of police (small agencies) or a public-facing contact (larger agencies) to request the full policy. If they refuse, contact a city councilmember/supervisor or your mayor to request assistance. Politely explain that you are a constituent with some concerns about how the police department operates. If they still refuse, contact local civil rights organizations, especially those dedicated to law enforcement issues — if you have a recalcitrant department, they’ve probably been to this rodeo before.

Read that policy. Make some notes. Compare it to sample policies and recommendations on the Police Use of Force Project as well as those put forward by civil rights organisations and affected communities — especially those working in your community on this issue. Ask yourself whether it meets the needs of your community, and if not, how: Come up with evidence-based documentation to support your point. Take note of the mechanisms for training/refreshers and enforcement. Find out who interfaces with civilians. It’s okay to take your time. Ask friends for help! More eyes are always better — particularly if you are white, middle class, straight, cis, and nondisabled, you may not catch the nuances of the policy that other readers would see.

If your department lacks a policy, pull together evidence on how such policies benefit police officers and the public. You can be utilitarian — fewer abuses mean fewer reports, fewer lawsuits, fewer settlements, fewer controversies — but you can also speak to common decency and the public good. Shooting people is bad. Beating up protesters is not good. Draw upon those local groups to see what they are saying, so you get a sense of the messages they’re trying to put across.

Get in touch with local civil rights and/or activist groups. Talk to them about the work they have been doing with the police and ask them how you can support them. Discuss your findings. Take your cue from people who are already organising because you are stronger together, and there’s no sense replicating work other people are already doing. Columbusing is also a terrible idea. If you live in, say, Minneapolis, there’s a good chance some people are already working on this.

But maybe you live in a small town or an isolated community. One where people are kind of aware of these issues but no one is working on them. If your evidence finds no one interfacing with police — and put in a good faith effort, not a 30 second Google — that’s when you have several options.

Option one is to make an appointment with the chief of police (your right as a civilian) to discuss the department’s use of force policy. This is definitely an option, but not all police chiefs are receptive to this conversation. If you come without backup and without a history of interacting with the agency, you may be viewed as an upstart to be classified as ignorable. We don’t want that!

Option two is to start attending city council/board of supervisors meetings and meetings of the public safety committee/police commission so you can follow these issues. Get a footing. Start doing this while you are researching so that you will be a familiar, known quantity when you speak up. Then, either talk during the open comment period at the start of meetings to request that this matter be discussed, or approach a member of the government body to request that it be agendised for discussion. If they refuse to put it on the agenda, you can always bring it up, and keep bringing it up, and bring friends to bring it up, until they cave.

You might luck out and live in an area where people are super receptive to this conversation and excited to have you bring it up. Or unsure, but willing to talk. Others may be hostile. Tailor your approach to what you know about your community and your elected officials. Always, always, let local civil rights groups take the lead on how they want to direct the conversation. Don’t try to replicate or override their efforts. Collaborate with their strategy. Remember that this takes time, and patience. You are in this for a long haul, and your vocalisations will make a difference.

Image: Handcuffs, Keith Allison, Flickr