The tragic fatal shooting of Stephon Clark has captured the nation's attention and elevated the conversation about whether police can and should investigate themselves, especially when the public’s trust weighs in the balance.
The 22-year-old father of two was an unarmed black man who was fatally shot on March 18 by Sacramento police officers eight times, mostly in his back, according to an independent autopsy released Friday, March 30.
The Clark family has accused the police department of trying to cover up misconduct by its officers and decided to conduct its own autopsy.
In the wake of Clark’s death, there are deafening calls from the community for more transparency and accountability regarding the investigation into his death. These calls also include getting answers to the lingering question of why the officers decided to mute their audio. Ironically, the one group put into place to be a link among the community, City Hall and the police won’t be able to help.
The 11-member Sacramento Community Police Review Commission was established in 2017 by the city council last year as part of a package of police reforms after the community complained that a previous version of the commission didn’t have enough oversight capabilities.
But like most citizen watchdog groups established by mayors and city councils in cities in the wake of mounting concern over the question of “Who polices the police?” the Sacramento Community Police Review Commission is merely advisory.
Most independent oversight commissions lack independence. They are unable to conduct their own investigations, subpoena records or to compel the testimony of police officers and their superiors accused of wrongdoing.
In Los Angeles, efforts have begun to change the charter of the county via ballot measure to provide its Civilian Oversight Commission with subpoena power to effectively investigate deputy misconduct. The Reform Jails and Community Reinvestment Initiative seeks to ensure that the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, the governing body for America’s most populous county and largest jail system, invests some of the $3.5 billion planned for building new jails into providing alternatives to incarceration.
Proponents need to gather more than 150,000 signatures of registered voters to place it on the highly coveted November gubernatorial ballot. The reform effort will not affect the Los Angeles Police Department, which has a separate police commission.
Civic engagement is incredibly important for the health of a community. The Reform Jails and Community Reinvestment Initiative puts the conversation of police accountability and alternatives to incarceration into the hands of the voters in L.A. County.
This is necessary because there has been misconduct, most notably with former Sheriff Lee Baca and his undersheriff Paul Tanaka, who were both convicted of conspiracy and obstructing an FBI investigation into deputy jail abuses.
We realize that to re-establish trust, we must create an oversight body for the Sheriff’s Department in L.A. County that serves to foster dialogue, feedback and shared knowledge between the community and the police.
Civilian oversight bodies are put into place because the public has lost faith in their scandal-ridden, beleaguered police departments. But these groups often end up being more of a conciliatory gesture from local governments to placate the public in troubled times. They are prevented from doing the very work that both city officials and police departments claim they want to be done — improving public accountability and transparency.
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To root out misconduct, bring about real criminal justice reform and avoid having Bonnie investigate Clyde, these civilian bodies that hold the trust of the public must have two things — independence and power. Without it, they’re just for show. Oversight with no site. Oversight with no bite.
Reform L.A. Jails will hold a campaign kickoff for its signature-gathering drive on Saturday, April 7, at noon at Mercado La Paloma, 3655 S. Grand Ave. More information at reformlajails.com.
Jasmyne Cannick is a nationally known writer and commentator on political, race and social issues. She is a political consultant working on the L.A. County ballot measure to Reform L.A. Jails.
Patrisse Cullors is the New York Times best-selling author of When They Call You a Terrorist and the co-founder of Black Lives Matter, Dignity and Power Now, and JusticeLA. She is a proponent of the Reform L.A. County ballot measure to provide subpoena power to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Civilian Oversight Commission.