Friday, July 31, 2015

Lifting the Blue Shroud of Secrecy

Cincinnati Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell
Last night I watched an extended segment during The Newshour on PBS which summarized the latest on the indictment of former University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing and his brief courtroom appearance.

If anything positive can come out of unarmed civilian Samuel Dubose's gruesome death, it's that Tensing's reckless and unjustifiable actions took place at a time when what has traditionally been known in America as the 'Blue Wall of Silence' is being dismantled by a combination of reforms in policing, technology and organized peaceful demands for change.

Gwen Ifill's guest on The Newshour  was Cincinnati Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell (pictured above), whose progressive and innovative approach to urban policing has helped transform the department by (in part) reducing instances of CPD officers using excessive and deadly force against citizens, reducing injuries to officers and making policing more transparent by holding members of the force accountable through investigations conducted by a Civilian Complaint Authority and keeping close track of all traffic stops which are taped by an in-car video system.

Blackwell's leadership has earned him respect and national recognition, back on February 13th of this year he outlined his approaches to effective community policing in detail during a presentation in Phoenix, Arizona at the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing. 

Blackwell not only advocates the mandatory use of body cameras for all police officers, he emphasized that such technology is a critical component of transparent policing, saying:   
"We've got to stop this shroud of secrecy among police officers"

President Obama after meeting with the Policing Task Force
The good news is that efforts at the national level like the President's Task Force, the growing national movement to address inequities in sentencing and the mass incarceration of African-Americans, as well as the many high-profile cases of unjustified police killings that have been so prominent in the media over the past few years, are collectively driving a growing momentum to enact fundamental changes in policing at the local community level in cities across America.

This movement is the product of a lot of work by activist groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, The Campaign to End the New Jim Crow,, church groups, politicians, as well as journalists and average citizens with the help of the White House and the Department of Justice.

This movement is beginning to tackle a wide range of community policing issues that fall all along the spectrum of police misconduct, from discrepancies in officer-involved shootings to unfair ticketing practices.  

Tampa City Council Chairman Frank Reddick
For example, in an article in The Tampa Tribune yesterday Keith Morelli reported that it was a Department of Justice investigation into the ticketing of African-American bicyclists by the Tampa Police Department that prompted Tampa City Council Chairman Frank Reddick (pictured left) to invite the newly-appointed Chief of the Tampa PD Eric Ward to "come before the Council at its next meeting to talk about the possibility of creating a citizen's review board."

The investigation was prompted after an examination of Tampa PD statistics for 2014 showed that 81% of citations issued to bicyclists in Tampa were given to black bike riders; even though blacks only make up 25% of the Tampa population. 

Former Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor and current Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn initially called for the DOJ to assist in the investigation into the unfair ticketing practices after a rash of complaints by members of the community.

As Morelli reported, the calls for the creation of a citizen's review board with some degree of oversight authority over the Tampa police came from a broad coalition of groups including the Florida chapters of both the ACLU and the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

But getting back to the technology angle, it's clear from a number of high-profile cases of excessive use of force by police against unarmed American citizens that video is beginning to lift the shroud of secrecy that has shielded the actions of bad cops who make bad decisions for decades.

The use of video has increased exponentially in this nation, and it was a body camera that prevented former University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing from using lies to hide his actions behind the shroud of secrecy that has allowed some police officers in this country to get away with murder by claiming a dead suspect who can't testify on their own behalf was "threatening".

But it's not just murders either, video is also exposing bad cops who try to hide behind their badges after beating up people and then lying about why they did it.

Falsely accused Dhoruba Bin-Wahad, center with glasses
Take the case of former Clayton County, Georgia police officer Ryan Hall, which has made national headlines this week.

Back in May of 2014, a 69-year-old black man named Dhoruba Bin-Wahad (pictured left) was moving into his new home during broad daylight when someone mistakenly called police to report a burglary in progress.

Three cops responded to the scene and found Bin-Wahad in the process of moving his things in to the house.

The shocked homeowner tried unsuccessfully to explain that he was, in fact, the owner of the home and not a robber trying to burglarize it. Not surprisingly an argument of some kind ensued and at some, point Hall grabbed the 69 year-old man and slammed him down onto the concrete. 

In a police report, Hall claimed that that Bin-Wahad was argumentative and uncooperative during the conflict that escalated outside the home; moving is stressful enough, can you imagine the cops showing up as you're lugging boxes into a home you just paid for and accusing you of robbing it?

When cell phone video of the incident taken by a neighbor across the street later emerged, police began an internal investigation and last week a grand jury indicted Hall on misdemeanor charges of simple battery after the video evidence showed that the former officer lied about Bin-Wahad's behavior.

Watch the video for yourself, when you watch Bin-Wahad's head being slammed against the concrete, remember he's an innocent man and that's his own home.

Taken as a whole, these steps are beginning to make a difference, not only in terms of holding police officers accountable for their actions, but also in terms of restoring community confidence in law enforcement and raising the standards of police professionalism - which is good for both civilians and the police.

But there's clearly a long way to go in this nation.

America leads modern industrialized nations in police killings and according to statistics being tracked by a coalition of journalists and volunteers, with the killing of Samuel Dubose, 558 people have been killed by police this year.

While advocates for justice and human rights can take heart that these steps are slowly beginning to remove the bricks in the Blue Wall of Silence and lift the shroud of secrecy that surrounds police misconduct, sadly these efforts have come too late for Samuel Dubose and hundreds of others.

For now, we can only hope that if real changes to 21st century policing that are both meaningful and lasting can come about as a result of the tragic deaths of people like 12 year-old Tamir Rice, then perhaps their loss will have a deeper impact on the human condition - and make a difference for those in the future who might otherwise join ranks of The Counted.   

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