President Trump promised the American people that maintaining “law-and-order” in our cities will be a high priority under his administration. He also promised he would end the Obama administration’s investigations into police departments and stop the “war on police.” By defining the criminal justice work of his administration in this way, President Trump reinforced the false dichotomy which we hear in heated political debates over whose lives matter—the black or the blue?
No matter which side of this dichotomy we choose, the reality is that the lives of police officers and of black, brown and other marginalized residents are put at greater risk by HR policies in our city police departments. These policies protect the privacy rights of departmental employees, while compromising the protection of the civil and human rights of the people they serve.
To date, the city of Raleigh has not taken a position on moving forward to correct this inherent problem. However, Charlotte City Council recently unanimously voted to submit a bill for the General Assembly’s consideration that would grant subpoena power to Charlotte’s community oversight board. The success of this board is reliant on its ability to apply justice in a way that equally respects the civil rights of our police officers and of the individuals who file reports against them.
Today, an average individual who experiences police abuse of power has no option in this state but to request an investigation by the Internal Affairs Department, which is a division within the same police department that aggrieved the individual in the first place. For over a year, the members of Raleigh Police Accountability Community Taskforce (PACT), which is a grassroots consortium of community-based groups and non-profit organizations, have asked the city to support an oversight board with subpoena power in Raleigh, in place of RPD’s Internal Affairs. We’ve offered support to individuals in the community who’ve shared their experiences with RPD before Raleigh City Council. Often with tears streaming down their faces, they’ve stood tall and dug deep within themselves to publicly disclose stories of daily assaults on their dignity and lives.
While Raleigh’s population exceeds 439,000, the Internal Affairs division of RPD reports fielding an average of 39 complaints a year. Only 25 percent on average, are “sustained.” This is surprising given that a statistical analysis by UNC-Chapel Hill professor, Frank Baumgartner found that RPD officers search black and brown males 270 percent more often than they search white males—which seems to indicate that the report by RPD’s Internal Affairs Department is more likely to reflect a faulty system for accountability, than RPD’s sterling record.
Once an investigation is complete, the accused officer’s right-to-privacy as a departmental employee, overshadows the complainant’s right-to-transparency in an investigation of a public official. Rather than learn details about the investigation and any disciplinary measures taken or not with the officer, the individual receives a letter in the mail indicating whether their complaint was either “sustained” or not. The letter ends with outlining additional legal routes (read: “expensive”) for obtaining information.
Our police officers in Raleigh are extremely challenged by trying to build trust in neighborhoods where those who’ve have been denied the benefit of police transparency and accountability are understandably angry, just as the rest of us would be if we were short-changed by justice. For many who can’t afford attorney fees, the only place they have left to go is out into the streets. At least out there they have some hope that their cries of righteous indignation will be heard by people who have the power to correct the problems in our current system.
The 2017 North Carolina General Assembly has an opportunity to hear the cries of the people in Charlotte, and to do just that by voting yes on HB 350. This bill grants subpoena power to their existing oversight board. Raleigh needs a similar board for our residents to turn to. When there’s police transparency and accountability in our city, then the levels of anger at RPD will go down. It will take a while, but as trust levels increase, so will the strength of police-community relations. What North Carolina legislators and our city officials in Charlotte and Raleigh can be proud of then, is that they not only heard the cries but are leading the way in transforming our criminal justice system at its first point of entry between our police officers and the people they serve.
Rev. Barbara Smalley-McMahan is a retired NC Licensed Professional Counselor and Pastoral Counselor Associate who left her career to work full-time as a volunteer with PACT and other civil rights and social justice organizations.