by Howard Gale
George Floyd’s brutal and senseless murder by Minneapolis police on May 25, 2020, ignited protests around the world on a scale not seen in recent decades. The degree of brutality and the police officers’ wanton disregard for Floyd’s humanity and life fueled the outrage.
Floyd’s murder being clearly captured on a video that social media and the press repeatedly placed before the public made the outrage inevitable. Derek Chauvin’s smirk of imperviousness and unaccountability, and the sense that all involved officers thought their actions acceptable, deepened the outrage.
The fact that Floyd’s murder happened in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic made it more poignant and forced us all to take a deeper look at society, going beyond just police violence: The very structures of racism and social inequity that stole Floyd’s breath and life via a knee were also stealing the breath and life from thousands of other People of Color via a virus. The virus, like police, dealt violence and death with clear racial and socioeconomic bias: Both are forces that, when acting in a system built around structural racism and inequity, have unequal outcomes.
Police officers have intentions and ideologies, whereas viruses do not, and that is a profound difference. But the fact remains that systems of inequity, racism, and injustice help nurture and increase these negative forces, and once unleashed, further ensure disparate impacts.
When viewed in this frame, the nationwide calls to “defund the police,” and the positive responses from many politicians, made sense. It remains a clear moral imperative: Taking money away from police, be it some (i.e., reapportion) or all (i.e., abolition), is about both reducing the harm done by police and reducing the social inequities that justify policing.
Police Accountability Is Not Police Reform
Lost in this discussion is the necessary and independent demand for police accountability. Police accountability is not police reform, nor is it reimagining public safety, although it can be a part of those endeavors. Regardless of who does public safety — whether there are a thousand police with guns or just one officer with a gun — we need accountability. We will end up paying for it either upfront or after the fact (by way of civil suits, individual harm, and civic harm). When paid for after the fact, the financial, moral, and societal costs are greater, and justice is rarely, if ever, obtained.
Police reform usually includes changes (in substance or decision making) to police training, police policy, and police accountability. The reason police reform has failed is because absent strong independent accountability structures, training and policy become nothing more than “thoughts and prayers.” Without swift and serious consequences, why would officers adhere to training and policy? In what area of work can people ignore policy and training repeatedly and face no consequences beyond a few days’ suspension? In what area of work can people face little or no consequence for violating policy and training because it is only their fellow workers who investigate them? Why would any worker in a situation like this be motivated to change bad behavior?
Isn’t Police Accountability a Failure? Doesn’t Police Accountability Justify or Perpetuate Police?
The most common argument against spending time and money on police accountability claims that we have tried police reform and accountability for over a century with little change in outcomes. This argument ignores the fact that real accountability has yet to be tried. It is possible that police accountability will not change anything, but to come to that conclusion requires a good faith effort at a form of police accountability that gives the community direct control over police hiring, investigations of police misconduct, police discipline, and police policy. Over the last hundred years, our attempts at accountability have always left real power in the hands of the police, with the community only allowed to advise (exactly the current system in Seattle, which is touted as “the best in the nation”). Would we conclude that the food you eat had little affect on health when the comparison was between Burger King, McDonald’s, and Kentucky Fried Chicken, with a daily diet of these producing the same rates of heart disease?
Choosing between faux accountability and no accountability is a false choice.
When discussing police accountability — or accountability for any entity providing for public safety — those advocating for police abolition often claim that systems of police accountability support, justify, or perpetuate police themselves. This argument can only make logical sense if we are assuming that accountability is the same as police reform, or if accountability is situated within policing systems and is faux accountability (as it clearly is for Seattle). But real accountability that exists outside of police systems, and is based in direct community control, is irrelevant to the abolition debate. Proper accountability does not ipso facto support or legitimize police, any more than the study of drug efficacy and side effects ipso facto supports a drug or a drug company — though, just like with drug research, when there are hidden biases and incentives in police accountability, the results perpetuate harm rather than protect people.
Those who support police abolition will also claim that any money that goes into policing is supporting policing and taking money away from social needs. This argument fails on moral grounds and by virtue of what local abolitionists actually say in regards to which specific monies should be cut from the SPD budget.
The moral argument is straightforward and concerns harm reduction: In ending drug abuse, progressives and radicals would never argue that all monies must be used solely to end drug addiction and would unquestionably support monies given to harm-reduction programs as part of the greater goal to end addiction. Only the right wing presents the argument that supporting, for example, safe injection sites is supporting drug use. Until we reach a far distant goal — be it with policing or drugs — we have a moral obligation to reduce harm.
Even if we knew that police accountability would not change police behavior, there remains the moral imperative for justice (holding officers accountable) and knowledge (acquiring information that could spur a radical rethinking of policing).
Defunding Money Spent on Faux Accountability: Have Defunders/Abolitionists Argued for This?
At least in Seattle, those advocating police abolition have never publicly advocated for cutting the existing budget of over $11 million that Seattle spends on faux police reform that, instead of reducing harm, actually perpetuates harm.
Harm is perpetuated by making people believe that a brutal SPD murder is justified because our “best in the nation accountability system” has ruled the murder “Lawful and Proper” (the actual terms used in the accountability reports). Harm is perpetuated when such a highly funded and praised system becomes threatened and defensive when simple proposals are put forward, like having a city system to support victims of SPD violence, and attempts to derail them.
This $11 million figure is money spent outside of SPD (although around half is budgeted for the Office of Police Accountability, which remains technically within the SPD), which spends perhaps another $20 million for SPD internal investigations, data collection, compliance, community engagement/public relations, etc. Then, there is the Seattle City Attorney’s Office that spends around $17 million each year on civil cases, a large portion of which is spent on legal costs to fight and settle police abuse complaints.
If folks advocating for police abolition were consistent in their claims, they would advocate for immediately cutting, or at a minimum removing from the SPD and existing accountability structures, these tens of millions of dollars of funds.
A Second False Choice
An honest debate concerning police accountability, free of sophistry, would recognize the centrality of the goal of short- and long-term harm reduction and the reality that public funds are spent regardless. Without accountability, folks are harmed and taxpayers pay for faux accountability, litigation, and settlements, whereas with real accountability, taxpayers pay upfront and fewer people are harmed.
Our second false choice is being forced to choose between defunding/abolition and police accountability, which, returning to our junk food analogy earlier, would be like debating a choice between banning all junk food and accurate food labeling: the first may be our ultimate long-term good, but the second provides for harm reduction in the short term (and helps us realize the frightening contents of the junk food). We would never seriously argue that the correct moral goal of having workers eventually control the means of production demands that we not have a city agency to crack down on wage theft or that we not support workers’ rights to form unions (saying, for example, “those things presume that bosses have the right to force workers into wage slavery!”).
The unavoidable consequence of these false choices is that they allow those with power to maintain their power. When it comes to false choices, like faux accountability versus no accountability, or defunding/abolition versus accountability, these choices allow those in power to maintain control over how state violence is deployed, remaining unaccountable and nontransparent. The radical question as to who controls police — no matter who or how many — remains unasked.
How This Debate Has Played Out in Other Cities After the Summer of 2020
Since the summer of 2020, many U.S. cities have rejected demands, or unwound earlier commitments, for defunding the police, or decided against radically reimagining public safety (as in Minneapolis). However, the story with police accountability has been quite different, with at least 15 cities or counties voting overwhelmingly for some form of civilian oversight.
In the November 2020 and successive elections, people in communities all across the country put forth city initiatives demanding the creation, or the significant improvement, of civilian oversight of police: Berkeley, Long Beach (2022), Oakland, San Diego (facing serious problems), San Francisco County, and Sonoma County (increasing existing oversight board powers), California; Portland, Oregon; Philadelphia and Pittsburgh (giving an existing board more power), Pennsylvania ; Akron (2022), Cleveland (2021, update), and Columbus (2020), Ohio; and Kyle, Texas.
Also, during the 2020 election cycle, King County, Washington, placed three items on the ballot that, while not providing for direct community oversight, took power away from the County sheriff and placed greater control of policing within the County Council and the independent County law enforcement oversight body (see Amendment 1, Amendment 4, and Amendment 6). All passed overwhelmingly, with 62%–82% in favor. Of the 20 total 2020 ballot measures related to policing tracked by Ballotpedia.org, all 20 passed overwhelmingly.
Just weeks ago in Austin, Texas, in a special May 6, 2023, election, voters overwhelmingly voted for the civilian oversight of police with 79.3% of the vote, despite a competing and confusing initiative, promoted by the police union, on the ballot, which received only 19.5% support.
Before 2020 Was Nashville, an Important Lesson for Seattle
In 2018, the people of Nashville, Tennessee, took their power back from the politicians by voting overwhelmingly — 59% to 41% — for a city initiative that created strong civilian oversight of police. Nashville has created a police oversight system that gives civilians the ability to investigate police abuse and determine the appropriate discipline.
In early 2021, Nashville’s police chief said, “There are over 130,000 people that voted for the Community Oversight Board, and for us to do anything other than have total cooperation with them would really go against the voters who are the citizens of Nashville. … [The civilian oversight board has] the ability to investigate officers, investigate misconduct, and have oversight on some of our policies and procedures.”
Nashville’s story is an important one because, as in Seattle, activists fought within the system for decades to get real accountability, but the system deemed some demands too radical and always proposed legislation limiting community control and power. In Seattle, we stopped fighting and accepted the half-measures offered by politicians. But in Nashville, all that changed in 2018, when activists stopped fighting elected officials for half-measures and put their argument before the people in an election and won.
There is another major advantage to a popular vote: Whereas police unions will argue that politicians do not know what is best for the public, they can’t successfully argue that the public doesn’t know what’s best for the public. This factor makes it far harder for police unions to refuse to accept changes in oversight practices when bargaining union contracts. A city initiative voted in with overwhelming public support sets a clear public standard for what must be fought for when negotiating police union contracts.
Nashville’s population and demographics are similar to Seattle, so it is easy to imagine such an initiative passing even more overwhelmingly here. A ranking as to how liberal or conservative U.S. cities are indicates that whereas Nashville falls close to the center of the scale, Seattle falls near the extreme liberal end of the scale, suggesting the ease with which such an initiative would pass.
It is also worth noting that such an initiative would avoid the polarized debates that attend defunding police when crime has been increasing, as we can see in the 15 cities discussed above, which all voted overwhelmingly for accountability measures.
Police Scorecard rates the Nashville Metro Police Department among the best in the nation when it comes to less police violence (top 81%–86% of all police departments in cities with over 250,000 population), though it falls in the middle of U.S. cities when it comes to racial disparities in deadly force (50%). By comparison, the Seattle Police Department — after over a decade of federal oversight and hundreds of millions of dollars spent on accountability and reform — rates among the worst cities in terms of police violence (13%–30%), falling well below average (far worse at 22%) in terms of racial disparities in deadly force. When looking specifically at police accountability, we see that while Nashville does poorly in upholding the most serious police complaints (20%–21% for excessive force and criminal misconduct), Seattle manages to do far worse in the same categories (5%–7%).
Unfortunately, in a state where Republicans overwhelmingly dominate all aspects of state government (the Governor’s Office and over 75% control in both State Legislative Houses), Nashville’s gains in police accountability were very recently rolled back — not a situation we would face in Seattle. Also worth noting: Whereas the Nashville Metro population represents 29% of the Tennessee population, the Seattle Metro population represents 52% of Washington, giving our city far greater clout.
Nashville’s experience with fighting for real police accountability and community control — similar to what is happening in Newark, New Jersey — is the best argument for why we must take similar action in Seattle: The police and the political establishment would not fight so hard against these measures if they didn’t have real consequences. To add to Frederick Douglass’ famous maxim that “Power concedes nothing without a demand,” we might add, “and power will always fight to retain power.”
Why Has Seattle Failed to Fight for Real Police Accountability, Especially After George Floyd’s Murder?
The answer to this question is complex. It has to do with the general failure of local media to question Seattle’s police accountability system, the self-interests of our elected leaders, the tendency for well-funded city bureaucracies to self-perpetuate and self-protect, financial conflicts of interests for local nonprofit advocacy groups, and who is appointed to head the accountability agencies and serve on commissions.
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