Crossposted from the American Prospect.
Perhaps you read last year about a SWAT team raiding a family’s home at night and shooting two dogs, a pit bull and a corgi, in front of the family’s 7-year-old daughter, and then charging her father with child endangerment for possessing about an ounce of marijuana. Not an unusual story — the SWAT program’s militarized approach to police work means that missteps are horrific — but the reason you heard about it is because it was caught on video.
Well, that’s my hometown, the Midwestern college burg of Columbia, Missouri. And for a while, it looked like some good would come of the bad; local officials felt the scrutiny of national headlines, and a long-standing movement to establish a police citizen review board got the public support it needed. I moved away a couple of years ago, so I hit up my friend Julia Bonham for an update.
From what I gather from Julia, a criminal defense attorney in Columbia — and she speaks on her own behalf, not as a representative of anyone — it’s discouraging. The citizen review board’s charter states that it only hears cases that have already been dragged through the internal police complaint system, so if a form gets buried on the chief’s desk or if a complainant can’t spend anymore time on it, the board hears nothing. Columbia’s recently elected mayor killed funding the board had been promised for an independent investigator and has generally approached the board with distrust, shaping the public’s perception of it. In at least one instance in which the board ruled that the police owed a woman an apology, the department summarily refused, without consequence. And the officers involved in the dog shooting are still on the force.
Something I didn’t realize, until I started googling, was that Columbia’s citizen review board movement originated with a 2008 audit of Columbia’s police complaints, which came about in turn from a new state law pushing local transparency measures. From the Missourian:
More than half the total complaints filed during the three-year period [2005-2007] came from blacks. In only two of those cases, or 3.2 percent, were officers found to have acted inappropriately. Among the 37 white citizens that filed complaints, 19 officers were found to have acted inappropriately.
… In September 2005, Smith proposed an ordinance to the Columbia City Council that would have created a civilian review board, according to previous Missourian reports. At the time, [city manager Bill] Watkins wrote in a recommendation to City Council that such an ordinance "would be like trying to kill a mosquito with a 50 pound sledgehammer."
It’s clear that a real citizen review board, and real accountability, would go a long way toward killing persistent racial and economic disparities. It’s also telling that the city didn’t take action, and the nation didn’t take notice, until police were caught on camera shooting a white family’s dogs in front of a child. And the system still doesn’t work.
Such is the difficulty of actually changing the status quo. At local levels, where policy hits pavement, even the most pragmatic of revolutions can find itself stymied — by age-skewed low voter turnouts, by misinformed citizenry, by underfunded local investigative reporting, by a powerful individual, and by a level of undisturbed opaqueness that shadowy D.C. string-pullers can only dream of. None of this is to say that change isn’t possible, of course, but it’s a reminder about the mechanics of our society, and the work and time required after the legislative battle is won. Civil disobedience isn’t the only way laws get broken.