Freedom begins at home
Civilian oversight of local law enforcement is needed now more than ever
By Kevin Uhrich 06/12/2013
If ever there was a time when people needed to keep an eye on their federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, this is it.
Like never before, “the authorities” have the right to intrude in people’s private lives in previously unimagined ways; personally, electronically, digitally and now biologically, thanks to a recent ruling by a deeply divided US Supreme Court allowing officers to extract DNA from anyone they arrest.
In the same vein, the tools used by local agents of the state have never been more powerful and frightening. To say nothing of handguns and other high-powered weaponry, and not to mention access to computer information of millions of people secretly mined by government spy agencies, just at the local level those rather substantial arsenals include: stealth helicopters equipped with powerful infrared cameras and other high-tech spy equipment; fortified emergency vehicles that can knock down buildings; high-speed motorcycles; state-of-the-art communications capabilities; top-of-the-line laptops for instant information access in the field; and now perhaps even drones, which may or may not be used to kill, but could certainly be used for secret surveillance purposes. Think that’s not going to happen? They make those things right here in Monrovia, and domestic use of drones is reportedly the next potential gold mine for investors in new-age security gadgetry.
Of course, only an Orwellian science fiction writer could have ever imagined using drones to spy on Americans and computers to “predict” crimes, as Alhambra and other Southland law enforcement agencies are doing. It’s like something out of the movie “Minority Report,” as Deputy Editor André Coleman reported in “Guilt by computer,” appearing in our May 30 edition.
Nothing personal against the police, who normally do a good job of keeping us safe, but that’s an awful lot of power to put into so few hands. So much power, in fact, that we believe there should be some oversight, in addition to the City Council, of its use.
This is not the first call for the formation of a city police commission. For those too young to remember, back in 1992 Los Angeles was under siege. The four LAPD officers who had beaten the daylights out of Altadena’s Rodney King on videotape had just beaten the rap as well in a courtroom in lily-white Simi Valley, far away from the human volcano erupting in Los Angeles with news of the verdicts.
The LAPD already had a citizens’ Police Commission overseeing it, but after the riots, following reforms spelled out in the scathing Christopher Commission critique of the LAPD, that board took on a much greater role in terms of the hiring of chiefs and the overall administration of the department. Pasadena was affected by the rioting as well, only to a much smaller extent. Nonetheless, there was justifiable worry here about police-related violence involving members of minority groups, worries which remain at the forefront of concern for many people.
Back in ’92, Pasadena didn’t go down the same path as neighboring LA, which seems somewhat odd because for years the joke about this supposedly politically progressive city has been its people tackle problems by forming committees to hash things out in public. While that may be true of other things, like political redistricting or charter reform or imposing taxes to save local libraries, for instance, that was not the case with the local Police Department. Instead, over the objections of some members of the Human Relations Commission, who first proposed formation of a citizen police commission, then-Chief Jerry Oliver came up with the idea of forming a police academy for civilians, one in which people could learn what it’s like to be a cop. Walk a mile in their shoes, as it were. And, along with implementation of a number of then-popular community policing programs, that seemed to be good enough for most.
Clearly, we live in different times, but not so different that the same problems associated with police relating to ordinary people have stopped occurring. If anything, with local cops accused of wrongdoing in a number of serious cases involving killings, shootings and other incidents, the need for better civilian oversight appears to be greater than ever.
And now, with more cutting-edge technological advances in crime fighting and electronic surveillance on the horizon, those long-neglected issues are only exacerbated by the actual distance that this technology creates between officers and the people they are supposed to be protecting.
In this Age of Terror, in which far too many of our civil rights have already been sacrificed at the altar of public safety, we need to be in better control of the people charged with keeping us safe, and the only way to do that is through stronger civilian oversight of the Police Department.