Opinion: Police the police

America has a police problem.

Black people have known this for too long. But for much of white America, it’s taken the awful, unlawful deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor — and the tipping point, George Floyd — to shake them awake. Still, anyone who’s been paying attention knows these are only the most recent names on an endless list of violent attacks on black people that police and the justice system rarely have an answer for.

Colorado has its own list: Elijah McClain. Treneshia Dukes. Greg Heard. Corey Barnes.

And since the police shooting of 19-year-old De’Von Bailey divided the city of Colorado Springs, there’s been a resurgence of questions over use of force, and calls for civilian oversight of police. Last year, Bailey’s family sued the city in federal court over use of excessive force. Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado filed a federal lawsuit against CSPD for racial profiling and biased policing.

In the state Senate, SB 20-217 was set for a final vote June 9. The bill demands “accountability for those law enforcement officers who use their power to harm black and brown people, and who get away with it, often keeping their jobs and continuing their lives while black and brown families are left to mourn the loss of their loved ones.”

SB 20-217 would mandate body cameras and public reporting on policing, rein in use of deadly force, prevent rehiring of bad officers, and allow civil rights enforcement by individuals. It deserves our strong support.

But more is needed.

[pullquote-1] In the Springs, the Law Enforcement Accountability Project has promoted the idea of a civilian oversight process similar to Denver’s Office of the Independent Monitor, created in 2014 to independently oversee the discipline of police. A Citizen Oversight Board also makes policy recommendations for law enforcement.

It’s past time for civilian oversight of law enforcement here.

CSPD Chief Vince Niski resists the idea, saying he doesn’t “believe that there are issues with the current system.” But hampered by coziness among regional law enforcement agencies and conflicts of interest, police can’t police themselves.

Every year, 900 to 1,000 people are shot and killed by police in the United States, according to research from Bowling Green State University. But between 2005 and 2019, only 35 officers were convicted of any crime related to an on-duty fatal shooting. Of those, just three were convicted of murder.

“[A]n officer gets on the stand and says, ‘I feared for my life,’ and that’s usually all she wrote,” Philip Stinson, associate professor in the university’s criminal justice program, told NBC. “No conviction, more often than that, no charges at all.”

When police tell civilians, “We don’t trust you to examine or question our actions,” they’re saying, loud and clear, “We don’t respect you.” Why, then, should the community respect the police? Civilians must have a voice — otherwise the system remains us versus them.

Make no mistake: That adversarial relationship is getting worse. Colorado Springs’ divisions over use of force play out against an ugly national backdrop, a horrifying highlight reel of police responding with violence to protests over police brutality and racism. Following countless instances of police targeting peaceful protesters, bystanders and journalists, UCLA Nationscape Project’s new survey found the perception of police has dropped double digits in just one week — among black and white Americans.

Civilian oversight will benefit law enforcement. Police complain that it’s a dangerous and challenging job, and they’re not wrong. But the work is made more dangerous — and police perceive it as more dangerous — as trust in law enforcement plummets. The transparency and accountability that comes with independent, well-funded civilian oversight would build the goodwill to make policing safer for everyone.

Without civilian oversight, the cycle of distrust, anger and escalation will never end.