President Barack Obama’s statements on the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, left many young black folks feeling that the administration was either unwilling or inept at addressing racial injustice in the United States.
While the focus on America’s first black president is understandable, it has unfortunately provided every mayor, city council and police department with the cover they need to continue to refuse to implement common sense reforms that would keep everyone safe from police misconduct and abuse of power.
The truth is that the presidency, a federal office, has limited authority over local government agencies like police departments.
Local elected officials hold the most power to create the kind of change we need. While pressuring an unknown city councilman may not earn activists national recognition and Twitter stardom, doing so effectively may end stats that show a black person is killed by police, security officers or vigilantes every 28 hours in the U.S.
Young people are crowding streets across America, confronting local police, screaming, “Don’t shoot!” and boldly asking “Am I next?” — but clear policy demands directed at the appropriate targets have been lacking. While the media directs our attention to Ferguson, we should also be organizing to create real policy change in our own communities.
1) Your Mayor:
Mayors are the top elected officials in virtually every city in the U.S. In cities like Chicago, New York and Washington, DC, the mayor hires or appoints the Chief of Police and has the power to hold police departments accountable for their actions. Does your mayor have a plan to prevent your city from becoming the next Ferguson? In most cases, probably not. Currently, the U.S. Conference of Mayors — the leading organization dedicated to providing mayors with guidance and support to make good policy — has not provided mayors with any significant guidance to prevent your city from descending into the chaos that one bad cop can cause.
2) Your City Council Representative:
If you want laws that provide your community with a more powerful role in holding local law enforcement accountable, then those laws will undoubtedly come through your city council. Many advocates are proposing “Mike Brown’s Law,” which would require police officers to wear cameras and record their interactions with citizens. If you believe that laws like this would benefit your community and save black and brown lives, then start by asking your city council representative to introduce this legislation.
3) Your Chief of Police:
In some cities, the Chief of Police is known as the Police Commissioner or the Superintendent of Police and is the top law enforcement officer. This powerful executive has the authority over every police officer in their departments and can discipline police officers. In many cities, this role is directly accountable to the people because it is an elected position, and in other cities the Chief of Police are held accountable by the mayors who appoint them. The Chief of Police in your city should have a plan to protect you from police brutality, and their process for disciplining officers who commit violence against citizens should be transparent.
4) Community Review Boards/ Police Accountability Boards:
Community Review Boards or Police Accountability Boards are intended to provide an opportunity for citizens to hold police accountable. They were established in many cities in the 1970s and 1980s in response to widespread police brutality faced by those in the Civil Rights and Anti-War movements.
Over the years, the power of these boards has been eroded or undermined by police tactics. If your community does not have a board, then consider starting a campaign to establish one. If your community has a Community Review Board that doesn’t have the power it needs to hold police accountable and keep your community safe from bad police practices, then organize a campaign to strengthen that board.
Young leaders are also encouraged to join groups like the Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100), Ohio Students Association and the Dream Defenders and build power in their own cities at the local level. It is their commitment to building such power which can be used to end police brutality and the criminalization of Black youth.
Charlene Carruthers is national coordinator of the Black Youth Project 100 (@BYP_100), a national member-based organization of Black 18-35 activists. Charlene is an organizer and writer born and raised on the south side of Chicago, where she currently resides.
Terrance Laney is public policy chair of the Black Youth Project 100 (@BYP_100). Terrance is an organizer, born and raised in Georgia and currently living in Washington, DC. You can follow him on Twitter @publiusterrance.