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Why Stephon Clark’s Killing Is A Wake Up Call Regarding for Independent Civilian Oversight of Police Departments

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Jamilia Land, a relative of Stephon Clark, makes an emotional plea during a “Day of Action” in Sacramento on April 4. Protesters demanded police accountability and justice for Stephon Clark, who was unarmed when shot to death by police in his grandmother’s backyard. Courtesy of the Sacramento Bee.

By Jasmyne A. Cannick  and Patrisse Cullors | Special to California  Black Media

The tragic fatal shooting of Stephon Clark has captured the nation’s attention and elevated the conversation around whether police can and should investigate themselves, especially when the public’s trust weighs in the balance.

The 22-year-old father of two was an unarmed Black man who was fatally shot on March 18 by Sacramento police officers eight times, mostly in his back, according to an independent autopsy released Friday.
The Clark family has accused the police department of trying to cover up misconduct by its officers and decided to conduct its own autopsy.

In the wake of Stephon Clark’s death, there are deafening calls from the community for more transparency and accountability regarding the investigation into his death.  These calls also include answers to the lingering question of why did the officers decide to mute their audio. Ironically, the one group put into place to be a link between the community, City Hall, and the police won’t be able to help.

The 11-member Sacramento Community Police Review Commission was established in 2017 by the City Council last year as part of a package of police reforms after the community complained that a previous version of the commission didn’t have enough oversight capabilities.

But like most citizen watchdog groups established by mayors and city councils in cities in the wake of mounting concern over the question of “Who polices the police?,” the Sacramento Community Police Review Commission is merely advisory.

Most independent oversight commissions lack independence.  They are unable to conduct their own investigations, subpoena records or to compel the testimony of police officers and their superiors accused of wrongdoing.

In March, a judge stripped Newark’s Civilian Complaint Review Board of its subpoena and investigatory powers but said it could still conduct oversight of the police department.

The board was conceived following a report released by the U.S. Department of Justice in July 2014 that found Newark police failed to provide sufficient constitutional reason for about 75 percent of pedestrian stops and that despite hundreds of citizen complaints from 2007 to 2012, just one complaint of excessive force was sustained.

In San Diego, a proposed charter amendment would replace their Citizens Review Board on Police Practices with a new commission on police practices that would, among other things, have the power to “subpoena civilian witnesses, compel their attendance, administer oaths and affirmations, take evidence, and require by subpoena the production of any books, papers, records, or other items material.” The amendment also says that the commission “must seek and receive legal advice from independent legal counsel, not the Office of the City Attorney.”

Police reform has been a serious issue in Chicago in the wake of the release of the video showing the fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald. McDonald was a Black teen who was shot 16 times after walking away from police—contradicting the police’s story that he was threatening or had “lunged at” cops. In the aftermath of the video’s release, then-police Superintendent Garry McCarthy was fired, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez lost re-election, and officer Jason Van Dyke became the first Chicago cop in decades to be indicted for first-degree murder for a fatal officer-involved-shooting. Currently, community groups are proposing the creation of a civilian board with the power to fire Chicago’s police superintendent and to set Police Department policy.  Mayor Rahm Emanuel has not taken a position of support or opposition.

In Los Angeles, efforts have begun to change the charter of the county via ballot measure to provide their Civilian Oversight Commission with subpoena power to effectively investigate deputy misconduct. The Reform L.A. Jails ballot measure also seeks to ensure that the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, the governing body for America’s most populous county and largest jail system, invests some of the $3.5 billion planned for building new jails into providing alternatives to incarceration. Proponents need to gather over 150,000 signatures of registered voters to place it on the highly coveted November gubernatorial ballot. Reform L.A. Jails will hold a campaign kickoff for their signature-gathering drive this week.

Civilian oversight bodies are put into place because the public has lost faith in their scandal-ridden beleaguered police departments. But these groups often end up being more of conciliatory gesture from local governments to placate the public in troubled times. They are prevented from doing the very work that both city officials and police departments claim they want to be done–improving public accountability and transparency. To root out misconduct, bring about real criminal justice reform and avoid having Bonnie investigate Clyde, these civilian bodies that hold the trust of the public must have two things—independence and power. Without it, they’re just for show. Oversight with no sight. Overnight with no bite.

For more information the Reform L.A. Jails ballot measure, please visit www.ReformLAJails.com.

Jasmyne Cannick is a nationally known writer and commentator on political, race and social issues. She is a political consultant working on the L.A. County ballot measure to Reform L.A. Jails.

Patrisse Cullors is the New York Times bestselling author of “When They Call You a Terrorist” and the co-founder of Black Lives Matter, Dignity Power and Now and JusticeLA.  She is a proponent on the Reform L.A. County ballot measure to provide subpoena power to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Civilian Oversight Commission.

Bay Area

Asian/Black Relations Can Get Better Together During Heritage Month

Heritage months are ways to benchmark our progress and see what urgently needs to be done now. 

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Tim Mossholder/Unsplash

President Joe Biden has given May a new name. It’s no longer Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, as proclaimed by Obama in 2009.  And it’s definitely not Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, as proclaimed by Jimmy Carter in 1978. It’s Asian American Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander Month, as proclaimed by Biden on the last day of April this year. 

That’s our new umbrella. A big one, incorporating everyone. From the East Bay’s Rocky Johnson, the father of Dwayne the Rock, an African American/Samoan American. To Vallejo’s Gabriella Sarmiento Wilson, a/k/a H.E.R., the African American Filipino of Grammy- Oscar-winning- songs fame.

Despite how huge the umbrella is incorporating more than 23 million people from more than 20 countries of origin, we are all American. And we’re the fastest-growing group in the nation, set to double in size, overtake the Latinx population and, with 46 million people, become the largest ethnic group in America by 2060. 

And so we’ve come to expect people seeking to divide us up. During a Zoom conference of attorneys general last week, a member of the audience had a question. “There seems to be an emphasis on attributing anti-Asian violence to white people,” said a white male to the panel. “And I’m just wondering if it is healthy to do that, or an effort to do that…when in some incidents, the attacks were committed by non-white people.”

Essentially, the man was saying, “Don’t blame white people,” implying that Blacks have often been perps in some high profile crimes against Asians. 

But it seemed more like a question to drive a wedge to break up our solidarity.

Fortunately, civil rights activists John Yang knew exactly how to answer that one. 

“Yes, there have been attacks on Asian Americans by people that are not white, no question about that,” he said. “But I would ask everyone to be really, really careful about what the actual statistics are, because the statistics show that the predominant number of people attacking Asians are Caucasian.” Then he referred to some high-profile cases in the Bay Area where Blacks attacked elderly Asians, once again pointing out it was the exception, not the norm.

It was the right response to avoid creating divisiveness and to let everyone know that the only way to end racism is to fight it together.

But he also said something that rang true to most Asian Americans. 

“Let’s be clear, there (are) elements of anti-Blackness in the Asian American community, that we do need to unlearn as well,” he said. Then he made it personal. “And that’s something that I’m going to call out on myself, and in our community, and we would ask everyone to do the same thing as we’re all learning together.”

It was a rare candid public moment that unveiled a sense of friction between Asian and Black communities that has existed since the days I wrote op-ed pieces in the 1990s in the Tribune. 

Heritage months are ways to benchmark our progress and see what urgently needs to be done now. 

Like the speaker said, a lot of it involves calling out where we have fallen short of the ideal.

That’s what Asian American Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander Heritage Month is really for—to learn the good, and unlearn the bad, together. 

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Bay Area

Vallejo Police Chief Issues Statement After Chauvin Verdict

“Creating a systemic culture that embraces the core values of dignity, safety, respect, and compassion is our charge in leadership and a call to action for us all. The status quo isn’t acceptable. We can and must do better. We will do better.”

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“Today, justice was appropriately served. Police officers should be guardians of the communities we are sworn to protect and serve. Our task is to embrace the principle of safety with respect — respect for human dignity, respect for the sanctity of life, and respect for what our communities are demanding of us.

“As a law enforcement executive, I acknowledge it is my obligation to lead with purpose and urgency. Policy change isn’t enough. Creating meaningful cultural change is imperative.

“Creating a systemic culture that embraces the core values of dignity, safety, respect, and compassion is our charge in leadership and a call to action for us all. The status quo isn’t acceptable. We can and must do better. We will do better.

“Those of us entrusted with the responsibility of law enforcement must build trust where we have it, restore trust where we’ve lost it, and earn trust where it never existed. These responsibilities should only be entrusted to those who have a record of successful accomplishments consistent with these values.

“This is what our citizens and communities want, this is what they deserve, and this is what we must deliver.”

Vallejo Chief of Police Shawny Williams

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Community

A Diverse Jury Delivers Justice for George Floyd

Right up to when the verdict was read the anxiety level was so high, people all over the country were fearful. This case was really the People vs. the Cops. Leave it to diversity.

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Mural in Oakland, Calif. June 7, 2020 Photo Credit: Christy Price

All-white jury? There’s no more feared phrase among civil rights lawyers. But that’s not what Minnesota gave us in the Derek Chauvin trial. The jury that decided the fate of the white former police officer who had his knee on George Floyd’s neck was more  diverse than the Minnesota county where the trial was held.  And that means the odds of getting justice were probably a lot higher than anyone could have imagined. 

Right up to when the verdict was read the anxiety level was so high, people all over the country were fearful. This case was really the People vs. the Cops. Leave it to diversity.

Minnesota’s Hennepin County has 1.3 million people, according to Census data from 2019. The racial breakdown is 74.2% are white, 13.8% black, 7.5% Asian, 7%  Latino, 3.3% biracial, 1.1% Native American. How much lower would your anxiety level be with a 12-member jury that had only nine white people?  Not much.

But again, praise diversity. The Chauvin jury included six whites — two male, four female. And there were four Black people (three of whom are male, plus a 60-year-old black woman). The remaining two jurors were multiracial. But now, what’s in their heads?

The questionnaires all the potential jurors filled out asked about policing, protests and criminal justice. Among the selected was a white man in his 20s, who was the only juror who said he had not seen the cell-phone video of Chauvin with his knee on Floyd’s neck. The man, a chemist, said in his questionnaire, “I rely on facts and logic and what’s in front of me.”

To me that sounded like a guy who might want to see some evidence again. That indicated to me the potential for a long deliberation and not a quick one.

One of the Black jury members, in his 30s, said he had not seen the cell-phone video in its entirety. In his questionnaire he said he didn’t believe Chauvin “set out to murder anyone,” but noticed how three officers on the scene stood by and didn’t take action.

It seemed to reflect a balanced, open-minded jury that could deliberate on the truth.

The prosecution skillfully framed its case around the cell-phone video we have all seen, the 9:29-long video of Chauvin with a knee to the neck of Floyd. “You can believe your eyes,” said attorney Jerry Blackwell in the opening. In closing, his prosecuting partner, Steve Schleicher, said it again and added, “This wasn’t policing. This was murder.” 

In the end, the jurors did not allow themselves to be gaslit by the defense, who presented alternative facts as to how Floyd died. But jurors could see for themselves in that video:  Chauvin wasn’t demonstrating “reasonable” policing. 

The jury delivered guilty verdicts on all three complicated murder charges: second-degree unintentional murder; third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. Trifecta. 

To think Chauvin wanted to plead to at least 10 years, but former U.S. Attorney General William Barr wouldn’t approve it because there was fear that 10 wouldn’t be seen as severe enough. Now Chauvin, whose bail was revoked and sent back into custody, could get up to 40 years.

A triumph for the people. And for diversity.  A system so biased toward the cops was beaten. It happens. 

Savor it peacefully and think of others who have come up empty-handed in their quest for justice. Let this be an energizing reminder, how alive justice can make us all feel.

Emil Guillermo is a journalist and commentator. See his vlog at www.amok.com  Twitter @emilamok FB @emilguillermo.media

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