Two years ago today Mr. Michael Brown Jr., a black teenager who had just graduated from High School, was shot multiples times and killed by former Ferguson police officer Mr. Darren Wilson, a white man.
No matter what one thinks of the August 2014 fatal officer-involved shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, – whether it’s Mr. Brown was the victim of racial profiling and was gunned down while its hands were up in surrender or that he was a brute who, in trying to disarm a cop after bullying a convenience store clerk, got what he deserved – the incident’s impact on America goes without dispute: it altered the landscape of American policing, prioritizing the conversation of body-worn cameras for police officers; and it gave rise to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which was birthed into the world in 2013 after Mr. George Zimmerman wasn’t held accountable for shooting and killing Mr. Trayvon Martin, a black teenager armed only with snacks for him and his kid brother.
Across America in the summer of 2014, in response to Mr. Brown’s death, large scale protests ensued, many of them which featured die-ins that were meant to recreate the positioning of the teen’s lifeless body in the street after the shooting. During this time in Philadelphia, a city where anti-police violence protest were frequent and sometimes confrontational, the police department, without fanfare or notice to the public at large, were plugging away on a body-worn camera pilot in the 22nd Police District, a section of the city where crime is quite robust.
This pilot was executed without the participation of both the Philadelphia Police Advisory Commission – whose budget is less than 1% of the Philadelphia Police Department’s and whose stability was promised to be a priority post-Ferguson by 4th District City Councilman Mr. Curtis Jones Jr., only for it two years later to have less money than it did a decade ago – and the general public, who, of course, will be the most impacted by the body-worn camera policies. The exclusion of citizens from this process was first mentioned by the United States Department of Justice in 2015 after a thorough assessment of the PPD: “The department should engage with community members, particularly privacy advocates, to ensure the department employs BWCs in a way that is in line with community values and expectations of privacy.”
And this month it was mentioned more broadly by The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and Upturn in their collective release of ‘Police Body Worn Cameras: A Policy Scorecard.’
The report – which warns that body cameras are at risk of becoming “instruments of injustice” and which shows that while the PPD has made its BWC policy available to the public; limits officer discretion on when to record; and addresses privacy concerns, it allows officers to view footage before writing a statement; it doesn’t limit bio-metric searching of footage; and does not expressly allow complainants to view relevant footage – has a brief section entitled Civil Rights Principles in Body Worn Camera which states in part: To help ensure that police-operated cameras are used to enhance civil rights, departments must develop camera policies in public with the input of civil rights advocates and the local community. Current policies must always be publicly available, and any policy changes must also be made in consultation with the community.
To date, the Philadelphia Police Advisory Commission and local civil rights activists – like Rev. Mark Tyler of P.O.W.E.R, Mr. Asa Khalif of the Pennsylvania chapter of Black Lives Matter, Ms. Paula Peebles of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Action Network, Minister Rodney Muhammad of the NAACP, Mr. Michael Coard of ATAC, Ms. Erica Mines of the Philly Coalition for R.E.A.L Justice, or Ms. Pam and Ms. Ramona Africa of MOVE – have yet to be included in a meaningful way in BWC policy development.
The unspoken sentiment of the police department here appears to be that civilians are out of their league when discussing and scrutinizing policing policies so why bother to include them. It wouldn’t be hyperbole to say that the PPD acts as an island unto itself, exclusively self-reliant for insight into policy and habitually repelling the input of others.
For an example of this, one needn’t look further than the way the PPD handled reforms to its stop-and-frisk program. In 2016 a progressive discipline was implemented without as a much as public hearing for citizens to voice what they may feel is an appropriate punishment for the officer(s) that violates their civil rights. Furthermore, the department shifted focus this year to executing quality, legal pedestrian stops without ever truly engaging and listening to those who have experienced shoddy stops-and-frisks.
The pattern of citizen exclusion from policy development at the Philadelphia Police Department represents a dictatorship, not a democracy where citizens’ desire influence government action; this trend must be condemned and reversed and the infrastructure that supports policing must be re-framed to organically accommodate citizen input and civilian oversight. To be fair, the police department here does seem genuinely interested in earning the trusts of its critics, but trust can’t manifest where secrecy, elitism and a lack of accountability abounds.
Mr. Richard Ross, the Philadelphia Police Commissioner who I reached out to this morning for comment but who opted not to respond, must work to dismantle this culture of public exclusion and replace it with one of community participation. Members of the community hold a greater value than serving as snitches, informants and the occasional punching bag for the few bad apples that, despite their risk of spoiling the whole bunch, are rarely discarded.
Mr. Jim Kenney, the Mayor of Philadelphia who a day after winning the election said “citizens are in charge of the cops, not the cops in charge of the citizens,” also has a responsibility to address this issue. He must, as the City’s chief executive, set the tone for a culture of inclusion. From his remarks, he seems to understand that citizens aren’t merely spectators of power at work but rather the government derives its power from the governed; but now he must stand behind that belief and push for a fundamental change in the way the police department operates.
The PPD isn’t a kingdom, the citizens are not its peasants; the top brass aren’t rulers; their word isn’t the final say; and the idea of “We, the people,” isn’t a suggestion. There are enough seats at the table for leadership and laymen alike. It’s time that the public be truly accommodated by government as the overseers and not the overseen.
Thanks for reading. Until next time, I’m Flood the Drummer® & I’m Drumming for JUSTICE!™
The role of men is changing in the 21st century. Want to keep up? Get the best stories from The Good Men Project delivered straight to your inbox, here.
Photo courtesy of the author.