What can Des Moines learn from George Floyd?

Posted on Categories Policy, Public SafetyTags 1879

I’m in the not unusual position of being a white guy in a black family. So I’ve been an unwitting participant in a decades long sociology experiment. I’ve gotten to see how I get treated differently from my family members in all sorts of shared situations.

Unfortunately, that also applies to dealings with the police. I have male family members and friends who’ve been stopped for no particularly good reason in Minneapolis, New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Seattle and yes, many years ago, *Des Moines. And I’ve been in the car when that has happened. My takeaway? If you’re a black person (and especially a black  man), sooner or later, you should expect to be stopped.

The complaints you don’t hear about

During my campaign I knocked on a whole bunch of doors and I heard big support for our police department, for which they should be justifiably proud. But I also heard complaints. Most of the complaints are, as you might expect, of the “there’s never a cop around when you need ’em” variety. But some of these complaints match up with my family’s bad experiences; enough to get my attention. And I think it’s easy to ignore those types of concerns because you never hear about them. For obvious reasons, people of color are often reluctant to file a complaint when they’ve been treated disrespectfully unless something truly horrible happens. They just do what my family has done: try to shake it off and move on.

About that statement…

Let me be clear: Chief Thomas’ statement last week was very good and I applaud the sentiments. I also believe that members of the DMPD and the Guild are on board. But my praise is more guarded than I would like and the reason goes to a partial solution I will present in a minute.

Said it before, say it again…

As I’ve written many times here, your City Council is not allowed to have direct contact with any City employee unless given express permission by the City Manager. And that includes the Chief Of Police and the City Attorney. They work for the City Manager, not the Council. All communication goes through the CM.

I rarely have contact with the Chief (or any staff for that matter). And unless it’s presented at a City Council meeting I don’t have access to all the policing data I would like. So I have no better idea than you do  about the department’s performance on issues of race. Based on talking to the Chief a bit over the years, again, I assume they are good. †But I have no way to judge for myself. In fact I have less contact with him (and staff in general) now than before I was elected. I also have no more access to stats than the general public. And if I can’t see data and I can’t observe how people do their jobs? I will always have questions–especially when it comes to issues like this.

Please Note: Apparently the Mayor does routinely speak with the Chief and staff, but that is only because the City Manager allows it; not because the office of Mayor has any more legal authority than any other councilmember.) I keep coming back to this point of ‘mayoral privilege’ because most residents believe that the office of Mayor has some built-in special authority. It doesn’t. We are seven equals under the law. If there’s a difference? It’s only because the City Manager deigns it so.

The Current System

There is a State law (quoted below) which shields all staff (including the police) from ‘Council interference’. The rationale (which I agree with 100%) is to  keep the Council from trying to manage the City–which is solely the job of the CM. You can’t have councilmembers bugging staff day in and day out or attempting to contravene the CM’s authority.

RCW 35A.13.120: Except for the purpose of inquiry, the council and its members shall deal with the administrative service solely through the manager and neither the council nor any committee or member thereof shall give orders to any subordinate of the city manager, either publicly or privately.

However, all laws are subject to interpretations. And Des Moines has adopted one of the most extreme possible interpretations of that statute. We heavily restrict the ‘inquiry’ mentioned at the beginning of that sentence. In practical terms, this allows the City Manager and the police department to choose the information it provides to councilmembers.  When a resident complains about something (like policing) a councilmember has no way to demand answers. They only get the answer that the CM or other staff choose to give them. And that’s bad for me as a councilmember and bad for you as a resident. In practical terms: when I hear concerns from residents (as I did during my campaign) I cannot dig deeper without first getting the permission of the CM and the Police Chief. That is the first thing that needs to change.

Where am I going with this?

The suggestions I’ve gotten from residents have included some rather dramatic changes: body cameras, creating a civilian review board, etc. Many  cities have spent millions doing such things and still have problems. I believe that we should first try to catch problems a lot further upstream. Because by the time you get to the level of the incident, it’s often too late. In other words, what the George Floyd video tells me is that their entire department has a problem of culture, not a lack of rules or tech.

Proposal #1: Restore the right of inquiry

So my initial suggestion for Des Moines is a bit different. Let’s start by making a very simple, but very significant change to the City Code. Under specific circumstances, each councilmember should have the ability to speak with staff and freely gather information from the government, independent of the executive. 

This ability would allow councilmembers to determine for themselves whether or not the culture is improving and then come together to craft policy as necessary. Frankly, this is a power that the public already thinks councilmembers have: independent inquiry. And in fact, legislators in most other jurisdictions do have this power.

Now this change in no way goes against the statute or infringes on the City Manager’s authority. In fact, inquiry is the first clause of that sentence. But somehow ‘inquiry’ has been dropped from that equation in our city. And the net effect is this: the Council has to take the Chief and the City Manager at their word on any issue or event because the City Manager controls access to all information the Council sees. This a specific and important example of the ‘lack of transparency’ I campaigned on.

Please note: As I write this: The City Manager and Police Chief informed Council that they are discussing a proposal to improve policing. In other words they will propose the solution for Council to approve. In my opinion, that is completely backwards and speaks directly to my concerns.  To me, this discussion should begin with the City Council.

Proposal #2: Make complaining simple

The process for filing a complaint is difficult for a lot of people–probably the people most likely to need to file a complaint. As I mentioned, currently if a resident has a complaint about policing it initiates a process whereby no one outside the Police Department is even aware of the situation until it has been reviewed by the Police. There needs to be a system whereby we actually welcome and encourage honest feedback from the public, good or bad. And we need to reassure the public that if they do file a complaint that someone who is not with the Police will be able to at least see their issue–not to intervene directly, but to be aware.

Proposal #3: Provide Statistics

As I said, we currently provide no statistics on complaints. I don’t mean information on specific officers or classes of problems, I mean anything; not even a grand total for each year. This sort of basic data should be public information. If it is, as I suspect, a super-low number? All the better: we can then show the public how well we’re doing. If it rises because people start taking advantage of a better complaint system, then at least we know what we need to work on and we show the public that we’re sincere in those efforts.

A first step

I know that for some of you, my suggestions will seem a bit underwhelming. And at some point, other levels of oversight may well be necessary. But based on the studies I have read, transparency is always near the root of most problems of policing.

I think the calls for bigger solutions are largely  because people are so frustrated at ‘nibbling around the edges’. They want to see something dramatic happen now. I get that. However my goal is always to do what works best based on the data and, again, the data tells me that improving transparency is key.

So first we should try just having the people you’ve already elected become more engaged in how policing is done. Let the City Council provide an additional level of investigation and oversight already present in statute.

Simply adding seven sets of eyes (who are not part of the government, remember) to monitor what is going on will send a powerful message to residents and police about our commitment to transparency and change. It will enable members of the public to come forward who have heretofore been reluctant to do so and it will allow the Council to identify problems before they migrate to the public.

Both things are true

Like most cities, our public safety constitutes almost half of the Des Moines general budget. That indicates just how important we all value policing. So any change that calls into question that department will create defensiveness, not just with the force, but also in the community. And that also explains why it’s easy to engage in endless platitudes but not take any real action.

I know that a certain portion of readers will react to this post as follows, “You don’t support the police!” That is simply untrue. And if you feel that way, my guess is that you have not experienced the type of incident I have.

Nobody appreciates the talent, hard work and courage our police demonstrate every day more than I do–as well as the tremendous stress that is intrinsic to the job. (If you recall, last month I asked for the City to support a National Holiday for First Responders.) These people are heroes and without their efforts, society isn’t even possible. And every member of my family feels exactly the same.

All of my family want the police department to understand that we simultaneously hold two thoughts in our heads and in our hearts. Some may say these are contradictory, but they are not.

I support you 100%.
It could happen here.

*Just to be clear: in this case, the officer worked for the Port Of Seattle.

†Yes, a Councilmember can do a one-off Ride-Along with an officer. Those are good things to do. But they are not the same thing as actual regular contact with management.