At our Council meeting this Tuesday (Feb 19, 2019), we have two very different items on the agenda, related to the Independent Civilian Police Oversight Commission (ICPOC). For the last week, I have been working on a resolution to clarify the process for appointment of community members to that Commission. My resolution asks that our process comply more strictly with the terms and spirit of the ordinance, protecting the Commission’s independence from city staff influence.
This Thursday afternoon, an item was added to our Council agenda, proposing an amendment to the ICPOC ordinance that would allow current city staff and active police officers to directly participate as members on the civilian commission.
THE INDEPENDENT CIVILIAN POLICE OVERSIGHT COMMISSION ORDINANCE
This summer, our community engaged in a very challenging discussion about policing and accountability. A task force of lawyers, educators, social workers, community leaders, and youth representatives discussed a whole range of issues around bias, discrimination, trauma, and power structures. They spent hundreds of hours developing a document that would allow for an independent review of complaints about the police. With the help of a UM law professor who had drafted a similar document for the University, the task force created a document outlining a process for independent, civilian oversight of our police. On October 15, at a City Council meeting that went on until 3 a.m., City Council rejected that document and passed a document written by the Mayor. That ordinance is still considered by many to be less-than-ideal, a watered-down version of the task force proposal.
The ordinance passed in October is not perfect, but I expect our city to comply with the terms described in it. E.g. According to the ordinance, the Human Rights Commission is to lead the efforts of four people – council member liaisons to the Human Rights Commission and the Independent Community Police Oversight Commission – in collecting applications and recommending a diverse slate of appointments. Recommendations from those four council members then come to City Council as a whole, for approval.
I was recently made aware of the fact that Mayor Taylor has joined in meetings with council liaisons to HRC and ICPOC to discuss the process of collecting and sifting applicants to the police oversight commission. Without any other context, this bothered me. Relative to other boards and commissions, the range/difference of opinions re: the police oversight commission is particularly meaningful. The community is paying attention to the choices we make and the process we facilitate in establishing that commission. As a council, we voted to appoint four council members as liaisons, knowing that those four would play a special role as prescribed by the ordinance. After our votes confirming appointments (and specifically rejecting my appointment), I would not have presumed to participate in the meetings of those four council members. I don’t think any other member of council should. As I read the ordinance, the whole of Council plays a role later, in considering and approving a slate of appointments offered by those four designated liaisons.
Related to Mayor Taylor’s involvement, I was also recently made aware of the possibility that applicants to the oversight commission be vetted in some way either formally or informally by city staff (police, legal, etc.). It was suggested to me that this was reasonable and could happen in the same way that an applicant to the planning commission might, for instance, be presented to our building department for feedback and perspective. I found this suggestion to be wildly inappropriate. In my view, the ordinance clearly identifies this commission as exceptional, unlike any other board or commission. The ordinance states that “The commission will exercise its authority and judgement independent of city administration.” As I see it, we are violating the spirit of the ordinance if we intentionally and purposefully insert city administration authority and judgement into the process of reviewing applicants.
These were my concerns prior to learning about the proposed amendment to the ordinance. My resolution expresses my desire that our Mayor and council liaisons comply with the ordinance in our appointment process and recognize the need for independence, according to the terms fought for and approved on October 15.
THE PROPOSED AMENDMENT
This Tuesday, City Council will also consider an amendment to the ordinance that was passed four months ago. The amendment will reverse a policy that was debated at length this fall: whether or not current city staff and active police officers can serve on the independent civilian police oversight commission. The October version of the ordinance states that:
Persons who are current employees of the city or who have been employed by the city, including active or former police officers, within 5 years of nomination shall not be eligible for appointment.
This policy was meant to ensure that the police oversight commission maintain some independence from the influence of police departments and city institutions. Excluding current city employees and active police officers means that the commission is more likely to represent the interests of community residents, rather than the interests of the city administration or the interests of the city police department. This week’s proposed amendment adds the following clause to that part of the ordinance:
unless this requirement is waived by a resolution approved by at least 7 members of City Council.
What this means is that seven members of council could potentially appoint an active police officer on the independent civilian police oversight commission. Seven members of council could vote to appoint any member of city staff, any member of our city’s administration.
This proposed change to the ordinance caught me by surprise. The timing is ironic, given my own resolution (on the same agenda!). I disagree with and will not support the proposed amendment. By changing the terms of who qualifies for appointment, this amendment aims to insert city administration authority and judgement into the future deliberations of the oversight commission. I find that unacceptable, contrary to the intents and purposes of the ordinance and the commission, generally.
I appreciate the opportunity to share my thoughts on this issue. I urge you to reach out to City Council members to share your thoughts and ask questions. As an amendment to our city code, this proposed change will be discussed at two meetings before approval: it will be introduced this Tuesday, then be subject to a public hearing at a later Council meeting. I look forward to a serious and thoughtful discussion at the Council table.
UPDATE (Feb 15th 9pm)
A few hours after I posted this, a new version of the amendment was uploaded to Legistar. The new version of the amendment reads:
The requirements in the preceding sentence may be waived by a resolution approved by at least 7 members of City Council except as to active or former police officers.
I appreciate that this change is an improvement on the original amendment. However, I still find it problematic that seven votes of council can effectively over-ride one of the primary goals of the ordinance. The oversight commission is intended to be, as much as possible, independent of city administration.
Many tools for independence were lost when the Task Force version of the ordinance was rejected by Council in October. The eligibility restriction for city employees was one of the few tools that survived, to promote the goal of independence. Even in this updated form, I do not support the amendment. I would like to see the commission established and functioning before Council considers any changes to the ordinance. I would hope that under those circumstances, a functioning Oversight Commission would then have the opportunity to express an opinion about proposed changes. I strongly oppose making changes that have the potential to compromise the Commission’s independence before it even exists as a functioning body.