Author’s Note: BANR Writer Kerra Bolton calls for a citizens’ assembly on policing in the wake of an increase of fatal police shootings. Part 1 provided a short history of policing in the United States. Part 2 outlines a restorative approach to policing and why she believes a citizens’ assembly on the topic is necessary.
A Restorative Approach
I witnessed a powerful example of restorative community policing two years ago in Detroit.
A day-long Community-Police Summit in the city’s Fifth Precinct convened police officers with (in some cases) citizens who filed complaints against them.
The event was the brainchild of Fifth Precinct Commander Eric Ewing and Henry McClendon, a Detroit native and veteran restorative practices trainer. It used restorative practices protocols to create a brave space for residents to talk about the harm officers caused them. Officers described the daily dangers that often inform their decision-making.
Through the sharing of stories, role-playing, and data presentations, police officers learned how their words and actions could create a climate of fear and mistrust. Citizens discovered that their actions often have deadly consequences that they don’t see.
The summit was more than breaking down the barriers between citizens and police. The experience was about uncovering their shared humanity and a responsibility to establish and maintain safe communities.
While personally transformative, such experiences are dependent on the political and ideological will of police administrators and the municipal governments to whom they answer. Some police administrators may see such summits as a “waste of time” or solely as a means to gain good publicity. Citizens become understandably warier and less willing to cooperate with the police as the tally of incidences in which officers shoot, maim, and kill unarmed residents grows.
This is where a Citizens’ Assembly comes in.
When Citizens Assemble
Until recently, most people have responded to police brutality by not responding to it.
They perceive police brutality as an “earned” response to an alleged crime. As neighborhood demographics change, many people flee to “safer” neighborhoods. They assume such problems will be contained to the now Black and brown communities they left behind.
But as we’ve seen from the ongoing racial protests following the deaths of Taylor and Floyd, militarized policing is a public safety threat and should be treated as such.
We cannot leave matters of policing to politicians who receive support and protection from unions and other special interests. We must remember and invoke that elected officials and the police departments they fund serve the citizens, not the other way around. This is why a citizens’ assembly on the issue is vital to changing the culture of policing in the United States.
A citizens’ assembly is a “body formed from the citizens of a state to deliberate on an issue or issues of local or national importance.” Its membership is randomly selected. Its purpose is to “employ a cross-section of the public to study the options available to the state on certain questions and to propose answers to these questions through rational and reasoned discussion.” Sometimes, the proposals gathered in a citizens’ assembly will be put to the general public’s vote in a referendum.
Since the founding of Building a New Reality (BANR) in 2015, founder Ted Wachtel has argued for decentralized power and participatory decision-making in the form of citizens’ assemblies. In an eight-part blog series, Ted has made a case for a U.S. national citizens’ assembly on gun control.
Among the best reasons Ted cites are ordinary citizens can make thoughtful decisions on complex issues; citizens are more collaborative and willing to change their minds than legislators; citizens assemblies can bring America together again, and you can try them without changing the Constitution. The same arguments hold for a citizens’ assembly on policing.
A Revolution by Conversation
The most compelling reason Ted asserts for a citizens’ assembly is that “citizens need to have their own conversation.”
A conversation about race and the role and future of policing must happen in American communities without the influence or interference of politicians, police unions, activist groups, or the media. Ordinary people need to gather (virtually until COVID relents) to discuss racism in policing, the right of the safety of all human beings, the weaponization of safety against marginalized groups, and the elements it takes to establish and maintain a fair and just society.
From these conversations, a new policing model could emerge that respects fundamental human rights, drastically decreases police shootings, keeps communities safe, and ensures an appropriate response to behavioral health issues. We must also denounce hate crimes and white supremacy masquerading as vigilante justice.
Coupled with the reforms proffered by the Black Lives Matter movement, the NAACP, and other social justice groups, a citizens’ assembly on policing demolishes the notion of “law and order” and replaces it with sustainable, safe communities.
Together, we can spark a revolution by conversation. We aim to repair harm, restore relationships, and build social capital in our communities, with our police, and most important of all, with each other. We must do so because our very lives depend on it.
Click here to read more about restorative practices in Detroit or rent the award-winning BANR film series, Detroit Rising: How the Motor City Becomes a Restorative City.