This piece originally published in the Fort-Worth Star Telegram.
Fort Worth was the subject of national scrutiny after police officer Aaron Dean killed Atatiana Jefferson Oct. 12. Contentious City Council meetings in the wake of her killing, however, are far from the first time that community members have demanded accountability and transparency from their police department and city government.
Just last year, a city-commissioned Race and Culture Task Force recommended that the city implement a civilian review board for the police department — a recommendation that was ignored at the time.
Now in the national spotlight, City Manager David Cooke and Assistant City Manager Jay Chapa — who hold most of the executive power in the city — have finally started to heed these recommendations. But their response falls far short of what the task force recommended and the community demanded: a fully-funded and truly independent community police oversight board whose members have historically been impacted by disparate policing and have had the most interactions with police.
Cooke and Chapa have instead chosen to hire a single official — dubbed a police monitor — tasked with overseeing the entire police department and with the power to make only nonbinding recommendations to the City Council about additional structures or staffing.
Cooke and Chapa are setting up this police monitor for failure. They have budgeted only enough money to pay the monitor and an administrative assistant. Even if the people who Cooke and Chapa hire act independently and are committed to change, they will not have the financial, operational or staffing resources needed to keep track of the entire police department, let alone develop a robust oversight program.
Additionally, putting the responsibility of developing the structure of the oversight program solely on the monitor cuts the community out of the loop. Despite residents making clear, tangible demands for a more inclusive process, city officials have effectively set up a closed-door, unaccountable process. The community must be front and center in this planning process.
A powerless, underfunded police monitor is not what Fort Worth needs. Countless cities across the country have experimented with the idea, often with disastrous results. Spokane, Wash., has had an independent police monitor since 2016, in charge of overseeing all internal investigations and issuing reports of its findings and recommendations. Not only has the monitor “frequently battled” the police department and local police union on the scope and level of his oversight, but there is a civilian oversight commission whose sole task is to ensure that the monitor performs his job in accordance with the charter that developed his position.
Basically, there is an entire commission making sure he doesn’t exceed his already limited powers and capabilities.
Similarly, in Fresno, Calif., there has been an independent police auditor for a decade, with the vague responsibility of providing an “objective analysis of policing data, actions, and outcomes.” Most telling for this vacant office, though, is the complete lack of community trust in it. Respondents to a 2017 ACLU of California survey routinely criticized the office as largely being symbolic.
Let’s be clear: The model of police accountability that the City of Fort Worth officials are proposing is doomed to fail from the start and is not responsive to community demands. Implementing a strong, effective, and truly independent oversight board requires a significant dedication of resources and a genuine commitment to community-driven reform by city officials.
Responding to the community’s specific, repeated and carefully considered needs this way will only further erode the trust the city seeks to build between the community and the police.