In an article for the July 5 Sunday LNP | LancasterOnline, Abigail King examined some of the public demands Black Lives Matter protesters have made since they began demonstrations on streets throughout Lancaster County in late May. Those demands fall under the categories of transparency and accountability, access to disciplinary records, body cameras, redistribution of law enforcement funding and increased funding for social services.
None of this is easy. It wasn’t easy, following George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police on May 25, for concerned Lancaster County residents to make the choice to take to the streets for peaceful protests during a deadly pandemic in which the virus can be transmitted easily in crowds.
Likewise, we suspect it hasn’t been easy for local government officials to find the time to adequately respond to protesters’ demands for reform while also juggling the daily response to COVID-19’s impact on public health, the local economy and social services.
But we rarely get to choose when seismic events fall on history’s timeline. And when two major “quakes” overlap, as the novel coronavirus and the racial injustice protests have, rising to the challenge is daunting.
So we’re encouraged by some of the progress cited in Abigail King’s July 5 article.
Not as much as we’d like to see, and not nearly as much as we must see in the long run. But, given the extenuating circumstances, there is good-faith progress. Especially on the part of the City of Lancaster, which has been ahead of the curve in taking protesters’ demands seriously.
We’ll look at those demands in the same fashion as the recent LNP | LancasterOnline article.
Transparency and accountability
Since even before the George Floyd protests, local community members have called for police officers to be held accountable for their actions. People have asked, “Where is there an opportunity for review of force and disciplinary actions, beyond just the police bureau?” Jess King, Lancaster city’s chief of staff, said.
Some of this stems from a June 2018 incident in which a Lancaster city police officer used a stun gun on an unarmed man. Following that, the city established a new use-of-force policy and created the Community Police Working Group, which “is made up of representatives from the City of Lancaster government, the Lancaster City Bureau of Police, the Lancaster branch of the NAACP, representatives from community benefit organizations, clergy, and city residents,” according to the city’s website.
Now, in addition, Lancaster City Council “will create a commission made up entirely of people of color to hold city departments accountable,” Abigail King reported. It will have independence from the city administration and the police force.
We applaud that move and hope city residents respond to fill those important commission seats.
Some protesters want the public to be able to track and follow infractions by law enforcement officers. And there must be stronger consequences for bad officers, they say. “Protesters (believe that) officers with frequent formal complaints ... should be terminated,” Abigail King reported.
In partial response, she noted, Lancaster City Council said it will make available to the public, in September, “a report including all civilian complaints and all reports of disciplinary actions that have arisen due to use of force by officers,” she noted.
We hope that September report is specific enough to be useful and, more importantly, we hope other municipalities in Lancaster County follow the city’s lead. The Black Lives Matter protests, remember, have stretched from Lititz to Quarryville; police reform is being sought everywhere.
Disciplinary actions do not have confidentiality protection under Pennsylvania’s open-records law. Instead, labor agreements and personnel practices are often cited as obstacles to such disclosures. Those obstacles must be overcome. Transparency in this area is vital to building community trust.
Camera footage is considered a means toward both reducing police brutality and bolstering accountability for police actions. At least one local protester, Abigail King reported, is calling for a free public database that could host body cam footage.
“At the end of the day, we’re funding the police,” the protester stated. “We should be able to see exactly what goes on.”
As it now stands, gaining public access to cam footage is a cumbersome process that has a detailed request form, a waiting period of up to 30 days and numerous reasons that agencies can invoke to deny requests.
“What’s really dangerous about this is you could have those records denied forever — there’s no time limit,” Elizabeth Randol, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, told Spotlight PA last month. “What you’ve effectively done is: Here’s this incredible piece of technology that could surveil, and none of it is publicly accessible.”
A good step, which we urge state lawmakers to take, would involve changing state law to include body-camera recordings under Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law. That would codify the presumption that everything is public and flip the burden of arguing otherwise to agencies that receive requests, Spotlight PA noted.
Redistribution of funding
As we wrote in an editorial last month, “defund the police” is a movement with a serious branding problem, because it “suggests that it seeks to eliminate all funding for police departments, when in reality, ‘defunding’ the police generally means reallocating a portion of police funding to social services, education, mental health services and youth programs.”
The 2020 Lancaster Bureau of Police budget is a whopping 42.8% of the city’s general fund, or $26.8 million. Protesters want to reduce that percentage.
“A graphic circulating on Instagram has called for at least 20% of the Lancaster Bureau of Police’s funding to be reallocated to social services including ‘low-income housing, a team of social workers, programs for housing and helping people experiencing homelessness and economic development for Black and POC (people of color) city residents,’ ” Abigail King reported.
Finding the right balance of funding for both law enforcement and social services is a complex issue that deserves thoughtful and ongoing examination. It’s the right discussion to be having, but not one that lends itself to oversimplification by shifting numbers around.
On all these myriad issues, activists are encouraging city residents to contact elected officials, attend local government meetings and tag city officials on social media. Running for elected office is, of course, another longer-term strategy in our democracy to advance reform.
The renewed push for police reform has been given its start by the demonstrators in the streets. Getting meaningful reform across the finish line will also require consistent and vigorous participation in local politics.