After a Season of Protest, Police Reform Is on the Ballot

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Black Lives Matter protests brought people into the streets in the middle of a pandemic. Now, it might bring them out on Election Day. Demands for police accountability, criminal justice reform and racial justice have been translated from rallying cries and protest signs into initiatives on state and local ballots. 

“All of this is just a culmination of the years of organizing that has happened by Black folks,” said Chris Melody Fields Figueredo, the executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center (BISC). While some of the measures were proposed directly as a response to the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the calls for change that followed, others had been in the pipeline for years or months, only to gain new momentum this spring. 

Josh Altic, who tracks ballot initiatives at Ballotpedia, says that while the movement for police accountability and racial justice is not a new idea, the volume of related ballot questions represents “an intensification.”

“There are more measures than there were previously, but they’re also getting more attention and maybe receiving support where they previously wouldn’t have,” he said. According to a Ballotpediacount, which Altic stresses is not comprehensive, there are at least 20 local police-related measures that qualified for the ballot after the killing of Floyd. 

Bringing issues directly to constituents rather than waiting for legislation to emerge speaks to the power of ballot measures as a tool of direct democracy, said Figueredo. Many of the voters of color BISC has interviewed have more trust in that system “than institutions or candidates that quite frankly have not followed through on their promises,” she said. Some measures are also on issues that require a direct vote via ballot initiative, such as amending city charters. 

Up and down the docket, budgetary priorities will be evaluated and police accountability policies could be bolstered.

In the wake of the defund police movement, several notable measures reassess police resources, including the number of police required by law in San Francisco, and how much money gets allocated to police alternatives in Los Angeles. 

Several other cities will vote on strengthening their police oversight, or creating new oversight bodies. Philadelphia will alsoconsider whether to officially end the practice of stop and frisk. Akron, Ohio,will decide whether body camera footage must be released to the public after an incident. At the state level, California voters couldre-enfranchise felons out on parole and New Jersey couldlegalize marijuana. 

Many of these changes require amending city charters, the equivalent of a local constitution. The documents are generally only able to be altered by the popular vote, and once changes are made they’re hard to reverse.

It’s no coincidence that many of the policing policies nominated for revision are found at the charter level, said Isaac Bryan, the founding executive director of the University of California L.A.’s Black Policy Project, and an executive board member of the JusticeLA Coalition. “In my experience, charters are often set up to protect the interests of the status quo and the civic institutions as they were designed, and those in power,” he said. 

Below are some notable city and county measures to watch.

Funding social service alternatives to the police

Defunding the police isn’t explicitly on the ballot anywhere. But Los Angeles may come the closest to it with a measure that follows the spirit of that movement: Mandating direct investment in social service alternatives to the criminal justice system. 

Known as “Re-Imagine L.A. County,” or Measure J, the initiative would mandate that the county allocate 10% of its unrestricted, locally generated revenues to programs supporting communities of color, including affordable housing and rent assistance, youth development, pretrial services, restorative justice and mental health support. 

L.A. County’s Measure J has been nearly 10 years in the making, says Bryan, who’s one of the co-chairs of the Re-Imagine L.A. coalition. It follows JusticeLA’s organizing against the county’s jail expansion plan in 2017, and the organizing work of local criminal justice reform advocates. The measure has a broad coalition of supporters, and wasendorsed by the L.A. County Democratic party, the Los Angeles Times, SEIU, the ACLU of Southern California and L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti. Law enforcement groups like the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs oppose the measure.

“We got four out of the five supervisors to agree to put this on the ballot, because they believed that the voters have a right to speak on a measure like this,” said Bryan, referring to the county legislative body that must approve ballot initiatives before they go to voters. “After the year we have had — after the years we have been having — the voters deserve a chance to decide if our tax dollars should be allocated and earmarked in such a way.”

The measure does not explicitly call for making budget cuts to police. But the money to support these programs would likely have to come from cuts somewhere. And the earmarked funds cannot go to any of the traditional law enforcement agencies, including the sheriff’s office, the probation system, the courts or the District Attorney’s Association. Exactly how much money would be allocated under the measure depends on dueling interpretations of what constitutes “unrestricted funds” — estimates range from $360 million per year to almost $1 billion per year. 

After a sunset period of three to four years, during which county legislators and the public would discuss how exactly to allocate the funds, the reallocation would be baked into the county’s constitution permanently. For cities hurting after the deaths of Floyd, Taylor, and L.A’s ownDijon Kizzee, Bryan says Measure J could serve as a national model for meaningful, durable reform.

“We can ban choke-holds. We can ban no knock warrants. We can ban the use of grand juries in a police shooting,” he said. “But that won’t ultimately change the material conditions of life for communities that have historically had a lethal relationship with some of our civic institutions — not in the same way that changing our budget priorities to center on care, healing, opportunity and justice will.”

Removing minimum police staffing requirements

Some police reform ideas hinge on reducing — or in some cases increasing — the number of police officers on the ground. But in some places, this kind of reform can’t even be considered without changing the city’s charter through a ballot initiative. 

In Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed this May, city council members realized that in order to achieve the transformative change in policing they’d promised, they’d first have to go through a complex process to change their city’s charter. Since 1961, the document had established a minimum number of police officers and funding level linked to the city’s population. Shaped by police union lobbying, the charter also stipulated that Minneapolis had to have a police department at all, and that it rested under the control of the mayor. The city council proposed a ballot measure to amend these rules. But partly because of concerns that the process was too rushed, that measurefailed to gain approval before the deadline to get on this November’s ballot. 

San Francisco may have a better shot: A proposal to remove a similar minimum police requirement in its city charter has made it to the November ballot.

The politics around the measure,Proposition E, have become complex. While some advocates are viewing the measure as an opportunity toreduce law enforcement resources, San Francisco Chief of Police Bill Scott has seized on the proposal as an opportunity to hire more officers. That’s because Prop E would require a city commission to set new staffing recommendations every two years for police. Based on a past workload assessment, Scott believes the recommendation will make the case for increased hiring.

Board of Supervisors President Norman Yee, who sponsored the ballot measure,says he views the proposal as a way toremove the handcuffs” that the staffing requirement places on San Francisco — whether that means more police officers or fewer. But, he notes that projections for increased staffing don’t take into account a potential narrower vision for police in which their primary role is to respond to emergencies.

Amending the charter is partially symbolic, because San Francisco is not currently enforcing this minimum police requirement, which was set at a static 1,971 officers in 1994. For San Francisco, the most important part of the measure might actually be the required reassessment of police needs, including public input as part of that process. 

“What this really does is provide an opportunity for us to talk about reform and policies that make sense for us,” says Yee. 

Increasing police accountability

Portland has seen more than 100 days of racial justice protests, in which police have used tear gas and impact munitions against demonstrators. Part of the public’s demands have centered around the lack of police accountability for misconduct. The city does have an Independent Police Review that’s advised by a Citizen Review Committee, but the bodies can only investigate police conduct and make recommendations about consequences; the power to actually discipline officers comes instead from the police commissioner.

Measure 26-217, introduced by city commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty and supported by Mayor Ted Wheeler, would put a new oversight committee into the city’s charter that would have much stronger teeth than those existing mechanisms. Appointed by the city council, the new police oversight board would be able to investigate things like use of force complaints, deaths that happen under police custody, constitutional violations and discrimination — and they’d have the authority to fire officers if their investigations determine that’s warranted. The charter amendment would also enshrine the oversight body’s minimum funding level, set at 5% of the police department’s annual operating budget. 

The Portland Police Association and City Auditor Mary Hull Caballero, who oversees the existing Independent Police Review, oppose the measure. The police warn it might be illegal, and Hull Caballero says throwing out an existing model for an unvetted replacementis unwise.

But Hardesty has tried to reassure police officers that “there should be nothing to fear in this reform if they’re committed to serving the community,” according to Oregon Public Broadcasting. “This new measure will make them better and will make new officers who joined them better. This is about being accountable to each of us.”

In Philadelphia, an underfunded Police Advisory Commission that critics havedescribed as toothless will also be eligible for a reimagining, with acharter amendment calling for the creation of a Citizens Police Oversight Commission. Though details are scarce on what that powers that new body would have, Council member Curtis Jones says it’s an opportunity to pour more funding into misconduct investigations. 

Columbus, Ohio, is one the few cities that currently lacks any such oversight body. That could change if residents vote yes on acharter amendment to create a Civilian Police Review Board, with the power to investigate claims of misconduct. Approved by the city council on July 27, there’s a clear line connecting the summer’s demonstrations with the measure’s approval for the ballot. It came paired with other reforms, including one that limits the circumstances when police can perform no-knock investigations similar to the one in Breonna Taylor’s case, and another that screens police officers for affiliations with hate groups.

Figueredo, of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, believes that more cities and states will be putting racial justice issues on the ballot in coming elections. “Had Covid not happened, it is possible we would have seen more statewide measures,” she said. “But I am really happy to be seeing local initiatives to address police brutality, divest, invest. I think that it’s a demonstration of people taking power into their hands.”

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