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Feb 2016

Police Brutality: What Local Governments are Doing to Put Out the Fire

in Educational, Issues, Topics /

It’s uncomfortable to turn on the news and not see reports of police brutality, racial unrest, and the long judicial processes of determining what use of force is justified and what isn’t. One of the biggest problems that communities are facing is the lack of uniformity across the nation as to what constitutes an excessive use of force. However, this doesn’t mean that it is the federal government’s problem. Every community is different and faces unique challenges, making uniform national policy difficult to apply. From the presidency to state legislatures, police brutality has become more of a campaign issue than a real social justice problem. The quickest path to dealing with these issues statistically is on a local government level. The following are measures local governments throughout the United States are taking to lower the number of incidents of excessive force used by police officers.

Redefining Crime

Police all across the United States are stretched entirely too thin and the statistics prove it. For years, one of the most popular campaign platforms has been for a candidate to proclaim that he or she is “tough on crime” and that their opponent is a “softie.” Citizens rush to the polls and vote for the candidate that seems the toughest without realizing the number of things that are defined as crimes and the lack of differentiation between violent and nonviolent crimes. The United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world. While state legislatures are responsible for the passage of many of these laws, local governments have much of the control over their enforcement.

California has passed over 1,000 new crime bills in the past 25 years. Michigan enforces 3,102 crimes and New York City has over 10,000 potential ways you can commit a crime. Among these crimes are spitting in the subway, wearing saggy pants, loitering, being in a park after hours, panhandling, and drinking alcohol in public. Two weeks ago, in Southwest Houston, a high speed chase ensued over a tail light being out. Granted, the best course of action is typically to stop when police try to pull someone over, one has to ask; Is a broken tail light worth endangering innocent lives with high speed chases on crowded roadways?  Is the person fleeing the scene just because they can’t afford a hike in their insurance, or because they have drugs in the vehicle?  These are the tough choices public safety officials make in a matter of a few seconds.

The quickest path to dealing with these issues statistically is on a local government level
Cities recently affected by national stories of unarmed citizens have been forced to rethink the types of issues that force police into confrontations, New Orleans, Minneapolis, Denver, Indianapolis and Charleston are among cities taking a second look at what they are asking their police to enforce. People are beginning to speak out that they feel much of this brutality and excessive force is born out of over-enforcement of things that shouldn’t be criminal justice issues.

The War on Drugs

With few exceptions, most people agree that drug use is a detriment to society. Much of the border violence that is so heavily cited when politicians speak about immigration is a result of drug cartels that get so extremely rich from bringing drugs into the U.S. that they are willing to do so by means of force. Grassroots efforts from citizens in cooperation with city governments are starting conversations on new ways to tackle the issue.   The Denver City Council in cooperation with the District Attorney’s office started by loosening enforcement of marijuana possession laws and saw a drop in the local crime rate better than the national average. The Colorado legislature took notice and with one stroke of a pen put illegal marijuana dealers out of business by decriminalizing it.

Due to pressure by city government, District Attorneys, and advocate groups, voters in California passed Proposition 47 in November 2014, reducing some drug possession and property crime felonies to misdemeanors. In turn the estimated $150 million per year savings was reinvested to support mental health and drug abuse treatment, school truancy and dropout prevention, victim services, and other programs serving as alternatives to incarceration.

Former Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief Stephen Howling said, “Nixon announced the war on drugs when I was put in charge of the narcotic enforcement effort for the Los Angeles Police Department. We have imprisoned 43 million people for nonviolent drug offenses. We fractured communities. We divided families. Each year I failed. I didn’t stop the flow of drugs. I didn’t do anything to reduce addiction. The answer is to treat drug addiction as a health problem, not a criminal justice problem. In the last 40 years we’ve spent 1.3 trillion dollars on this drug war and we’ve accomplished nothing.”

From 1980 to 2008 the number of incarcerated Americans ballooned from 500,000 to 2.3 million, with nearly half that number consisting of nonviolent offenders. The average stoner can’t put down the bag of Cheetos and turn off the cartoons long enough to commit violent acts.

Voters and city governments across America are taking up legislation and refocusing efforts on violent crimes like gang violence, rape, and murder rather than non-violent addicts, many of whom can be better served in hospitals and treatment facilities. Law enforcement themselves are pointing out the fact that branding nonviolent addicts as felons only serves to take away any job prospects due to employment background checks and turns them into ‘real’ criminals when they suddenly have no means to support themselves. Taking a new approach to drug issues has led to less chances for conflict between police and citizens.

Redirecting Police and District Attorneys

In 2011, New York City prioritized police to enforce low-level offenses resulting in more marijuana arrests in one year than the total arrests from 1981 to 1995.    In 2013, a coalition of grassroots organizations held a public forum for the Brooklyn District Attorney candidates to discuss the connections between the war on drugs and jail overcrowding. Citizens encouraged candidates to consider re-prioritizing their enforcement of low-level offenses. A similar mayoral forum was held, and citizens changed the public mindset so that both Republican and Democratic candidates publicly supported decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana and other low-level crimes. Brooklyn’s District Attorney said that his office would not prosecute low-level marijuana possessions. In response to the financial and human costs of the incarceration of low level offenses, city council members in New York City are working to change some of the City’s most common offenses from criminal to civil issues.

Cities across America are rethinking low-level offences and to what degree that enforcement improves public safety. While littering is pretty annoying, isn’t it much easier to just pick up the trash yourself rather than ask a policeman to arrest the man who threw it out?


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Feb 2016

Vote local and see the impact first hand

in Educational, Topics /

I can’t help but wonder if people in swing states like Ohio know how good they have it. When they go to the polls their vote in the presidential election counts for so much. As a Democrat in Texas, my vote gets thrown out every four years by the Electoral College. The last Democrat Texans voted for was Jimmy Carter and that didn’t go so well. Also I wasn’t even born until late in his administration so I’ve never lived in Texas as anything but a red state.

But this issue is not specific to just my party of preference. Republicans in Michigan, I’m talking to you! When you hit the polls to vote for a Republican Presidential candidate, you watch your ballot get flushed down the Electoral Toilet every four years as well. The last Republican your state voted for was George H.W. Bush, and apparently your fellow citizens read his lips and didn’t like his new taxes.

I’m here to tell you there are much greater things at stake when voting than deciding on a president. Blue state or Red, your vote counts in many other elections than are listed on your ballot. With that in mind let’s take a look at why voting on a local level is so much more important than the presidency:

Direct Impact

impact photo

Photo by spettacolopuro

Voting on local candidates and issues has a much more direct effect on your life. County commissioners meet frequently to discuss how to spend your tax money. You would do well to figure out which candidate is interested in fixing that pothole in front of your neighborhood. City councils pass ordinances about things like those annoying traffic light cameras that fine you for running red lights at 2AM when no cars are on the road. No matter what issue or office is on the ballot, if it is local, it is going to impact you much more directly than the President, who’s policies may take years to find their way to your wallet.


Popular Votes

vote photo

Photo by allyaubry

The Presidency is the only election that is not decided by a popular vote. That means that even if that your vote for the presidency gets tossed aside, you have a whole slew of other candidates from Congress on down to your local school board.  These local elections are decided on a popular vote basis. Many people are so hyper focused on presidential candidates that they don’t know anything about the people they are voting for at the local level.  By educating yourself on local issues and candidate platforms, your vote makes a huge difference on issues that hit much closer to home than Washington politics. Local popular votes aren’t as likely to be so one-sided, so it is vital to make informed decisions as elections can come down to even one vote.


access photo

Photo by GotCredit

Try hitting up President Barack Obama by email and see how that works out for you. You get a nice form email that everyone else gets right before your email is deleted by an intern. Getting a personal response from the President is on par with winning the lottery except you don’t get any money. Having served as an intern for Congressman Kevin Brady, I can tell you that Congress is much more accessible than you think. Their offices employ case workers on issues you are having and can help you with a wide variety of things under the authority of your representative. As you move down the ladder to state legislatures, city councils, commissioners, courts, and school boards you probably have at least one of the above living in your own neighborhood. These are the people that make decisions directly affecting your lives and most of them love to take time talking with their constituents.

Party Lines

republican democrat photo

Photo by DonkeyHotey

So you may live in an area that really does vote staunchly for one party over the other. Party lines are much different at the local level. Over the years we have watched the Presidency and the United States Congress devolve into a bunch of cutthroats that care more about elephants and donkeys than gun control or foreign policy. Their sole mission has become to block or veto legislation by the other party with little regard for how it might affect us. Politicians on a local level actually work quite well together. For years I covered small town city councils and commissioners’ court meetings for newspapers. The party lines are extremely blurred and not nearly as divided as they are in Washington. I may identify as Democrat but those experience working with these people directly has led to my voting for many local Republicans.  In fact, many local governments have non-partisan elections.

My humble advice is to educate yourself on local politics if you haven’t already. Vote in non-presidential elections. Find out what your candidates think. Keep tabs on what’s being discussed through local media, reading through agendas, and, of course, here at Voterheads.com.  Anyone can attend city council and commissioners’ court. Meet the people in person and ask questions. If you don’t, then there should be no crying when that pothole pops your tire or you get another red light camera ticket.


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