Gun Violence, Citizen Police Academies


In a week when our minds are focused on gun violence, I do not think it inappropriate to reference my continuing (small) contribution to efforts to reduce gun violence, as they specifically relate to the behavior of law enforcement.

Some of you will know that my interest in US policing habits began after a rather unusual SWAT ‘evacuation’ of an occupied building in sleepy Chapel Hill, NC in 2011.

I spent several months monitoring and making contributions to the Community Policing Advisory Committee of the Chapel Hill Town Council. And then set out to encourage the Board of Aldermen of neighboring Carrboro, NC to consider my concept of ‘Citizen Design of Policing.’ Which is pretty much what it sounds like: allowing ordinary citizens to be involved in the design of the rules of engagement which local law enforcement use to police their communities.

As a consequence, I was invited to participate in Carrboro’s inaugural Citizen Police Academy. I participated. I made a nuisance of myself. Learned a lot. Talked a lot. Sent them some of my thoughts in written form. And may have made something of an impression. Since I was just sent a survey, in advance of their fifth such academy, to be staged next Spring.

I set out below the comments I made in an e-mail, in addition to completing their pro-forma survey. And then I include a comment in response. I do not attach the name of the author of the responding e-mail. I’m not sure of the status of the survey. And I do not want to get anyone into trouble.

“I attended the very first Carrboro Citizen Police Academy. I will say now what I wrote then to ———- :

1) Focus less on telling us about generalities of police work, constitution, etc. We can get that from a book.

2) Present us right way with several bodycam videos, where police have had to make instant decisions to use guns in very immediate circumstances. Let us know from the get-go how stressful the job is.

3) Get attending policemen and policewomen out of uniform. One to a table. Break down the ‘them’ and ‘us’ the minute we walk in the door.

4) Focus more on telling us why you do the job; your love of the job; its stress; your desire to serve. Make yourselves people who care. Who stick together, because you have to have each other’s backs. How much this can separate you from ordinary people, because you never know who is going to pull a weapon.

5) Be right upfront about the loss of trust over the past few years. Talk about bad apples. Tell us bluntly why you are not. Ask what we would recommend to rebuild the trust.

6) Allow conversation at the end of each section. Get people talking.

7) It’s also a ‘show.’ Use your dog handlers. They are hilarious. C’mon. Even you guys know they are a breed apart. It makes you human.

8) More time (two hours, not one) on role-playing. Let ordinary people make the decisions you have to make.

9) Stop being defensive. You love your job. You want to help people. Tell us that. You do a great job. There are bad apples. Something has broken down. It is not all on you. Sell yourselves to us. Don’t apologize for who you are.

Beyond this, I have two suggestions about rebuilding trust:

I) Talk with elected officials and ordinary citizens about ways of allowing police, elected officials and ordinary citizens to design together rules of policing engagement. I have a blog about how I tried to promote this in Carrboro, NC – ‘Citizen Design of Policing.’

II) Police Training needs to change. There needs to be more focus on containment and negotiation, rather than command presence and suppression. You shout at people, and make it an offense not to respond to shouting, you are going to have incidents. I know this will require more officers, more cars, more equipment, more training. I know this will cost more money. And ordinary citizens need to be told this, if it is what they want.

That’s it! Good Luck.”

The response:

“Thank you for taking the time to send me this email. I can assure you that as we have progressed the program, many changes have been made; several from the list below. For example, the last academy had almost 3 hours of role play, which included our new Meggitt’s training system which focuses on training de-escalation techniques. We encourage talking during and after each presentation and have included many videos that illustrate how quickly a situation can become “deadly”. My personal approach to discussing police work is up front and honest, as I believe avoiding the elephant in the room does not help anyone.

Thank you again for your input and I will be looking back over this list as we work on our 5th academy next spring.”

I post this to illustrate a few of things that I have been saying through the course of this week. Reducing gun tragedies in the US is not a one-dimensional process. It’s not just about one or two pieces of legislation. It requires a multi-dimensional approach, which considers all the steps necessary to limiting hate and violence in society, and the resulting gun culture. It is not a signature legislative effort alone that will make progress. It is the combined effort of all of us to change a view that says that we in the US need to have an AK-47 mounted over the mantelpiece. That will take time. Hard work. And many hours of boring, unglamorous, backroom, sleeves rolled-up, nit-picking minutiae. Like attending Citizen Police Academies, writing notes, standing up at meetings, and completing surveys. That’s how you effect real progress, real change.

Facebook comments here.


Charlotte, Police Training, Citizen Design, Mutual Responsibility


I have little time for photo-opportunity, headline-grabbing advocacy by mindless protest. I believe in advancing solutions that might make matters better.

I am truly sorry for Keith Scott and his family. As I am for all individuals who have to suffer the consequences of violent death.

Our systems of government and civil order are not perfect. But, until we change them through the channels and by the means that our communities have evolved since the founding of this country, then they are the systems that apply to all of us. However unfair or unequal some of us may view them to be.

I spent some time recently advocating, as effectively as one man can, for a change in the way that policing policy in the US is devised and implemented – Citizen Design of Policing.

But, here’s the thing. How many people, whether in my immediate community of Carrboro, NC, where I specifically attended the inaugural Citizen’s Police Academy, back in 2015, so that I could address that concept, face-to-face with Carrboro police officers. How many of my fellow citizens in Carrboro, or anywhere else in the US, who may have read my posts, how many of them have taken any steps to change policing policy in their communities? As opposed to raising a fist at a football game?

What I regard as a truly realistic pathway to allow communities to design the manner in which they are policed exists right now. It requires no new legislation. No new governmental bodies. No new funding. Just the will of citizens to demand of the elected officials commanding the allocation of resources to police authorities that those elected officials immediately make the allocation dependent on those police authorities understanding that, henceforth, their rules of engagement will be defined by those allocating the resources, on behalf of the local citizenry, and with the involvement of concerned citizens. It really is as simple as that.

Yet. As much (or, as little) as I have advocated. What movement has there been among the citizenry of Carrboro, NC – my current hometown? What plans advanced by the Carrboro Board of Aldermen? Why is Carrboro important, in the greater scheme of things? Other than the fact that many within this highly liberal borough are today extremely vocal about events three hours down the road. Other than that fact, it isn’t. Unless you agree with my oft-stated position that, if we were to experiment with a concept like Citizen Design in a small community like Carrboro, we might then be able to export the successful notion to more at-risk communities around the US.

That would be an achievement far more effective than a raised fist, a tweet, a photo opportunity or a CNN-headlining flash mob.

Now. Citizen Design alone will not change everything. One thing I learned during my advocacy and while engaging in quite proactive conversation at the Carrboro Police Academy is that all US police training is based on suppression, not de-escalation.

Literally, the rules of engagement in any confrontation between citizen and police officer are designed on the basis of command suppression. The police officer is trained to create a command presence. Shouting commands to the citizen to comply with the commands. Lack of obedience is then used as the trigger for escalation. Leading to use of force to bring the confrontation to an early close.

In fact, we had one quite interesting exchange in one of the experiential scenarios in which we engaged after some eight hours of the Academy. My police officer team-mate ‘shot’ a fake perpetrator, as I was engaged in talking to the perpetrator. We had a quick review afterwards.

To be honest, I liked those of my hometown officers who participated. We were on first name times. The discussion was vigorous, but respectful. And that is the way it should be.

I made only a quick point. There was not time for more. But I stated that, if we had more time, I would argue that the shooting of the perpetrator was wrong.

My team-mate said that the shooting was standard policy. The perpetrator was threatening a police officer (me). I countered that, although the perpetrator had initially advanced towards me, the advance had halted when I took a deliberate step back. I was no longer in immediate danger. And the call should have been mine. I had my ‘gun’ drawn, and was fully capable of protecting myself.

I believe the latter to be a standard policing approach in, for example, the UK. Where it is the belief that most perpetrators generally are not attempting to threaten wider society, but merely to carve out a place of safety. Allow them a heavily-defined area of safety. And one can de-escalate the situation by containment.

I’m not sure I convinced my team-mate in that one brief exchange. But I did two things. I began a conversation. In which all who truly care about policing should be engaged. And I fully understood the consequences of what I believe to be the current misguided thinking behind US police training. Namely, that we are going to have many more instances of contested police shootings as long as training emphasizes suppression over containment and de-escalation.

Now. Looking to the wider picture. And to thoughts which may well unsettle some folks. We all have a responsibility for civil order in our communities. We may not like the manner in which law enforcement is legislated in our society at the moment. But it is a form of enforcement that has been evolved by communities using the existing channels of legislation and government. If we want matters to change, then we use those channels and advocate for change.

In the meantime, we should all commit ourselves to make the existing system of enforcement work. We should all get stuck in. We do not stand to one side. Yelling, screaming and rioting.

Let me make that point even more clear. And I may be contradicting what I have said in the past. I am not saying don’t yell and scream. In the immediate moment. I am saying, don’t stand to one side. Commit. Make that moment of law enforcement work. As best we can. Understanding that all humans are, well, only human.

Which means that. Sometimes. When the situation arises. When we personally are faced with an immediate challenge. In a law enforcement scenario that thrusts itself upon us. Very often the outcome will be one which depends upon our personal commitment, our personal morality and our personal investment.

And so. Whether it leads to outrage or not. I’m going to say it. If Keith Scott’s wife had truly wanted to protect her husband, she should have run over, put her own life at risk for her husband and inserted herself between the police officer and her husband. She should not have stood by taking a video.

Keith Scott’s wife had enough time to make a decision. And she chose to take a video rather than saving her husband’s life.

That in no way exonerates the police. That does not lessen my revulsion at rules of engagement which can only lead to confrontation and death. That does not remove responsibility from the police for their actions. But, as a statement, it does place upon Keith Scott’s widow the responsibility that is hers alone.

We as a society are responsible for what we do and what we don’t do. We are responsible when we support the existing status quo, which allows police to suppress not de-escalate. And we are supporting that status quo when all we do is raise a fist, rather than actively involving ourselves in the processes that give effect to change.

Police are responsible for their actions. They are responsible when they draw a gun. They are responsible when they fight back against citizenry attempting to take control by designing the policing policy in their community.

And Keith’s Scott widow is responsible for the decision she made. To take a video. Rather than running to the aid of her allegedly mentally unwell husband.

I’m not sure what it is. Too much social media? Too many technological advances? Too much life by instant celebrity? I truly do not know. But it seems to me that we have become a society of bystanders, passers-by.

We do not achieve. We ape. We do not commit to our own advance. We watch the virtual ambitions of others. We do not seek substantive gain. Merely fifteen minutes of personal celebrity.

There is much about our society at the moment which just leaves me puzzled. Much about our politics. Much about our elections. And much about this horrible episode in Charlotte, NC.

But of one thing I am reasonably certain. We are where we are not because one side is wrong and the other side is right. Not because one person or group of people did something terrible. And the rest of us are exonerated. But because we have all of us allowed our own personal moral compasses to become terribly corrupted. Before we look to excoriating others, we might better look to wondering about our own actions, inactions and thought processes.

And lest you think I’m totally missing what others may think is the genuine bigger picture, let me link to the Movement for Black Lives platform. With this caveat. We will only move forward together. If we start placing more emphasis on the realistic and consensual ‘yes,’ rather than an unrelenting focus on the uncompromising ‘no.’ If we roll up our sleeves and get involved, rather than merely standing by. If we say the hard things that are unpalatable, rather than always playing for Facebook ‘Likes.’

Citizen Design of Policing – Update


On an aside. And because I know you want to know. The medical problems persist. More tests today. Sigh. But the brain is still working. And I wanted to get this up.

I had earlier heard from Carrboro, NC Alderman Damon Seils that the Third Carrboro Community Forum on Policing had been postponed until December. I have now heard that it is being further postponed, while the Carrboro Police hold a number of smaller neighborhood forums, in an attempt to make contact directly with neighborhoods with which they feel it is most necessary to be making progress.

The Carrboro Police Chief reported to the Carrboro Board of Aldermen on this and other matters at their meeting on November 24. You can read and view here (agenda item near the bottom of the list; ‘Update on Policing in Carrboro’).

In the meantime, I attended the pilot one-day Citizen’s Police Academy on Saturday, October 24, which was extraordinarily useful. I would recommend it to all who are truly interested in improving the relationship between police and citizens.

All in all, where I am at the moment, with respect to my own learning curve, the issues being addressed, what is still happening in the country, where I am is that I am of the opinion that this matter is way more complex than originally I thought. Plus, I have no certainty what exactly are my own plans this next year.

So. I thought I would get my thoughts down in writing and share them. I have done this by producing a little document, which you can read for free on the Lulu publishing platform.

Let me know if you have difficulty reading that document for free, which you do by reading the Preview. I was having a little difficulty myself. But I did eventually work out how to do it!

Essentially, I am now taking the view that improving the relationship between police and citizens (not so much in Carrboro, where we can experiment, but certainly nationally, where matters are toxic) boils down to changing police training.

The problem with police/citizen interaction is not so much the occasional bad apple, as it is the whole approach taught in police training. One of command presence, demanding commands be followed, and then escalating police response when commands are not complied with – not when threat is necessarily present, but when commands are not complied with.

If we are to de-escalate interaction, and reduce the possibility of misunderstanding and over-reaction, I think we need completely to redesign training and to make provision for the necessary extra personnel, equipment and resources required in support.

What I express in more detail in my document is whether or not I feel that we can actually address that process all on our own in Carrboro.

If I am still available, it is certainly my intention to address the issues I raise in my document when the Third General Community Forum is held. If not, it may well be for others who feel the same way to take this forward. Good luck to us all!!

3rd Carrboro, NC Community Forum On Policing


The third Carrboro, NC Community Forum on Policing will be held on Wednesday, October 28. I am assuming it will be at the Carrboro Town Hall, beginning at 7.00pm, as were the previous two. So, get out your calendars, contact your managers to get the time to attend.

Just to remind you what the Forums are about, and what I am hoping to achieve with my advocacy of Citizen Design of Policing, here is a link.

I wrote to Carrboro Alderman Damon Seils as follows:

“Many thanks, Damon. Again, I’ll give a little nudge to you, to give a little nudge to others to get it set, say, at least a month before, so that NAACP and others can do the best/have enough time to organize the young and at risk (young families) to arrange schedules, babysitters, whatever, so as to be able to attend.

I’m thinking about attendance. I’m sure you have, but maybe again, talk with the likes of el Futuro, NAACP, to see what it is that keeps Hispanics, young, blacks from wanting to attend. Maybe not this time, maybe in the future, maybe we should be taking these meetings into neighborhoods? Rotate. The various apartment complexes have community rooms. El Futuro? Churches they attend. Places they feel safe. And this next one maybe even further down the road. Exploring the possibility that the police attend in civvies. Less them, more us? Just thoughts.”

Damon responded favorably. But it is now up to all of us to do what we can to encourage those who feel most uncomfortable with policing to feel comfortable about coming to this meeting, or to find ways in which they would be comfortable discussing their discomfort. Which is one of the most awkward-sounding sentences I’ve ever composed! But you know what I mean.

Spread the word. See you all on the 28th!

Britain’s 1981 Race Riots, Citizen Design of Policing, and Me

Brixton riots 1981.

Brixton riots 1981.

You might think that, with my advocacy of Citizen Design of Policing, I’m something of a latecomer to the whole issue of race and policing. Not so much.

Way back in 1981, I served as an Assistant Counsel with the Scarman Inquiry, the body commissioned by the then government of Margaret Thatcher to investigate the race riots which had occurred in Brixton, South London earlier that year.

At that time, I worked for my mate, Hugh Simmonds, the subject of the book I keep touting all over the place []. His law firm, in turn, acted for the diocese of the Methodist Church which ran the youth center generally considered to be at the epicenter of the riots.

Our primary contribution to the proceedings was twofold.

First, Hugh ran a brilliant series of cross-examinations, which established a principle which later became standard protocol in police training. Namely, that reported crimes increase when an exercise is undertaken to target a location with police officers, not because of an increased incidence of crime, but because of the increased numbers of police reporting crime.

Seems obvious now. Wasn’t in Great Britain back then.

Secondly (and this was all me, folks – three days and nights, and thousands of photographs), the police maintained that their approach throughout the riots had been defensive only. Standing passively behind body-length shields, in full and recognizable police uniform. At least, that was their line until I turned up the photograph showing a plainclothes policeman, chasing two black men, with a small round riot shield, marked ‘Police,’ and waving a pick-axe handle. Oops.

The experience of the Scarman Inquiry was an eye-opener for me. I had grown up in a sheltered upper middle class suburb of London. Where it never occurred to me that anyone might be unhappy with the police.

The Inquiry’s proceedings later informed my approach to a speech I was planning to make to the National Conference of the British Conservative Party in 1986.

There is very little that is democratic about the Conservative Party. Least of all how one is chosen to speak at National Conferences. One is picked as a consequence of a year-long process of recommendation and vetting.

If you clear that hurdle, you are allowed to speak. If you do well, you get onto a list of people who don’t have to go through quite so much vetting second time. Do well again, new list, even less vetting. And so on.

I had managed not to offend too many natives on two occasions. So, I was on the ‘put your name in, you’ll get called, no vetting’ list. Except in 1986, I spoke with Hugh (who had spoken well on six occasions, and was on the exalted list of ‘we will drag you drunk out of a bar to make a speech ‘cos a nutcase just gave an awful speech’ list), I spoke with Hugh and asked him to sponsor me through the vetting process.

Don’t need it, Geoff. I probably will, when you know what I want to say. Which is? Well, we have now won two General Elections, we are the natural party of government, we owe it to the electorate to represent everyone, and I want to tell the Conservative Party faithful, in the Law and Order debate, that there are good folk in our inner cities who are more scared of the police than criminals, and we need to do better.

Oh shit.

But, to his credit, he sponsored me all the way through the process, right up to a very special meeting, the week of the Conference itself.

Very special meeting. I was at a reception for one thing or another, in one of the Conference hotels, when I was bustled into a small adjoining room.

Five people were present. The Home Secretary, Douglas (now Lord) Hurd, the Chairman of the Party, the Chairman of the Conference, the regional agent for my area and Hugh.


Hurd made the running. I understand you want to speak in the debate I will be answering tomorrow? What do you want to say? I told him. He didn’t miss a beat. Well, maybe he paused. There are many people in the Party who feel as you do. But now is not the time. I can’t recommend you say that. But it is up to the Chairman of the Conference. What say you?

The Chairman of the Conference offered me a speaking slot in any other debate of my choice. Nope. That debate or nothing.

The Chairman of the Party asked if there was some special problem with my speaking in the Law and Order debate. I will never forget what the Chairman of the Conference said in reply. Yes, he said. I have spoken with our security team. Their view is that, if he makes that speech, they do not have enough team members to guarantee his safety from the podium.

The Chairman of the Party repeated the offer about another debate. I politely declined.

They knew they couldn’t stop me entering my slip to speak in the debate. Hurd looked at the Chairman of the Conference. The Chairman of the Conference looked at the Chairman of the Party. Little nods. Chairman of the Party cleared his throat. We can’t let you speak. But your gesture will not go unnoticed. You will be accompanied to the front of the auditorium by Hugh, acting on behalf of the Home Secretary, and the area agent, acting on behalf of the Party. Those who matter will know you have our support. Even though we can not let you speak.

That was the day I grew up politically. It didn’t start with Citizen Design. It began back in 1981 and 1986.

President’s 21st Century Task Force on Policing


While taking a break from being all fancy-smanchy about my book and radio interviews, I took the time finally to track down contact details for the President’s 21st Century Task Force on Policing, and to send them a few comments about Citizen Design of Policing. I attach my e-mail:

“Dear Friends,

In an attempt to find a model of new policing which can serve as a template for rebuilding trust between police agencies and their communities, I am advocating in my hometown of Carrboro, NC for a concept called ‘Citizen Design of Policing.’

The principle is simple: create a space, a forum, an opportunity where elected officials, police and concerned citizens can gather, share their concerns – and here is the important part – develop a process where the group consensually designs the policing approach in the community going forward.

This way, the community knows that the policing approach is one that it has designed, police know they have the full support of the community, and trust and comfort is rebuilt.

The how is more tricky. Simple. But tricky. It involves time and culture shift. The mechanism already exists. Every single law enforcement agency in this country is funded by an institution run by elected officials. ‘All’ that has to happen is that law enforcement officers accept that, going forward, they no longer design rules of engagement and operation on their own – elected officials now take the lead, aided by law enforcement officers and concerned citizens.

This is not pie in the sky. We have held two forums already in Carrboro. And the culture shift is already happening. I attach two links. The first is the one I posted on my associated blog before the second forum:

The second like is my review of that second forum:

Those two links pretty much encapsulate practical implementation of a model I think could have favorable consequences across our nation. More can be found on my blog at

I hope this might be of some use to the Task Force.

Your truly,
Geoff Gilson”

First Carrboro, NC Community Forum on Policing


I came across this Facebook post by Steve Dear, on the first Carrboro, NC Community Forum On Policing, back in October 2014. Since then, we have held a second such Forum.

Those were early days. After discussion, thinking and posting on the subject, my views have moved from advocating what I now see as a somewhat reactive Civilian Review Board to the more proactive Citizen Design of Policing.

What’s the difference? Conventional Review Boards pretty much, well, ‘review’ – after the event. As such, they are always one step behind. The concept of Citizen Design is that citizens, elected officials, along with police (but not police on their own), design policing policy before boot hits street. And then monitor to ensure police compliance. You can find more detail here.

I wasn’t able to be at the first Forum. So, thank you Steve and others for getting the ball rolling. The third Forum is due to be held sometime this coming September. Stay tuned for updates …

Bernie Sanders, Racial Justice, Reduxing the Redux


I know I’ve spent more than a little time this past week considering matters of race, policing, Sanders, ‪#‎BlackLivesMatter‬ and Sanders’ seeming response with his newly-drafted policy platform on racial justice.

I don’t apologize. I have a feeling that these issues may well become a defining angle on the presidential debate over the next year.

And so. I read and re-read Bernie’s section on racial justice. Something about it bothered me. And it took me a while to work out what. As is my wont, I will now wander places which may make people uncomfortable. But. Hmm. I seem to do that.

There are very useful, interesting and constructive discussions which could be held, should be held about the matters raised in Bernie’s policy platform on racial justice. I hope that I have, in my advocacy over the years, been making some small contribution myself.

Whether it was my advocacy through and beyond the 2008 presidential election, when I campaigned for a candidate (any candidate) to adopt the notion that we could seriously impact the immediate symptoms of poverty by implementing a pledge that every man, woman and child in the US should have access to adequate food, clothing, housing and healthcare.

My attempt to get the Obama administration to set up a system of community organizers to ensure the sensitive disbursement of anti-poverty funds arising from his 2009 economic stimulus.

My current efforts to help introduce and explore the concept of citizen design of policing in Carrboro, NC.

My problem with Bernie’s new section on racial justice is that it does not offer a temperate and thoughtful review of the matters contributing to the discomfort surrounding the issues of color in the US, not least with policing. Rather it is a one-sided rant, offering little more than a check list of people and institutions to blame and victimize.

It is my opinion that any meaningful discussion of race in the US requires nuanced consideration of all sorts of impulses and imperatives, some of which are necessarily in conflict.

I want today to address just one matter that is raised in Bernie’s section on racial justice, a matter to which others return when I debate with them. Namely, the apparent bias in our justice system (from policing to court), which causes a seeming imbalance in the number of people of color in prison.

Is it reasonable merely to look at outcome (numbers in prison) and state baldly, as Bernie’s section appears to do, that this is a consequence of racial bias in our justice system? Or does it require further and sensitive examination, analysis and discussion? Not least about the rights and responsibilities of all of the protagonists which led to the bald numbers?

This is usually the point at which at least one of my friends screams: racist!

Let’s get down to the neighborhood level, and look at just one situation, merely as example. I truly understand the frustration of folk who say (and they have said it with respect to the conversation we are having in Carrboro; I’m not making this up): it’s ok for rich white people. They live on five acres. Their kids have their own room. They can engage in illegal activity unseen by cops.

Less advantaged families have to fit into a small apartment. Illegal activity takes place on balconies. Where it can be seen by cops. It’s not that poor people, or more specifically poor people of color, commit more non-violent crime. It is that they are more likely to be seen, and therefore caught.

What happens next is that police take to patrolling those neighborhoods more, partly because records now show there is more crime there, partly to increase arrest numbers. Folks in those neighborhoods feel stigmatized and targeted. Their kids have records. And this may start them down a path to more serious whatever. Bingo. More people from poor backgrounds and of color in prison for non-violent crime. Racial bias.

Is the response to apply the law unevenly, merely because of economic circumstance? At the very least, isn’t it fair to accept that this is a valid question, rather than merely presuming the answer is yes, as Bernie appears to do?

Is the answer to turn a blind eye? To decriminalize certain non-violent crime? Or reduce the sentences? Evenly? Or again, do we apply the blind eye unevenly, in response to economic circumstance?

If one person says economic circumstance is no excuse for breaking the law, it is fair to consider another person who says, yes, but we need to look at remedying cause as well as punishing effect?

And, straying a little from the specific issue of legal justice, when examining economic circumstance, is the answer to abandon the community where there is economic disadvantage, or is the better solution to work for improving that neighborhood?

I don’t pretend that the short moment spent discussing the above is the be all and end all of the nuance I reference. I offer it merely as a small example of what I mean by nuanced and balanced consideration.

And it is that nuance and balance which I feel is missing from Bernie’s section on racial justice. Rather I find his policy platform to be simplistic, trite, angry and bombastic.

There are a lot of angry people in the US today. On all sides of the debate on race, justice and policing.

It is entirely appropriate for an organization lobbying on behalf of a specific issue or an identified group of people to be so one-sided. That is their reason for being.

I would hope that a man I admire and who is running for President would be more recognizing of the fact that different viewpoints exist and require more careful navigation.

[Again, a rather interesting discussion began when I posted this essay on Facebook.]

Self-Determination -v- We Know Best


Been having some interesting thoughts and conversations hither and thither about racial justice and policing. Keep coming back to a similar point. When do we leave it to people? And when does some higher authority decide for us that our decision-making sucks?

The issue specifically arose when I was discussing citizen design of policing with a couple of gents yesterday, and one said, and I paraphrase, I’ll get more detailed in a moment, what if folks in a particular community don’t get or don’t want to engage in citizen design, and bad policing continues? Do the rest of us merely stand aside and accept the bad policing? Or do we do something about it?

Huh. Good questions. And my immediate, non-detailed answer is, if folks don’t want citizen design in their community, and they aren’t in breach of state or federal laws, then it’s none of our business.

Ok. Now the long, detailed trek. I first ran (one of my very few elective successes) for my local municipal council in the UK when I was 22. I had all sorts of ‘efficient’ notions. The best was my idea for street co-ordinators, who were to be tasked with ensuring that everyone kept their part of the street clean and trimmed, so that the town looked pretty.

Harmless enough, until I realized years later that I had absolutely no business telling other people how their street should look. That was their business, not mine. I could advocate for tidy streets. I could offer guidance. I could even lobby for funds, if a low income street could not afford it. But I had no right to impose my values on someone else.

I have spent nine years advocating in the worker-consumer grocery co-op where I am an employee for more worker democracy. More inclusion of workers in decision-making. And for it to be easier for employees to become worker-owners, so that they can vote in elections for the Worker-Owner Board Directors.

I have been marginally successful. And in the year after the Board of Directors finally agreed to make it easier for employees to become worker-owners, the number of worker-owners in our co-op (of some 250 employees) increased from 99 to some 220.

Last year, a candidate demonstrably advocating for even more worker democracy in our co-op was defeated 55 votes to 19 by someone who, somewhat unkindly, but accurately, I will describe as a management stooge.

Am I disappointed that employees don’t take advantage of the new situation that I spent nine years helping to create, namely one designed to elect Directors who might actually want to help them? Yes. But that is their right.

I was deeply troubled after the shooting of Michael Brown a year ago. I originate from Great Britain. We have very different policing over there. I simply could not understand how any community would put up with policing of this nature.

I’m not stupid. I have heard all about the legacy of white supremacy. Implicit racial bias. I truly wanted to sympathize. I wanted to help find a way forward. Which did not involve burning cars and throwing rocks. And I wanted for that solution to come from the community. But, again, I knew about the legacy of racism. And so on. And so on. Round and round in circles.

And then, I discovered two stats. 67% of the people in Ferguson, Missouri are people of color. And in the municipal elections immediately preceding the death of Michael Brown, only some 12% of the electorate had voted.

I staked out a position, which angered some people. I declared that the remedy lay in the hands of the people themselves. All they had to do was exercise their right to vote. Get in black municipal councilors. Appoint a new police chief. And weed out the racists.

My viewpoint was attacked as simplistic. All sorts of arguments were run about the difficulty some black people encountered in voting. I took the view then, and still take it now, that patronizing blacks, or any other group of people in our society, is no less segregation than asking them to use different toilets.

The net result was that, at the municipal elections in Ferguson this past April, three out of three black candidates were elected.

This served only further to inform my approach with citizen design of policing. Where I say that the solution to bad policing, if it exists, already lies in the hands of the communities being badly policed. We just don’t make use if it.

Every law enforcement agency in this country has an institution which funds it, an institution run by elected officials. All that has to happen is for voters to choose candidates who believe that it is the elected officials (along with concerned citizens and the law enforcers) who should draft and monitor the rules of engagement for those law enforcers, not the law enforcers on their own.

It is at this point of discussion that the top-down politico’s enter the picture.

But what if a community doesn’t want citizen design? Their choice. Leave ’em alone. What if they decide their policy is, shoot first, ask second? Again, if it isn’t against a state or federal law, that is their right. If you don’t like it, move to a nicer community.

What if at risk folks don’t vote? Don’t be so bloody patronizing. Try using some of that time we progressives spend making ourselves feel good actually getting into those at-risk communities and helping folks to register.

What about the legacy of white supremacy, social disadvantage, economic inequality? What on earth does that have to do with voting for someone who will give you the opportunity to help design the policing approach in your community?

What if enough people don’t vote for candidates who support citizen design? Well, that’s democracy.

What if they can’t find enough decent suitable candidates who want to be the sort of police officer they want? Oh c’mon. Keep looking. Offer more money.

What if the community does not have enough money? Ok. That’s a good question. There is a wider dimension to citizen design, I grant you. Goes something like this.

I think that, at first, we need to test the concept fully in a quiet township, like my hometown of Carrboro, NC. Iron out the wrinkles.

Then, we can try it in a couple of townships with more demonstrable problems. Perhaps translate to county and state law enforcement agencies, to see how the relationship between citizens, elected officials and law enforcement officers works in a less obviously defined ‘community.’

Next, we probably need to have discussions at state and federal level, to consider universal guidelines (not too onerous; no, you can’t introduce capital punishment for parking in the Mayor’s slot), and to consider public subsidy for communities which can not afford the reasonable costs of their own citizen design.

Around about this point, the discussions have generally dissolved into questions along the lines of, well, if this has always been possible, why hasn’t it been done?

Frankly, I have no bloody clue. But I think that part of the answer lies in all of the ‘obstacles’ folks keep referencing when they tell me the notion of citizen design can’t possibly work, or won’t solve the problems of bad or racist policing.

And I’ll be honest, the ‘obstacles’ that annoy me the most are those that, in my humble opinion, seem utterly to patronize people at risk, and presume, although God forbid the words would ever be uttered by progressives, that those at risk are not capable of designing anything themselves, and that they need higher authorities to tell them what is best for them.

I have changed over the course of my life. I no longer think I have the best answer for anything. I am prepared every single day to expect better ideas from those experiencing the problems themselves. It is why I devote my advocacy now simply to creating the space where others may have the chance to design their own destiny – however imperfect the rest of us may think that destiny to be.