In the wake of the failure of a grand jury proceeding to indict Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson Missouri, President Obama has finally taken a material rather than rhetorical step on the issue. The widespread unrest sparked by public anger at the killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown, who witnesses testified had his hands up surrendering to Wilson, could not be ignored by the Whitehouse any longer. Purportedly to institute policy changes to prevent more Ferguson situations, and return the nation to a modicum of normalcy in the wake of widespread domestic unrest, the President has appointed a commission to recommend national policing reforms.
That commission, rather than being stacked with civil libertarians, seems to be built around a handful of national policing figures with little regard for human rights. Some figures involved in this new process have a long history of suppressing domestic dissent. Their long history of violent repression, and the solutions they and the White House have already made, may lead to a vast expansion of police presence and domestic surveillance.
The head of Obama's commission is Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey. Prior to being Commissioner in Philadelphia, Ramsey was Chief of the Washington DC Metro Police from 1998 until 2006. Prior to 1998 he was a Commander, then Deputy Chief and then Deputy Superintendent in the Chicago Police Department. His nation-spanning career is also a map of civil rights abuses, and crackdowns against political movements engaged in constitutional protected free speech and public protest.
Ramsey is a board member of PERF, the Police Executive Research Forum. PERF brings together the heads of big-city police departments to share ideas and best practices. It is from PERFs set of ideas that the Whitehouse’s initial recommendations to Obama's commission came. PERF has also been central in the suppression of domestic dissent.
“Welcome to Chicago, We kicked your father’s ass, now we’ll kick yours.” The T-shirts read in 1996. The T-Shirts were worn proudly by “undercover” police during the demonstrations surrounding the 1996 Democratic National Convention. The photographs of Chicago's finest wearing the shirts were seen both on the internet and aired on local television. The shirts harkened back to 1968 where anti-war protests were brutally suppressed on national television and CBS news reporter Dan Rather was publically beaten on the convention floor for questioning the crackdown. When beatings and preemptive arrests of non-violent protesters occurred again in 1996, Ramsey was in a command position. No officers were disciplined in the wake of the repression.
Ramsey brought Chicago’s level of respect for human rights and free speech with him to the nation’s capital as chief of the DC metro police. In April of 2000 he oversaw a violent crackdown on anti-globalization protestors durring the “A-16” anti-globalization protests. The following year Ramsey lead the repression of protesters at the first inauguration of President George W. Bush, which at the time a quarter of American's viewed as an illegitimate power grab tantamount to a coup.
Ramsey followed that up in 2002 with the preemptive arrest of more than 400 anti-Iraq war demonstrators in Pershing Park, DC, before their planned protest even began. The demonstrators prevailed in the resultant lawsuit against both the City of Washington and Ramsey himself. The cost of settling protester lawsuits was in the millions. Ramsey had ordered the arrests personally to “teach them a lesson.” Some arrestees spent in excess of 12 hours hog-tied on the floor of the police academy without food, water or restrooms. None were ever charged with a crime.
As first reported in the San Francisco Bay Guardian by Shawn Gaynor, PERF held a November 10th 2011 conference call that coordinated the nationwide crackdown on the Occupy protests. The national wave of police attacks on encampments saw more Americans arrested than Iranians were arrested protesting the flawed Iranian election of 2009. Ramsey chaired the board of PERF at the time of the Occupy crackdown.
Other board members of PERF read as a history lesson of the who's who of recent American protest repression: John Timoney, Bill Bratton and Timothy Dolan, all nationally notorious for their clampdowns on protests. John Timoney was police chief in Philadelphia in 2000 during the bloody and brutal crackdown on protests of the Republican National Convention. There he rode with a troop of bicycle mounted cops and personally attacked protestors. Despite the brutality and massive numbers of arrests, only 13 protesters where convicted of any wrongdoing, resulting in a total amount of sentenced jail time of zero.
Timoney took his head cracking style to Miami as chief in 2003. There he further developed his methods of suppressing dissent during the protests against the Free Trade of the Americas Agreement in November of 2003. In what became known as the “Miami Model,” the protests saw the widespread use of Tasers, tear-gas, rubber bullets and tear-gas laden rubber bullets on demonstrators simply holding signs or walking down the streets.
In 2011 Timoney traveled to US Middle East ally Bahrain as a consultant to that country’s interior ministry. In that capacity he taught the local militia how to better employ concussion grenades, gas and rubber bullets against the banned Arab Spring protests against the Bahrain monarchy. At least three protesters were killed on the narrow streets of that nation’s capitol and several western journalists were beaten and had their cameras and film taken.
Timothy Dolan is also a past board chair of PERF. He led the crackdown on protests against the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis in 2008. Dozens of homes were raided immediately prior to the event and over 800 people were arrested during the protests. As activists organized legal defense and support over the following months their events were met with a heavy police presence with multiple squad cars parked openly in front of activist’s homes and arrests made at speaking events and bike tours.
PERF’s board is also home of the founder of zero-tolerance community policing, Bill Bratton. Bratton’s zero-tolerance, “broken windows,” and stop-and-frisk policies are seen by many to be at the center of a racist regime of aggressive policing in minority areas. New York’s stop-and-frisk policy has been the center of a long running legal struggle over its constitutionality. Activists filming police abuse stemming from New York City's stop and frisk policy were targeted by police for their activism. “Wanted” posters, encouraging arrest and abuse of these activists were anonymously hung in NYPD precincts. The policy has lead to over a million unwarrented police stops of people of color in New York City.
These past and present major urban police chiefs have used PERF as the non-profit advocacy vehicle for promoting their policies to law makers and police departments across the nation.
One of the Whitehouse’s proposals to be reviewed by the new commission appears to be an attempt to increase the amount of zero-tolerance stop-and-frisk policing occurring in the nation. In the same release that announced the commission, President Obama earmarked $263 million dollars as matching funds to hire and train additional community policing officers that would be deployed nation-wide. This would result in tens of thousands of additional young new officers like Darren Wilson on the streets.
The President has also earmarked funds for officers to wear body cameras while on patrol – a PERF policy reform priority. What has not been talked about is what happens with the images. Police Union officials have long advocated that surveillance recordings from dash cameras and body cameras be deemed personnel records and thus immune to sunshine laws and public scrutiny. Evidence of police misconduct would thus be generated only for the police to see.
Using available technology, data from police body cameras, recording constantly, could be saved in a central database. Such a database could then be scanned using facial recognition software. Thus police walking the street would be subjecting everyone on that street to being recorded, databased, facially recognized and stored eternally without them even having been the subject of a police interaction. Such a database could then be accessed by any government agency at any time for any reason or for no reason at all.
Thus the sum total of the President’s initiative is more cops recording more movements of more citizens and storing that information for more agencies for more time. The proposals do not seem to have provisions for strengthening civil rights or civil liberties.
Charles Ramsey is not averse to maintaining databases of non-criminals unfortunate enough to have had a community policing interaction. During his tenure as head of the DC Metro Police he instituted random roadblocks in alleged high crime areas. Motorists would be stopped at these roadblocks for no reason other than being present and then have their own and their passenger’s names, addresses, phone numbers, employers and other information recorded and saved in a database for later look-up. No crime need be committed nor probable cause given to end up tracked.
The proliferation of data that all these proposed police policy changes would cause is something that has been given a lot of thought by at least one of the commissioners. Former Assistant Attorney General Laurie Robinson, who has been held up as balancing the hard-nosed Ramsey on Obama's commission, now a professor at George Mason University, favors blending community policing with data-driven solutions. Robinson has previously appeared on stage at PERF events as a featured speaker.
These initiatives, when taken together, appear to spell out more police, generating more data, in more communities as a prescription for police misconduct and racial bias. This is something Bill Bratton appears to favor. Soon after being hired as a policing consultant for the City of Oakland, Bratton entered into a partnership with a neighborhood based social media firm called Nextdoor.com.
The President’s commission will report to him with recommendations for reform within 90 days. Considering its composition, charge and suggestions that have already been made, the report may well have been written in advance of the commission’s existence. The recommendations will be more police, with more surveillance tools in more neighborhoods. These suggestions will be made by a coterie of police executives with a proven disdain for human rights.