“The innovation of [Title VI] was really designed to address recalcitrant Southern jurisdictions that refused to comply with Brown v. Board of Education” in desegregating schools, LDF president Sherrilyn Ifill told NPR. “But it doesn’t apply just to education. It essentially says that federal funds cannot be used to support local programs that engage in discrimination.”
That seems pretty clear in the law, and it should be as easy to follow the law when it comes to police departments as to schools, but of course we know it’s not. And right on schedule, Attorney General Merrick Garland is getting pressure from another direction when it comes to investigating police departments and holding them accountable. He recently met with police union heads, and as we’ve seen again and again, police unions are one of the forces most hostile to change.
“Whether we agree or not, from our end, we just want to make sure we have a seat at the table and make sure we are able to present the point of view of the rank-and-file officers,” said one of the police leaders who attended the meeting. Because what police definitely don’t have enough of is a seat at the table …
That pattern shows up yet again in a major Washington Post investigation of civilian oversight boards, which often find themselves reduced to PR projects, their powers sharply limited by provisions in police union contracts. In some places, like New Bedford, Massachusetts, police union contracts ban civilian oversight altogether. That points to an important lever of power activists are looking at: Union contracts are legally binding. But contracts end, and get renegotiated. Often when unions go to the bargaining table, they’re facing loss of health coverage or erosion of their wages. When police unions go to the table to bargain, accountability should be on the table. Transparency should be on the table.
The existing ways of holding police accountable and preventing future abuses have not been working. It’s time for everyone from the Justice Department to local government to get serious about finding new ways, ones with teeth. And the LDF has offered up a way that is already written into the law.