Friday, August 15, 2008

Safe Streets/Strong Communities builds police accountability

For my full-time legal work, I interned at an organization called Safe Streets/Strong Communities . This organization was founded after Hurricane Katrina in the wake of several highly publicized shootings and beatings of unarmed civilians by police officers. New Orleans has a notoriously violent police force– and like everything else in the city, the history is twined together with a history of racism. A local academic traced the history of law enforcement in New Orleans back to slave catchers during the pre-Civil War era. Most of the incidents of shootings and beatings of unarmed civilians by police officers in New Orleans involved African American victims, including the CNN-covered case of the retired African American schoolteacher who was beaten bloody by New Orleans Police while CNN taped the whole incident.

Most people in New Orleans agree that prior to Katrina, violence was a problem in New Orleans. The murder rate in New Orleans post-Katrina has also been very high, with the vast majority of the murders and violence being committed against African Americans. However, people’s opinions are mixed about the cause of that violence and the way to end that violence.

Safe Streets/Strong Communities was co-founded by Soros Senior Fellow and former prisoner Norris Henderson, and it operates on the philosophy that safety does not originate out of increased numbers of police patrolling poor neighborhoods, but instead from low-income communities of color collaborating together to address community violence and raise the city’s level of response and accountability. Safe Streets places great emphasis on the engagement and representation of people in low-income communities of color, since these communities are profoundly underrepresented in the electoral political process. The organization is connected to nationwide fights for racial and economic justice through the national Right to the City campaign , and is simultaneously deeply rooted in New Orleans low-income communities.

The work I did with Safe Streets included:
• Going to a city counsel meeting with an intergenerational group of Safe Streets members – from little girls to grandmas in wheelchairs – all of whom were wearing orange Safe Streets T-shirts and ready to testify about the need for accountability in the city. We had a hard-won victory when council members came out in favor of the Safe Streets-endorsed move to create a position that would independently monitor the actions of the city and the police department. This independent monitor would be funded by city taxes so that he/she would be beholden to no special interest or funding source.
• Working to provide free expungement services to over 200 people who came to a criminal records expungement fair sponsored by Safe Streets and other local organizations. In New Orleans, anyone who has been arrested and booked – even if they were later acquitted or were never prosecuted to begin with – has their picture in the New Orleans crime database, and employers routinely check that database before hiring workers. People who are trying to lead law-abiding lives are frequently excluded from jobs they apply for, even if their names appear in that database because of arrests that never led to convictions. Safe Streets works in collaboration with local lawyers and community members to expunge people’s records and open up people’s access to employment.
• Driving a 16-passenger van to the small town of Jena, Louisiana with a group of lawyers and youth activists to observe part of the trial of one of the young men arrested and charged as an adult following a racially charged fistfight in which only African American young people were charged with offenses . We got to speak to the brother of one of the accused youths, who told us about the white part of town and the black part of town and how he had enlisted in the military to escape the pervasive racism. The white side of town, incidentally, included the only local public school, the courthouse, the township’s official buildings and most of the businesses.
• The vast majority of my work consisted of campaign and policy research. Safe Streets engages in community organizing. Since any community problem can be tackled from multiple angles, one of the most important jobs of legal volunteers is to identify the playing field – who has power, who is making funding decisions, and where change can be created to better people’s lives. I was at the organization during an exciting time, when the organization was working with the vibrant group of community members who defined the work of the organization to develop a major campaign around police accountability. They needed more information about the funding going into and accountability requirements placed on the task forces and private security forces that were pervasive in the area post-Katrina.
After Katrina, a large agglomeration of federal, state and local law and immigration enforcement entities began to collaborate together through task forces. These task forces frequently were amorphous entities – seemingly answering to no one boss and often providing only the most amorphous information to the public – supposedly the ones being protected – about their activities. Were these groups accountable to local authorities? State authorities? Federal authorities? If someone was beaten by a law enforcement agent working in one of these task forces, who would that person go to for redress? And who was monitoring these groups to ensure that they were engaged in effective work that served the needs of the communities they were acting within?
Likewise, immediately after Katrina, many property owners hired private security firms to protect their possessions. These private security firms were likewise question marks for community members. What laws did these people – some of whom were mercenaries and ex-military – follow, and who did they answer to? Were they bound to respect people’s rights as state actors because their responsibilities so paralleled those normally assumed by the state? On a more personal level, where could a mother go if her young, straight-A student son was grabbed on the street while socializing with friends, frisked and beaten by such a security agent?
I was able to research the multiple task forces and security that existed in the region - from drug-specific task forces charged with surveilling the larger state to anti-gang task forces focused on the Asian community (which people from the Asian community found puzzling, since as far as these lifetime residents knew, there was no Asian gang activity in New Orleans).
This information was difficult to track down, and I wished I had more time so I could have started to file FOIA request with state and federal agencies. There were so many pieces of the puzzle, and so many places where basic information – even a phone number or a central contact for a very openly known task force (such as one mentioned in Department of Justice press releases) was unavailable. One thing was clear - there was a lot of federal money being invested in these task forces from entities such as the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security. It was much less clear – and impossible to figure out in a month –what exactly was being done with those millions of dollars and who had oversight over that money and activity.
At the end of my work, I was able to leave Safe Streets with a binder of information around the dozens of task forces operating in their city. I also had to leave them with many questions, some of which would have to be answered by subsequent law student volunteers or which would be revealed in the course of Safe Streets’ work.

Throughout this work, I was able to connect with a wide range of people – community members, lawyers who had been working in their communities for dozens of years, young activists, fellow law students and organizers who were dedicated to working together to improve community conditions.

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