Election 2020

Keep Close Watch On These Police Ballot Initiatives

The election is bigger than the president. Here’s why.

Photo: Seth Herald/AFP/Getty Images

Election 2020 isn’t just about the next president. It’s also an election where several ballot measures nationwide could impact how the criminal justice system and law enforcement interact with millions of people in cities around the country. From a three-part question in Philadelphia that could double down on the illegalities of stop and frisk to Portland, where residents are weighing in on an oversight measure that establishes a police oversight board, there are at least 20 local initiatives that could impact the relationship between the public and the police.

Columbus, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Akron, and Seattle all face measures that on the outside look to shift the balance of power involving law enforcement. These measures are important because they largely came about in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd and the ensuing protests of police brutality. They could arguably have a more immediate impact on the day-to-day lives of people in those cities than the outcome of the presidential contest.

The Columbus measure in particular seeks to create a police board to help improve accountability. That said, many such boards — even when enacted — still have trouble actually enforcing anything.

In fact, a Pittsburgh ballot initiative is aimed at giving its already-established board real teeth. The question asks residents to decide whether to give its civilian review board the power to compel city officers to cooperate with its investigations; officers could face termination for refusing.

In Philadelphia’s case, these measures could most immediately impact the conversation surrounding the killing of Walter Wallace Jr.

“We must redefine public safety and prioritize investing in community-based services and non-police responses,” says Lynda Garcia, director of the policing campaign at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, “[in order] to assist people with mental health needs so we can prevent more tragedies like this.”

Per Ballotpedia, here are more details on additional city measures:

  • San Diego’s “Measure B” essentially replaces the Community Review Board on Police Practices with a new Commission on Police Practices. The new commission is appointed by the city council and has the power to investigate and subpoena information related to police-related deaths and complaints against police.
  • San Francisco’s “Proposition D” creates a Sheriff’s Department Oversight Board.
  • Oakland has a measure that, if passed, creates an Office of Inspector General and impacts the powers, duties, and staffing of the Oakland Police Commission.
  • Akron’s measure would require the public release of police body and dashboard cameras that document police use of force in cases that lead to death or serious injury.

The Department of Justice has some ideas on how to best use oversight boards and improve public safety, but again, the whole system needs to be overhauled — including on the federal level. Many people are calling for total abolition of police. Others are calling for stronger accountability. And that’s why this election is an important precursor to whatever happens next. People are voting — and they’re voting early — and they are reacting to the fight for social justice inspired by Black Americans.

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