Police politics vs. political process

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Pity poor Cam Gordon. The rookie Green Party council member from the Second Ward tried to straddle the chasm between politics and process last week and wound up pissing off just about everyone.

At issue was the nomination of Tim Dolan to be police chief and the venue was the City Council’s Executive Committee. To move the controversial nomination forward, Dolan needed three affirmative votes from the five-member committee. He had two sewn up: Mayor R.T. Rybak and Council President Barbara Johnson. But going into the meeting, the other three members–Robert Lilligren, Scott Benson, and Gordon–were all publicly undecided on the nomination.

During the meeting, Gordon grilled Dolan on a number of different issues, while Lilligren and Benson tossed a few softball questions at the interim chief. So, prior to the vote, it appeared that Gordon’s would be the one solid vote against the nomination. Instead, it was Lilligren and Benson who declined to vote, saying they were not prepared to make a decision on the appointment. Gordon was in the same boat, of course. He remains undecided, but refused to kill the nomination by abstaining, thus keeping the nomination alive and infuriating police reform activists.

In a missive widely circulated over the weekend, Michelle Gross of the group Citizens United Against Police Brutality launched a bitter and venomous attack against Gordon, calling him naïve and taking him to task for “betraying” the progressive community he’s supposed to be representing.

Last Monday, Gordon held a “town hall” meeting to hear from constituents about the Dolan nomination. What he got was a roomful of “constituents” that was dominated by well-informed activists (most of whom came from outside Gordon’s ward) eager to convince the council member to vote against Dolan.

Gordon reported on the process and listened to the concerns expressed by Gross and others, but made it clear at the end of the 90-minute meeting that he remained undecided about the nomination and was not comfortable short-circuiting the council process by killing the nomination at the Executive Committee. He said he understood and shared many of the concerns expressed by the group about Dolan’s apparent unwillingness to discipline misbehaving cops, but he noted that most of his constituents believe the city is lucky to have a guy like Dolan to run the department.

That’s the problem with representative government: Elected officials have to consider the views of all their constituents, not just the most vocal ones. And they have to weigh not just the evidence arguing against a particular position, but the evidence in favor as well.

In the case of the Dolan nomination, Gordon is well aware of the arguments against the interim chief. Indeed, he’s been actively involved in crafting a police reform agenda that Dolan has said he will support. His decision now revolves around whether he trusts that Dolan will follow through–an open question for Gordon, as well as several of his colleagues.

While I’m sure it was tempting to “make a statement” by killing the Dolan bid, Gordon’s refusal to do so says something about his political maturity–and his pragmatism. As he noted in his town hall meeting last week, “Who’s to say candidate number two or candidate number three is going to be any better?”

Yes, police reform activists are probably going to be unhappy with Dolan as chief, but then they saw little reform during the brief tenure of his predecessor–though William McManus was just the sort of “outsider” they would prefer to take the reins again.

The real enemy of police reform is not the chief, but the labor agreement between the city and the Police Federation that does all it can to protect police union members from any meaningful disciplinary measures. The Federation’s lawyers, for instance, already are threatening a lawsuit against the city if the council interferes with the chief’s role as final arbiter in any disciplinary decisions affecting sworn officers.

Council members like Gordon can raise these issues of accountability and negotiate reform strategies, but it’s really up to the mayor–who has the authority to hire and fire the chief–to see to it that those labor agreements are drafted in such a way as to create more accountability. Gordon’s vote, I hope, will intensify that debate rather than allow it to be lost amid the search for yet another doomed “reform-minded chief.” If we’re lucky, the mayor will take it from there.

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