by Zeina Azzam, Abdel-Rahman Elnoubi, and Jonathan Krall
Communities, including Alexandria, are re-thinking policing. In Alexandria this is taking the form of police reform, which we address below, and first-step police defunding. Two police reform ideas are reportedly being implemented: a community review board and greater transparency. We say “supposedly” because transparency was promised in February 2018. Two years later, it has only been partially implemented. We have limited data on the race of people arrested and virtually no ethnicity data. To obtain robust oversight of policing, Alexandrians will need to keep up the pressure on City Council. Past experience suggests that public pressure is the only thing that works.
On June 20, two Grassroots Alexandria volunteers spoke to City Council about these efforts. Here are their statements.
From Abdel-Rahman Elnoubi, Grassroots Alexandria volunteer:
I am here today representing Grassroots Alexandria in support of an ordinance for Police Data transparency and a community review board.
Grassroots Alexandria has been an active part of a coalition of several activists, community leaders, and organizations demanding transparency and robust community oversight over the Alexandria Police department. We are demanding that City Council pass an ordinance requiring Alexandria Police to publicly share data on all police encounters with citizens, not just for vehicle stops or encounters that result in arrests. Stopping a citizen and questioning them or searching them is an example of a potentially harassing encounter that needs to be captured. The data needs to be broken down by race, gender, age and ethnicity of citizens subject to stops.
We are also demanding an independent community review board with real powers, investigatory tools, and oversight. The Human Rights Commission, which was brought up several times, lacks independent investigatory authority, it can’t compel the police to provide evidence, and they don’t have subpoena power over the police.
Three years ago, I stood before you along with many members of our coalition asking for an ordinance to require APD to release the above-mentioned data, so that our community has a clear picture of whether minorities are disproportionately subjected to stopping or questioning. Instead of an ordinance we got a promise that data will be released, a promise that is yet to be fulfilled. Three years later, what little data we do have doesn’t include all encounters, just traffic stops.
George Floyd’s murder came with a demonstration of a totally false police narrative. Minneapolis police’s initial statement read “After he got out of his car, He physically resisted officers. Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress.” We all know that’s not true. They did not mention that the “medical distress” was suffocation from a knee on his neck and other knees on his back for 8 mins and 46 seconds. We only know that because we have the evidence. We can’t just take APD’s promise or word and can’t accept incomplete data. Investigative reporting has given us a small window into the APD. We have leaned that indeed minorities are subject to more violent behavior from APD. This needs to stop. Transparency and accountability would be good first steps.
From Zeina Azzam, member, Grassroots Alexandria Steering Committee:
My name is Zeina Azzam and I represent Grassroots Alexandria, a volunteer organization that has been involved in social justice work in Alexandria for the last three and a half years. We are part of a coalition with other activists and community-based groups pushing for data transparency by the Alexandria Police Department. I am here to support an ordinance for such transparency.
I wrote to you in February 2018 on this same subject when you considered the proposed “Alexandria Police Department Data Refinement and Transparency Plan.” The data promised by the police has not been forthcoming. By breaking their promise, the APD has broken faith with the people of Alexandria.
We all see the systemic injustice in US policing. Nationwide we all see racism, discrimination, and devaluation of black lives. We want to think that the Alexandria Police Department is different. Unfortunately, we learned last week from a report for 2019 that, at the APD, “54 percent of the instances of use of force was against African Americans. That’s significantly higher than the black population in Alexandria, which is 23 percent.”
We view the collection and public availability of police data as a civil rights and public safety issue. In addition to arrests and use of force incidents, this data should include traffic stops, Terry stops, frisks, citations, and other searches and detentions. Alexandria residents, especially those who identify as belonging to ethnic or racial minorities, should be secure in knowing that when they are stopped by police, there will be accessible records to show it. Importantly, such practices would increase police accountability and could lead to building trust between the APD and the Alexandria community.
One of the recommended action steps for law enforcement from “The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing” in 2015 was to “Increase transparency by collecting and making data, policies, and procedures publicly available in multiple languages relevant to the local community through official website(s) and municipal open data portals.” It is time for the Alexandria Police Department to heed this call.
The practice of data collection should be mandatory and not voluntary. An ordinance by City Council would make sure that the APD complies with the data transparency mandate in the long term.