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Can a New “Progressive ALEC” Advance Police Reform Through Municipalities?

Local Progress, a progressive counter to ALEC’s new city arm, convened in New York City.

Opponents of the New York Police Department's stop-and-frisk policy joined New York City Council members Jumaane WIlliams and Brad Lander at a news conference on the steps of the New York City Hall on August 13, 2013, after Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled the police department's tactics violated the constitutional rights of the city's communities of color.

As the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) begins its expansion into local municipalities and counties with its new arm, the American City County Exchange, another group is working to provide the progressive counter to the City County Exchange — and one of its main policy goals for cities and counties across the United States is police reform.

Local Progress, a network of hundreds of local elected officials from around the nation, held a competing convention in New York City, hosted by Mayor Bill de Blasio only a day after the City County Exchange’s own winter conference. Local leaders shared ideas and experiences about progressive policies being advanced in municipalities around the country to promote sustainability, economic justice, strong public education, immigrant rights and affordable housing, among others.

Local Progress is led by a board of elected officials from cities including Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Seattle, San Diego and San Francisco, among others, and by the staffs of SEIU International, the Center for Popular Democracy and the Public Leadership Institute.

Robin Kniech, a Local Progress board member and Denver City Council member, told Truthout the network is helpful because local elected officials don’t have the same kinds of caucus opportunities that state and nationally elected officials have, but she cautioned the network isn’t only for elected leaders.

“We don’t exist in a vacuum just for elected officials; we really do recognize that locally, where these [policies] are achieved, they’re achieved in partnership with coalitions that we want to be involved in our work, and our ideas are accountable to those folks who are experts,” Kniech told Truthout.

With congressional gridlock becoming the new normal in Washington, progressive policies are becoming more and more viable at the local level, say the network’s board members.

Local Progress members share model legislation and best practices for implementing progressive policies in municipalities and counties throughout the United States. Board members say the model legislation isn’t simply handed out to be advanced in localities, but rather, developed organically in a bottom-up fashion.

The organization was started in 2012 and has grown to include more than 300 local leaders from 40 states, representing hundreds of local governments. During the past two years, the network has accomplished a number of progressive victories in cities across the United States, including raising the minimum wage in Philadelphia and enacting paid sick leave in Portland.

ALEC created a local incarnation when its image took a hard hit this year after several public relations blunders. Several ALEC corporate members, including Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Yahoo, announced that they were dropping their memberships in the free market policy group after they were successfully pressured to cut ties. The tech companies joined dozens of other corporations who dropped ALEC due to the group’s opposition to government action on climate change. But ALEC may have become empowered again last month by Republican midterm victories.

Progressives, on the other hand, saw midterm victories in many municipalities where Americans voted against corporate power in local ballot initiatives and local elections, and local leaders are hoping to use that momentum to advance 15 progressive policy areas in 2015. During the convention in New York City, Local Progress members discussed policies including those focused on protecting residents from deportation and providing services to undocumented immigrants; prohibiting discriminatory policing and reforming police practices; and supporting alternatives to incarceration and decriminalization measures.

“There’s a whole host of ways we can dismantle the criminal justice system which incarcerates people based on their race and destroys so many families,” says Ady Barkan, a senior attorney at the Center for Popular Democracy. “And a lot of these policies are being innovated in the cities around the country.”

Specifically, the group hopes to require body-worn and dashboard cameras for police officers, require written records of consent in consensual searches, require officers to identify themselves and explain the reason for a stop or detainment, improve officer training, expand oversight of police departments by empowering civilian review boards, and end stop-and-frisk policing and racial profiling, among other police reforms.

“Seattle has created a citizens police commission, and it looks like it may be a good model for other cities to follow. That’s the kind of thing that Local Progress is about, showing, basically, what’s working in cities and if it can provide a path or a model for other cities to adjust to their own community,” says Nick Lacata, a Seattle City Council member and Local Progress chair.

The Justice Department found in December of 2011 that the Seattle Police Department engaged in a pattern or practice of excessive force that violates the Constitution and federal law, resulting in a consent decree between the city and federal authorities. Seattle is one of more than 20 U.S. cities under federal monitoring after a Justice Department civil rights investigation found systemic violations. Under the terms of the consent decree, city leaders established the Community Police Commission, one of the only civilian commissions in the United States with a specific mandate to develop reform recommendations based on community input.

The Local Progress convention included a panel on police reforms, with representatives from Cincinnati, Seattle and New York, who spoke about police reforms effective in their respective cities.

Brad Lander, a New York City Council member and Local Progress board member, recently called on New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to establish the state’s attorney general as the special prosecutor for cases of police brutality in which an unarmed civilian is killed, but he warned these kind of fixes are only one small part the much larger, systemic change that is still needed.

“We’re talking about a set of injustices rooted in the deep history of racial inequality in this country, and you can’t undo that with a clever local law,” Lander told Truthout.

Members of the New York City Council are weighing various bills aimed at reforming the way police treat civilians like Eric Garner, an unarmed Black man who died shortly after he was put in a chokehold by a New York City police officer in July. A grand jury recently decided not to indict the officers who killed Garner.

The council is weighing bills aimed making chokeholds illegal, changing use-of-force policies and instituting additional reporting requirements on use-of-force incidents, some of which have been previously proposed but have failed passage.

Lander hopes the council will pass the Right to Know Act, which is comprised of two bills that were originally part of the Community Safety Act, but which failed passage last term. The two bills would require the New York Police Department (NYPD) officers to identify themselves when stopping or detaining someone and explain the reason for the stop. The bill would also require that officers let people know they have a constitutional right to refuse a search.

Lander also hopes other cities will look at aspects of New York’s Community Safety Act, which was passed last year, as model legislation. The act banned racial profiling by NYPD officers, including giving civilians the right to take legal action, and instituted an independent inspector general for the police department.

But the councilman also believes a process in which communities come together with the department under a federal monitor is just as important as implementing local laws.

“Moving forward under the federal court order and federal mandate on stop-and-frisk through a process that puts at the table the [police] department, the city council, the unions and the advocates, … what I learned from the Seattle and Cincinnati examples is that that might be the most important thing for achieving a real durable change in culture and institutions,” Lander said.

Local Progress also hopes to advance a number of alternatives to incarceration, including implementing pretrial diversion programs and alternative courts, prohibiting civil forfeiture, reducing fees imposed on offenders and probationers, and facilitating ex-offender reentry.

But one of the group’s main priorities in the coming year is enacting a living wage and paid sick leave in cities across the United States.

“I expect that as Local Progress grows, in 2015, we will see many more victories along the lines of what we saw this past year regarding minimum wage and paid sick leave,” Seattle’s Licata told Truthout.

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