When I was a kid, I was taught that if I was in any kind of trouble out there, the best sight I could hope to see would be a policeman. But the experience of black kids my age was not so positive even then (remember, I am older than dirt). And it’s not improving.
People say that “it’s no worse, it’s just on the news more.” Well, good! If it’s on the news more, that is probably the main thing that will create the pressure to fix it.
I am working on confirming that the process that Rochester NY has in place is fair. I started down this road as detailed here, and my work continues now with a contact made with the office of one of our at-large City Council reps to understand some of the possible gaps in the process and what can be done to shore them up if they are real.
This article in Ravishly by Ijeoma Oluo caught my eye, because really, just feeling bad about racist policing is not doing anything about it. Even writing distressed-sounding social media posts about it isn’t quite up to the bar. So what, what can we do? I read the article and…
Step 1: Educate yourself on your city’s police conduct review process. OK! That’s something I can do now! It wasn’t even that hard to find for the Rochester Police Department (RPD). Luckily there was a Wikipedia page with a link to a page that had a link to the process as published. Sounds convoluted but not compared to what some cities have… or don’t have… online.
Reading the process online, I was looking for the gaps that Oluo said I might find, and I am not sure if I found one. A bit of an inconsistency perhaps? It certainly could be completely innocent. Here is the passage I tripped on:
The Police Chief reviews every complaint after the investigation is completed and a report is written.
If your complaint includes excessive force or charges an officer with a crime, it will also be reviewed by a Civilian Review Board (CRB). The Board includes three citizens who are not members of the Police Department.
The CRB will review your complaint, statements from all witnesses and reports from the investigation. The CRB may ask for additional information before making its recommendations to the Police Chief. The CRB may also choose to interview witnesses.
The results of investigations where there are no charges that the police officer used excessive force or committed a crime are also reviewed by the Police Chief.
The Police Chief reviews investigations and makes the final decision on all complaints.
I felt that the fourth bullet implied some other path if an officer was charged with excessive force or any crime, while the fifth bullet dispelled that idea with the one that the Chief has the final say on everything.
I have emailed the RPD for clarification, I will share what response they make and then my progress to Step 2 (if necessary).
On the Memorial Day holiday, no less, I got this response from Lieutenant Mark Simmons, the RPD Commanding Officer of the Professional Standards Section:
Thank you for taking the time to reach out to the Professional Standards Section regarding your inquiry about the complaint review process. In sum and substance, the Chief of Police reviews every complaint after the investigation is completed and a report is written, as indicated in the first bullet point (The Police Chief reviews every complaint after the investigation is completed and a report is written).
The last bullet point further explains that the Chief of Police makes the final decision on the investigative findings for all complaints (The Police Chief reviews investigations and makes the final decision on all complaints).
The second to last bullet point was placed there to further solidify the point that despite the complaint’s eligibility to be reviewed by CRB, the Chief of Police will still review the case (The results of investigations where there are no charges that the police officer used excessive force or committed a crime are also reviewed by the Police Chief). Although I agree that this line may be perceived as redundant in nature, it was placed there to ensure citizens understood that their complaints will always be reviewed by this department’s highest ranking member.
I apologize if the line was confusing to interpret and am grateful to you for seeking clarity. If there is any further assistance that I can provide you in the future, please do not hesitate to contact me.
So the CRB can add investigative horsepower to a given case, but it seems that their result is purely advisory — ultimately a finding will be the decision of the Chief.
When the FBI or some other government agency comes a-calling at any custodian of your private information, from Google or Yahoo! to the local public library, they bring something called a National Security Letter (NSL). This not only serves as a warrant for the information they seek, but it also includes a gag order — the institution is not permitted to disclose that they have been served, or what information they handed over.
But companies are fighting back, in a passive-aggressive way (don’t worry, this time it’s a good thing). As detailed in this article on ZDNet, companies have realized that post-Snowden, customer trust in protection of their data is quite important. And so many of them are implementing what is called a “warrant canary.” The name derives from the old practice of taking a canary down with coal miners, so that if gases start to accumulate the more-sensitive canary would die and hopefully give the miners sufficient warning to escape the local buildup of carbon monoxide or similar.
Low-tech warrant canary
A warrant canary is a statement that a company makes proactively that they have not received a demand for data — and silence — bundled into a NSL. Then, we in the public watch for the statement to go away. It can be a line in the text of a webpage, or a periodic statement perhaps in a quarterly report for a public corporation. It can also be a sign on a bulletin board as in the picture to the left.
Legal scholars wonder whether the NSL’s gag order can also be interpreted to require the subject organization to actively lie to the public, and continue to say, “no, they have not been here.” Moxie Marlinspike has stated his opinion that removing a warrant canary would “likely have the same legal consequences as simply posting something that explicitly says you’ve received something.”
But the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) believes that a law specifically outlawing this practice would be required, and there is no such thing on the books as of now. So they have established a website, Canary Watch, that maintains a list of existing canaries and monitors them for changes.
ZDNet quotes EFF staff attorney Mark Rumold as saying, “No court has ever publicly addressed the issue,” and that it would be “unprecedented” for the government to force a company to keep that warrant canary in place. “I’m skeptical it would ever happen….”
Once a company has been served with a gag order, though, it’s too late. Verizon was forced to comply with a Section 215 order for phone records data of every one of its customers. And Twitter is suing with the Justice Department aiming to settle whether or not warrant canaries are protected under the First Amendment right to free speech.
Visit Canary Watch for more on this. I check it a couple times a week.