Last week, Charleston City Council held a marathon meeting in the ballroom of the Gaillard Center. Mayor Tecklenburg attributed the length of the meeting to the fact that Charleston doesn’t hold meetings as often in summer months as they do other times of the year, and the venue change was noted as similarly routine and mundane. Despite knowing it was going to be long, a large crowd showed up because a number of big issues were being discussed.
Big issues, after all, drive people to council meetings, and even encourage people to speak. And speak they did, enough to drive a move to cut comments down, first to a minute, then 30 seconds, then 20 seconds. There’s a lot to be said about curtailing public comments in a public meeting about running a city, but that’s a story for another time. (Basically, it boils down to “Why aren’t we having more council meetings and not fewer?” But again, what do I know?)
Back to the big issues. You probably heard a lot about most of them even before last week’s meeting. The bike lane ate up a good bit of coverage, as well as yet another round of Sgt. Jasper exasperations. But there was one very important, and apparently unscheduled bit of business that slipped through virtually unnoticed aside from a trio of tweets from CP reporter Dustin Waters, who sat through the entire affair and is reportedly recovering nicely.
Around 5 p.m., Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen addressed City Council’s Committee on Ways and Means and asked for a $50,000 “emergency expenditure” for crowd management gear and to explore an additional $250,000 for ballistic vests. It took only five minutes for the item to be approved and sent on for Council to consider in its August meeting. One wonders how many citizens will show up to comment on this one.
If there’s no public comment on what is essentially a step towards militarizing Charleston’s police force, then the request and the vote from council are formalities. Even before the shootings in Dallas and Baton Rouge, police departments could count on carte blanche from their councils, and Charleston is no different. Now that the mechanics of availability heuristics are in effect with regard to police being ambushed, the sky’s really the limit on what departments can ask of their respective governing bodies.
Chief Mullen also asking for permission to explore purchasing rifle-grade ballistic vests up to $250,000
— Dustin Waters (@CCPNews) July 19, 2016
Do police departments need crowd management gear and ballistic vests? Don’t bother imagining what I think about the question because the answer is simple: it doesn’t matter what I think, or what you think, or what anyone thinks. Police say they need them and they’re going to get them. There aren’t many citizens, and fewer politicians, who would question — let alone deny — a police department’s request for approval to use money in the interest of protecting the public.
What’s strange about all this, though, isn’t the notion that police seem to be immune to scrutiny about their spending or the idea that they should expect some sort of public comment when they present requests to a city council. What’s strange is that the zeal to approve funds for local police departments to outfit themselves like shock troopers from some bad ’90s post-apocalyptic film isn’t equally matched by a zeal for oversight committees to handle the number of shootings and killings committed by police this year. Already that number is above 500.
No, not all of the victims were unarmed. No, not all of them were black. But almost every one of the shootings shares in common two things: a police officer killing a citizen — sorry, until there’s a trial, you’re still a citizen and you have rights, for those of you people out there who worship the Constitution — and said officer being, at worst, placed on paid leave for a period of time.
This is the police culture that we’ve allowed to grow in this country — virtually unlimited resources with virtually zero public oversight. We keep hearing about how the reaction in Charleston to racist violence is better than other communities in America. Well, maybe we need to ask our local police forces to step up and do better themselves — accept community oversight. Accept audits of policy and practice. End policing that threatens communities and start working to build communities. Deny the desire to militarize yourselves and become an occupying force in your own town.