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Letter to the editor: Trust, transparency, and accountability needed in Madison City

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in a letter to the editor are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of The Madison Record.

A small group of people can overturn the most powerful tools we have to protect freedom, and they can do it without taking a single vote.  Neither the Constitutions of the United States and Alabama, nor federal, state, and local laws, nor rules and regulations adopted by administrative agencies, nor the will of the people themselves can endure incompetent or unfair law enforcement.  If judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and police exceed, abuse, or neglect the authority we have given them, then what we have written on paper becomes meaningless.

We exercise direct oversight of some people who enforce our laws.  We often elect judges and attorneys general.  People that we elect appoint others, such as federal judges nominated by the President and approved by the Senate. Police officers are different. They are neither elected nor appointed, but rather are hired. They also have the most immediate contact with citizens, and we authorize and equip them to use deadly force.

Police misbehavior has instantaneous and sometimes irreversible consequences.  An excessive use of force causes injuries or even deaths.  Biased enforcement violates the civil rights and often the economic well being of entire segments of our citizens.  Labor contracts and their own self-interest often hamper elected and appointed officials who have law enforcement authority in their oversight of police behavior.

Madison City, Alabama, has responded to the potential harm of police misconduct by creating a citizen advisory committee even though it faces some serious problems.  Is it not ironic that the city elected officials who often showed their inability or unwillingness to exercise oversight over the Madison Police Department appointed the members to the committee? Advisory committees have no authority to set standards and procedures or to enforce such standards.

“Community review boards may provide an avenue for community input and communication to decision makers, but there are significant limitations to the power and scope of review boards that prevent true accountability,” said Dillon Nettles, policy analyst with the ACLU. He said “there is little evidence to suggest they prevent harm or change in the way police function in the communities they serve.” (AL.com, Sept. 13, 2020).

Cities and towns across our country have chosen to create citizen oversight or review boards with the legal authority to require changes to procedures and policies, and to participate in evaluating police conduct.  They also are given the resources to perform their duties.

Madison City Council and the Mayor failed to create a strong police-citizen bond of trust. Now, they failed to create a bond of trust between the citizens and the CAC. However, the mayor and the majority of council members did one commendable thing by appointing a new Chief of Police from out of state as I suggested in my previous op-ed here. They did it in spite of strong pushback from the special interest groups.

The citizens of Madison City should recognize that an advisory committee may do little to prevent or correct police misconduct, or to ensure that official police policies and procedures adequately protect the public.  We therefore must continue paying attention to what our mayor, council members, and the police are doing and using our collective power as citizens and voters to do this important job.

Hanu Karlapalem

Madison, Alabama

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