Imagine this fictitious event for a moment.
There is a break in a sewer line in Greensboro and, during a storm, a large amount of storm water flows into the sewer line causing an overflow at the pump station and millions of gallons of untreated sewage and storm water are dumped into a creek.
The city is fined by the state for the event and the City Council decides to get to the bottom of the problem. City Manager Jim Westmoreland and Steven Drew, the head of the Water Resources Department for the city, are called to testify before the City Council in closed session to discuss the personnel who did not anticipate the break.
The City Council is not satisfied with the explanation of Westmoreland and Drew that the city employees did a good job and the break was caused by unforseen events. In their report it is revealed that a camera had recently been run through the line and the weakness in the sewer line was not detected.
The City Council decides that they know more about sewer lines than the people they have hired to run the city and the sewer system and demand to see the video themselves in closed session because it is a personnel issue.
The City Council watches the video and sees all kinds of evidence that the line was about to break. Unfortunately, the evidence the City Council sees is of areas of the sewer line that didn’t break. So the City Council decides to review more footage of the interior of sewer lines in the city. The City Council then spends hour after hour viewing videos of sewer lines.
In the end, after spending about six hours watching and rewatching videos of the interior of sewage pipes and comparing that to the pipe in question, the City Council reaches the collective opinion that the employees should be reprimanded, but they can’t explain exactly why.
As far as I know, the City Council has never watched hours of sewer line videos. The question is: Would this endeavor to investigate city employees be a good use of the City Council’s time? Is that what a policy making board with two employees – the city manager and the city attorney – is supposed to be doing?
Is it the job of the City Council to review the actions of individual city employees who have levels of supervision between them and the city manager who works for the City Council.
I think most people would say no. The City Council should spend its time going over the budget, which is its responsibility, or deciding how it will spend the $126 million in bond money the voters passed in November, which the City Council has no clear plan for spending.
If the City Council did this for every complaint about an employee in every department, the City Council would have no time to do its job. Furthermore, city employees would leave in droves to work in places where they could do their job, keep their immediate boss happy and not have to worry about a bunch of nosey city councilmembers with time to kill following them around.
But the City Council continues to behave in this manner for the employees of the Police Department. If the City Council doesn’t trust City Manager Jim Westmoreland to do his job then the City Council should fire him.
The City Council has no authority to fire the police chief or a single police officer. So why is the City Council wasting hour after hour of its time looking at videos of what police officers have done?
It is worth noting that no one on the City Council has any police training. The city councilmembers don’t actually know how police officers are trained to handle different situations.
Many, if not most arrests, are not pretty. Most people don’t want to be arrested. If they don’t want to be arrested and resist, the police officers don’t have the option of saying, “Well, maybe later. If you decide you do want to be arrested, please come down to the police station and we will arrest you.”
That’s not how it works. If a person resists being arrested then it is the job of the police officer to arrest them anyway. This involves some level of violence. It may be as simple as restraining the culprit and getting their hands behind their back and handcuffing them; it may involve throwing someone to the ground to handcuff them; or it may involve using a Taser or another weapon.
Police officers don’t carry all that equipment on their belts because they like wearing a belt with 20 pounds of equipment attached; those are the tools of their trade. Some are designed to hurt people. One is designed to kill people.
City councilmembers haven’t been trained on when a Taser should be used, or when some kind of physical violence is the better choice; police officers have and sometimes police officers, despite their years of training, make the wrong choice. But even if they do, that doesn’t make them a bad officer or even one that needs to be disciplined; it means in the heat of the moment with fractions of a second to make a decision they made one that with all the time in the world to consider even they may agree was not the best choice.
To have nine untrained people making decisions about individual interactions of the police with the public is wrong. It is bad policy. It is unfair to the police and unfair to the public. But perhaps most importantly it is not the job of the City Council, and spending so much time reviewing individual actions of police officers prevents not only the City Council from doing its job but the city staff from doing their jobs. And perhaps, most importantly of all, it is preventing the police officers from doing their job, which is to keep the people of Greensboro safe.