Laramie’s Cautious Police Reform Moves Forward

April 9, 2021
by Matt Stannard

On Wednesday night the Laramie City Council and those city residents able and interested to attend spent several hours debating and working through a proposal for some kind of police oversight entity. The thing they came up with was a 23-member ad hoc committee to study and develop recs and specs for that entity.

Two things I want to say at the outset–first, I live some number of yards outside of city limits, although my mailing address says Laramie and I’ve lived all over the city over the past 20-ish years. Our intentional community is, however, county not city. So I don’t presently get to vote for city electoral candidates or engage in their deliberations.

Second, I’m happy and think we all should be happy that the Council, with its increasingly progressive leadership and among some members a genuine feel for the events of the past three years here, is going through this process. Yes, we should be as impatient as hell, but we should take this process as a signal that local politics really matter, with lives in the balance.

Those things said, what about the meeting and its outcome? Public debate was contentious, as Derek says in our conversation on the upcoming episode of Solidarity Wyoming (I’ll link it here). During the past couple of years, the fierce backlash against police accountability in the City of Laramie and Albany County has fueled everything from threats–and some individual acts–of violence against Black Lives Matter demonstrators, arbitrary and selective arrests of demonstrators, public officials and candidates taking the stage with fascists at an extremist rally, and lots of shit talk at City Council meetings. It remains to be seen how much difference it will make in the outcome of this process.

The more serious danger is that well-meaning liberal and moderate members of the council and ambivalent ad hoc committee members will allow themselves to be walked away from meaningful police oversight. Democrats in the city and county are an often uneasy coalition of affluent liberals and less privileged militants (and students), and political outcomes, particularly on police reform, have reflected this.

The ad hoc committee established Wednesday consists of 23 voting members, including community residents, 2 of whom must be “engaged in social services,” and institutional members with positions like criminology professor, mental health worker, and significantly a member of UW student government. Mental health workers are included, along with 2 city council members and the (always disproportionately powerful) city manager. And the committee includes 3 police officers, including Chief Dale Stalder, who is a case study in police chiefs who think they’re apolitical but are political as f*** (one Laramie Human Rights Network leader talks about Stalder’s misleading budgetary orations in front of the City Council on this episode of our podcast).

Heavy with professionals, the committee will have to proactively commit not only to race and gender diversity, but also to working class representation and an understanding of disability. The presence of the chief of police and two other officers on an ad hoc committee might seem more reasonable than having cops end up on the actual oversight entity (although watch police apologists demand that very thing), but I will be pleasantly surprised if they contribute anything resembling ideas for increased accountability. I’ll come clean on that if I turn out to be wrong.

Which brings us back around to the real danger that this endeavor won’t bring meaningful change. The source of that danger is not understanding the ideology and aims of police and policing. The deliberative process that comes out of this will be a lot of things, but one thing it won’t be is apolitical.

Any approach that doesn’t at least acknowledge that the pro-cop position is partisan, that it is conservative, and that it hides its political agenda behind a badge, the fear of crime, and its very claim to be apolitical, will yield a flawed outcome that won’t prevent police abuse. And police abuse is what this is about, it’s why we’re here, why the Council was given this mandate through whatever combination of public pressure and good conscience convinced them to start this process.

The far right, in fact, understands that this is a political fight. For them, police being allowed to crack the heads, shoot first and ask questions later, make marginalized people afraid of cops, these are policy choices. Police brutality is hardwired into their desired outcomes, a point repeatedly made by their leader, ex-president Trump.

Pretending cops aren’t political allows them to claim a disproportionate share of our budgets, and avoid legal accountability when they do things like kill unarmed people or hit protesters with their cars. Police chiefs and cop unions get their own public pulpit, speaking on politics and policy behind a veneer of authority and objectivity when they’re often completely wrong about their own effectiveness and what works and doesn’t work in the criminal justice system.

And if instances of police abuse aren’t enough to compel people to fight for reform, I would add that what we are really fighting for is what our commons, our public spaces, our communities look like. Public violence, almost all of which is institutional, crowds out and discourages collective action and cooperative engagement. We surrender our own agency, and our shared resources, to paramilitary and reactionary bad actors. We gradually lose the ability to take care of one another. Cooperative politics moves in the opposite direction of that, and so must demand a completely different paradigm of public safety. I hope that vision exists in some form among the members of this committee, whose inclusion of 3 police may be 3 too many.

Matt Stannard is a member of the Solidarity House Cooperative media team and is co-chair of Southeast Wyoming Democratic Socialists of America. You can support his work at the Solidarity House Patreon page.

Photo: Laramie protesters confront police after the arrest of a demonstrator, June 2020. From video by Matt Stannard.

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