Two rays of sunshine greet today's reader of the Gray Lady: Noam Scheiber's frontpage "Police Struggle With Loss of Privileged Position" and Katrin Bennhold must-read "Nicola Sturgeon, Not Running in British Election, May Yet Prevail."
Scheiber's story is a useful recap of police missteps over the last year. No longer can police automatically rely on "thin blue line" fear-mongering and racial hatred to guarantee a privileged status. Scheiber anchors his piece with a description of St. Louis's decade-plus effort to finally pass civilian review legislation:
Early this year, Megan E. Green, a St. Louis alderwoman, met with officials of a local police union to discuss a proposal for a civilian oversight board that would look into accusations of police misconduct. After Ms. Green refused to soften her support for the proposal, the union backed an aggressive mailing campaign against her.
But Ms. Green won her primary with over 70 percent of the vote, and the Board of Aldermen approved the oversight board by a large margin. “All that stuff backfired,” Ms. Green said. “The more they attacked me for it, the more people seemed to rally around me.”
During the urban crime epidemic of the 1970s and ’80s and the sharp decline in crime that began in the 1990s, the unions representing police officers in many cities enjoyed a nearly unassailable political position. Their opposition could cripple political candidates and kill police-reform proposals in gestation.
But amid a rash of high-profile encounters involving allegations of police overreach in New York, Baltimore, Cleveland, Ferguson, Mo., and North Charleston, S.C., the political context in which the police unions have enjoyed a privileged position is rapidly changing. And the unions are struggling to adapt.
“There was a time in this country when elected officials — legislators, chief executives — were willing to contextualize what police do,” said Eugene O’Donnell, a former New York City police officer and prosecutor who now teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “And that time is mostly gone.”
St. Louis offers a particularly vivid example of the inability of police unions to update their tactics amid widespread frustration with policing. The St. Louis Board of Aldermen first passed a measure creating a civilian oversight board back in 2006. Mayor Francis G. Slay, a Democrat, vetoed the bill at the time, citing its “inflammatory antipolice” language and questioning whether it would survive a legal challenge given that the State of Missouri still formally controlled the local Police Department.
But, in December, after months of outrage following the shooting death of Michael Brown by a police officer in nearby Ferguson, Mr. Slay agreed to support a bill similar to the one he vetoed a decade ago. A spokeswoman for the mayor said that local control of the Police Department now made the bill legally defensible.
The St. Louis Fraternal Order of Police, one of two prominent local unions, was not persuaded. Although the alderman involved in drafting the legislation met with union officials around the same time and asked them for input, the union offered suggestions in writing only on April 13, two days before the board was set to vote on the bill, and far too late to incorporate any of its changes.
“When we met with them in December, I was honestly interested in their thoughts,” said Alderman Terry Kennedy, who sponsored the legislation. “I would have tried to incorporate as much as I could have.” But, Mr. Kennedy said, the union’s objections proved to be a “constantly moving target.”
Jeff Roorda, a spokesman for the union, said that once it became clear that the Board of Aldermen was determined to give the oversight board investigative authority, rather than simply review powers, the union felt it was better to save its reservations for a future legal challenge.Civilian police review boards, even those with subpoena powers, are no panacea. Members are usually appointed by politicians, and politicians are loath to mess with the police. Once misconduct or lawbreaking is exposed, the civilian review board must then rely on police department officials and/or prosecutors to enforce penalties. Civilian review boards in one form or another exist in cities throughout the country, in New York City, for instance, and they have not proven able to check the fundamental excesses -- the racism, lethal force, and gangster-like impunity -- of the police status quo. They are better than nothing. That's about it.
Nonetheless, the fact that city legislatures are beginning to get some traction on long-stalled civilian review laws is a positive sign.
But a truly positive sign is the rise of the Scottish National Party (SNP) out of the ashes of last September's independence referendum defeat. The SNP is positioned to win 45 seats in British parliamentary elections tomorrow, basically scouring Labour leadership out of Scotland, and giving party leader Nicola Sturgeon a great deal of say in any coalition government Ed Miliband expects to form.
Take note of the adulatory opening to Katrin Bennhold's story:
ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — Nicola Sturgeon was late getting to her burgundy helicopter. It had taken her 45 minutes to traverse the 50 yards between the medieval church and the high street — and not just because of her perilous-looking designer heels.
Ms. Sturgeon, the leader of Scotland’s semiautonomous government, was campaigning for her Scottish National Party before the general election on Thursday, and the reception, by the standards of British politics, was rapturous.
Teenagers screamed. Supporters wearing “I’m with Nicola” badges shouted her name. A half-dozen schoolgirls who skipped class for the occasion lined up to take selfies. A grandfather wanted her autograph on his new party membership card. (“My whole family has joined, three generations,” he said proudly.)
Then, a man with a distinctly English accent approached. “I’m a fan from London,” he told her. “I wish I could vote for you.”
The affluent university town of St. Andrews, where Prince William and Kate Middleton studied, has never elected a parliamentary candidate from the left-leaning, separatist Scottish National Party in a general election. But it appears likely to do so this week, along with most of Scotland.
Ms. Sturgeon, a 44-year-old feminist from Ayrshire, a working-class county in southwest Scotland, wants to lock the Conservatives out of power, rid Britain of its nuclear weapons and end austerity measures. She has attracted the spotlight in the election campaign — and she is not even running for Parliament herself.
Judging by opinion polls, she is all but certain to emerge as a national political force, commanding the third-largest bloc of seats in Parliament and ending the Labour Party’s long dominance in Scotland.
Barely known in England before she took over her party last year, she has gained prominence in a series of televised debates in recent weeks. In one exchange, she challenged the head of the populist U.K. Independence Party, Nigel Farage, after he blamed immigrants for a housing crisis.
Immigrants “make a net contribution to our country,” she told Mr. Farage. “So if we can maybe just put the boogeyman to one side, we can actually debate these issues for real and in substance,” she continued, to thunderous applause.
“It’s astonishing — —” a shocked Mr. Farage began.
“You are, yes,” Ms. Sturgeon retorted, to more cheers.
After she explained to a national audience why she wanted a higher minimum wage, more spending on health and child care and an end to steep budget cuts, people outside Scotland suddenly wanted to know if they could vote for her party.
They cannot. Her party is fielding candidates only in Scotland. But with neither the Conservatives nor Labour expected to win a majority, Ms. Sturgeon could well determine the shape of the next British government — or whether one can be formed at all.
What is remarkable in Bennhold's story is the rocket-like rise of the SNP following its defeat at the polls for Scottish independence, after which Sturgeon took over party leadership from Alex Salmond:
So far, Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, has ruled out setting up a formal coalition, suggesting that he expects the Scottish Nationalists to support his agenda in any case. The two parties have similar economic platforms, though they differ sharply on some other issues, like nuclear disarmament and Scottish independence.
But Ms. Sturgeon says that Labour cannot be trusted to make Britain a fairer country on its own. “We can bring an influence to bear on Ed Miliband and a Labour government to make them more progressive,” she said in an interview.
“There is as much of an appetite for political change in England as there is in Scotland,” she continued. “The fact that neither Labour nor the Tories are ahead in the polls reflects the fact that people think they haven’t got much of a choice.”
The right-leaning tabloid The Daily Mail has called her “the most dangerous woman in British politics.” Prime Minister David Cameron has described a possible coalition with her as “a match made in hell.” The Conservative mayor of London, Boris Johnson, likened her to a scorpion and said that allowing her party into a coalition government would be like putting King Herod in charge of a baby farm.
One Conservative campaign poster shows Mr. Miliband peeking out of Ms. Sturgeon’s pocket. Another has her as his puppet master.
Ms. Sturgeon shrugs off the vitriol. “People only try and shoot at you if you’re worth shooting at,” she said. Noting that her party has been in government in Scotland since 2007 and won a majority there in 2011, she said, “If the S.N.P. wasn’t doing well, nobody would be bothering about us.”
In the meantime, each English insult seems to strengthen her in Scotland.
“Every time David Cameron or Ed Miliband says something stupid, there is a surge in party membership,” said Heather McLean, 59, a former Labour voter from Dundee who joined the Scottish Nationalists during the independence referendum campaign last year. “And they do that quite a lot, you know, say something stupid.”
The referendum galvanized voters on both sides of the independence debate, drawing nearly 85 percent of Scottish voters to the polls, the highest turnout in any British election in a century. Membership in the Scottish National Party has quadrupled. [!]
Even The Sun, Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid, which is backing the Conservatives elsewhere, has jumped on the nationalist bandwagon in Scotland. Its Scottish edition depicted Ms. Sturgeon as a light-saber-wielding Princess Leia from “Star Wars” and told readers it was “time to vote S.N.P.”
Ms. Sturgeon was delighted. “If I cast my mind back a decade, the idea of any tabloid newspaper endorsing the S.N.P. would have seemed a bit fanciful,” she said.
When she joined the party as a teenager, it was a fringe group with three seats in the national Parliament (Scotland would not have its own legislature for another decade). It took two decades and numerous defeats before she finally won election to the Scottish Parliament. When she took her seat, she refused to take an oath of allegiance to the queen, instead swearing loyalty “to the sovereignty of the people of Scotland.”Oh, what a beautiful thing it is. I know adoration of politicians leads nowhere but to heartbreak, but maybe there is enough intelligence and courage left in the electorate that some sort of counter-hegemonic democratic shift can come about. One thing is for sure. The United States needs the equivalent of the Scottish National Party.