After remotely watching most of the discussion at last night's Salem City Council meeting about reforming how the Police Department operates, I was left with a letdown feeling even though I generally agreed with what the council did.
Here's how a Statesman Journal story about the meeting summarized the outcome.
During a four-hour meeting Monday night, the council eventually approved the $752 million fiscal year budget, which includes $48.8 million for the Salem Police Department.
But Councilor Cara Kaser said they can still make changes in the budget at their discretion up to 10%.
...Councilors authorized work sessions to include discussions of the use of City funds for non-criminal matters that are handled by the Police Department as well as setting parameters for a performance audit of the police department. The council included discussion of the so-called "8 Can't Wait" campaign into future meetings.
So the Police Department got its budget approved with no changes, though some changes could happen at a later date. Future council work sessions will discuss the possibility of having non-criminal matters handled by other people, such as mental health professionals, rather than police officers. A performance audit of the Police Department is planned. Discussion of the "8 Can't Wait" proposals (one is banning chokeholds) will have to wait for future meetings.
These are good ideas. Why, then, did I have such a blah feeling after watching the City Council proceedings?
I suspect that it is the same reason many others who are concerned about the George Floyd murder and the lengthy history of police brutality against Black Americans will be underwhelmed by what councilors did last night.
There's a big gap between the passion people feel at watching the video of a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd for almost nine minutes, at hearing that Salem police used tear gas against Black Lives Matter protesters, at learning that armed "militia" in downtown Salem were told by a police officer how to avoid a curfew while it was enforced against protesters, at taking part in rallies and marches against police injustice -- and the calm, measured, prudent, let's-take-time-and-do-it-right demeanor of the City Council in response to that passion.
Understand: I'm unsure about how the council could have acted differently.
The deadline for passing the City of Salem budget for the next fiscal year was at hand. There was no time left to dig into nitty-gritty details of how the Salem Police Department does its work. Any attempt to cut a portion of the department budget, such as for school resource officers, clearly wasn't going to get the support of a majority of councilors.
All I'm saying is that last night's meeting felt like a Disneyland ride in reverse.
People are OK with standing in line for a long time to enjoy a ride that makes them go Wow! and leaves them with a feeling of fulfillment. But in this case it was the high energy of the Salem protests that led to a Wow! Black Lives Matter! sensation of optimism about change being possible, whereas now the City Council is saying, "Wait patiently for us to take months, or maybe longer, to figure out what, if anything, needs to happen with Police Department reforms."
Part of the problem is that there's a depressing history of people in this country talking a lot about needed reforms, with little or nothing ever happening. After every mass shooting loud calls are heard to do something about gun violence. Then those calls dwindle to a whisper as political inertia reasserts itself.
Maybe the motions passed by the City Council last night will be an exception. But it's easy to see why the Just wait and trust us approach will be met with widespread skepticism.
For example, I liked how Councilor Nordyke spoke about hiring an outside consultant to conduct a performance audit of the Police Department, since they could look upon policing practices in Salem from a perspective untainted by local politics and special interests.
But it didn't take long for her motion to be amended.
Now City of Salem staff will return to the council with a plan for conducting a performance audit -- timeline, budget, goals, all that stuff. Perhaps that will work out.
But I couldn't help but have a "fox guarding the henhouse" feeling, since the Police Department is part of the City of Salem and has many ardent defenders among city staff and elected officials who would prefer that a close look at the Police Department doesn't happen at all.
Somehow the progressive members of the City Council have to find a way to show citizens that they are passionate about reforming the Salem Police Department during the long slog of work sessions, committee meetings, and the like that will be the link between the demand of protesters for real reform and those changes actually happening.
Otherwise I fear that protesters will feel that their voices aren't being heard. And frustration of that sort can lead to undesirable outcomes.
You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.