Within the next few weeks, the city of Lebanon is expected to release its latest proposed contract with the Lebanon Police Benevolent Association, the union representing its police officers. This contract, currently in private negotiation between City Manager Shaun Mulholland and the union, will affect the quality of life for many in the Upper Valley.
The institution of policing in America originates from slave-catching patrols. According to “The History of American Police Brutality,” from the website of The National Trial Lawyers, police in the mid-1800s were “mainly involved in implementing public order laws upon drunkenness and gambling, irritating labor organizers, and surveilling liberated slaves and immigrants.”
In our view, that original structural role continues today, as police protect private property and enforce the anti-Black status quo. Police unions differ in character quite strongly from unions that represent other municipal workers — they’re not an organ of working-class struggle but are built to shield police from accountability as they oppress the multiracial working class.
A national study of more than 600 police contracts by Steven Rushin of the Loyola University Chicago School of Law has identified six common patterns that police contracts use to block accountability. The Lebanon Police Department contract contains at least three:
■ The contract blocks police accountability by authorizing removal of a “disciplinary matter” from an officer’s personnel file after 48 months.
■ The contract fails to expressly prohibit the rehiring of an officer who has been fired for misconduct.
■ The contract explicitly excludes community-based representation or observation. Participation in the negotiation process is granted only to union representatives, city councilors and the city manager.
The current contract is used to shield both the behavior of police and their departmental budget from public oversight.
On Nov. 18, 2020, a coalition of local activist groups supporting the Upper Valley chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America’s “CareNotCops” proposal, attended the public meeting where City Council members voted on reducing the $6.3 million budget allocated to the police and reallocating those funds to human services.
Several Lebanon residents shared their personal testimonies of negative experiences with local police officers, while others made concrete arguments, grounded in empirical research, about the inefficacy of police intervention in cases of domestic violence, substance use and mental health crises.
Through the process of developing the CareNotCops campaign, we surveyed the budgetary priorities of Upper Valley residents, spoke with them through door-to-door campaigns, and acquired dozens of signatures on petitions supporting our proposal. We’ve collaborated with allies who have been engaging politically and socially with the Upper Valley community. We have learned that concerns about the exaggerated role of the police in civic life are widely shared.
And yet, our calls for reallocation of the police budget have fallen on deaf ears.
Our experience organizing a year-long campaign to defund the police by appealing to municipal politics has revealed an impenetrable catch-22: The only time the community’s voice could affect the police contract is before the contract is finalized. But when is the first opportunity for the community to voice its concerns? At a City Council meeting, months after the contract is finalized.
Could the process be changed such that the community could view the contract before it is finalized? Sure, both parties — the city manager and the police union — would simply have to agree to make the process public.
Great, so can we get Mulholland to ask for that? Well, no. He’s on record saying that the community is “already represented” in the process. By him.
The opportunity to comment is a poor substitute for the ability to provide input. The flow of community engagement is blocked by a police union that’s engaged in a distorted mechanism of collective bargaining behind doors that are closed to the public.
If the city fails to open up to the public the process of negotiations about the police contracts, Lebanon residents will indefinitely face a wall whenever they demand information about the police budget, all on the pretext of bureaucratic and procedural limitations.
We reject the institution of policing as a means of providing public safety because of its systemic, institutionalized racial oppression and the prioritization of property over people. And we continue to support the CareNotCops proposal as a necessary step toward equitable justice for all in the city of Lebanon.
Dave Lindberg, of Lebanon, is a small-business owner and a member of Upper Valley DSA. Vassiki Chauhan, of Hanover, is a graduate student in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth College and former co-chair of the Upper Valley DSA.