Panel on Police Reform push for greater police accountability
Barbara Arnwine stresses the need to hold elected officials accountable.
By Barrington M. Salmon
(TriceEdneyWire.com) – It is not widely known that modern American police departments trace their origins to slave patrols and Night Watches created before the Civil War to catch enslaved Africans fleeing plantations, control the movement of Black people and protect the interests of plantation owners.
Therefore, it is no surprise that over the past 200 years, the relationship between Blacks and law enforcement in this country has often been fraught with tension, hostility and distrust.
Since the 2012 murder of unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by self-styled neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla. and Zimmerman’s acquittal, there has been intense national and international scrutiny, discussions and debates on policing, the unequal treatment afforded people of color by law and a criminal justice system that has often aided and abetted rogue cops who’ve been killing Black and brown people with impunity.
This was the background as a panel of experts from a range of professions and organizations spent half a day on Dec. 10 at what was billed as a town hall discussion delving into the question of police brutality and ways to bring substantive and far-reaching restructuring and transformation to a system that lurches from crisis to crisis.
“I’m a survivor of police brutality. I’ve had reconstructive surgery on my shoulders and relive that day every hour of every day,” said New York resident, poet and activist Luis Estrella. “The school-to-prison pipeline is alive and well. It’s scary to me that in six different schools where I teach, 15 or more children in each class raise their hands when I ask if they’ve been stopped by the police. The humanization of people of color needs to happen…I was assaulted and beaten by 15 cops in East New York. If we’re not seen as humans, where do our rights come in?”
Estrella, a realtor and success coach to high school and college students, said demilitarization police forces nationally is critical. He also advocated for greater monitoring by the public of police activity, the centralization of voting power and cited the need for more people of color to buy land, homes and property.
The town hall, monitored by Janaye Graham, executive di-rector of the National Action Network, took place in the Moot Court Room of the David A. Clarke School of Law on the campus of the University of the District of Columbia. It was a response to a clear state of emergency in poor Black communities, where repeated up-risings have taken place over unjustified killings by police.
“Accountability isn’t coming from the government or external communities and community policing the way it’s practiced is a façade. We have to take action, do what it takes to make positive change,”
- Dara Baldwin, a senior policy analyst with the National Disabilities Rights Network, was adamant about the need to strategically elect people who will make fair policies.
“We have to vote for people who think like us,” Baldwin said. “I work on ‘The Hill’ with people who have no clue.”
Civil rights expert Barbara Arnwine, founder and president of the Transformative Justice Coalition, agreed.
“It’s imperative not just to vote people into office but to hold them accountable,” she asserted. “Voter suppression is real, nasty and getting worse. What’s killing us is not having Black Lives Matter in every community or a Police Restructuring Committee going to every (city council and commission) meeting.”
While panelists discussed police brutality and ways to blunt the aggressive posture embraced by too many in law enforcement, protests continued to rage in Chicago, where the videotaped police killing of Laquan McDonald is the latest national outrage. Officer Jason Van Dyke has been charged with murder, but released on bail.
Also, the trial of the first of six police officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore was in session. The nation could know the verdict in that case by the end of this week.
In yet another case, an all-white jury in Oklahoma City, Okla. was deliberating the fate of former OKC Police Officer Daniel Holtzclaw. Holtzclaw, 29, stood accused of stalking, raping, and sexually assaulting 13 Black women while on duty. After four days of deliberation, the jury found Holtzclaw guilty on 18 of 36 counts including rape and sodomy. He faces 263 years in jail.
Noted attorney Benjamin Crump, who served on an afternoon panel, “We have the capacity to do something. We all have to challenge ourselves and say what can we do?”
Crump, now president of the National Bar Association, who was family attorney for Michael Brown of Ferguson and Trayvon Martin, cited the importance of activism to bring justice.
“No one gave a damn about a little Black boy who was killed,” said an impassioned Crump. “Thanks social media, a young man at Howard University said he wanted to help. More than three million people signed the petition. So don’t tell me people can’t make a change. We are a powerful force. And all politics is local. Don’t you forget that.”
The killing of Trayvon Martin, the police-involved killings of Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y.; Brown in Ferguson, Gray in Baltimore, and McDonald in Chicago last year; plus the recent deaths of Sandra Bland, Kindra Chapman, Ralkina Jones, and other women while in police custody, have elicited reactions from a wide cross-section of people across the country.
Each spasm of police violence continues to reinvigorate national protests and other acts of civil disobedience in the form of marches, sit-ins, protests, die-ins, demonstrations and confrontations with police, government officials and others in charge. Millennial warriors with Black Lives Matter and traditional activists and groups have refused to back down and are forcing police departments, mayors, and states-attorneys to take pause. Meanwhile, candidates running for president in 2016 haven’t escaped their derision and disdain either.
The pattern so far has been inevitable public questions about the use of force, followed by forceful demands for change, often to be met with resistance or indifference by police agencies. Police unions and top brass invariably paint victims as criminals and attempt to justify excessive force, while prosecutors – most of whom have close relations with police departments – often opt not to prosecute or do little to secure justice for the victims.
But change is inevitable as cameras on telephones, police dash cams and video recorders have provided eyes to the world, such as the court-ordered foot-age of the 16 shots fired into Chicago’s McDonald.
As America’s eyes remain trained on videos of police brutality and killings, other – more stealth – injustices continue to pervade school rooms, board rooms and other public arenas. This is called “implicitly bias”, express James Gilmore, police analyst with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
“Implicit bias can determine whether a teacher calls a student’s parent or call an officer and whether an officer issues a warning or decides to arrest,” says Gilmore.
Outside of the historic Black Press, most of these issues are only reported when an incident happens with national interest. Arnwine, also president of the Capital Press Club, castigated the media for its inaction.
“The media is abysmal,” she said. “The media is complicit.”