Recap: Is Equality and Justice For All?

Is Equality and Justice For All?

In light of the recent events unfolding across our country, “Is Equality and Justice for All” examined whether a tenant that was fundamental to the inception of our nation still holds true today. Through a panel discussion, we explored current issues that include racial profiling, excessive use of force by law enforcement, police militarization, and the legalities around these issues. We also explored our nation’s reaction to theses issues and focus on constructive steps forward. The panel included legal experts and law enforcement personnel that included Douglas Hairston, Minister and Director of Mayor Ballard’s Front Porch Alliance; Terri Jett, PhD, ACLU Indiana Board President and Associate Professor of Political Science at Butler University; David Shaheed, JD, Superior Court Judge, Marion County; and Robert Turner, JD, former police officer and Director of Public Safety for Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department. Alaa Wafa, Associate Counsel at Cummins Inc., moderated the session. The event was a collaborative effort of Christian Theological Seminary’s Black Student Caucus, Butler University’s Black Student Union and Demia, and the Desmond Tutu Center.

Following are the complete panel questions and summarized versions of the corresponding answers. 

QUESTION ONE:

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with the largest percentage of the world’s imprisoned people. In the past forty years, the number of crimes hasn’t skyrocketed, but the number of people behind bars has. In fact, the prison population in the United States was less than 500,000 in the early 1970s, but now is over 2 million according to the U.S Bureau of Justice Statistics. Over half of the crimes are nonviolent, with a relatively large percentage dealing with drug possession offenses.

Even more troubling is the evidence showing that incarceration is carried out primarily on people of color, particularly young African American men. According to the 2010 U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, black males had an imprisonment rate that was nearly seven times higher than the incarceration rate of white men. And the rate of incarceration of black women was nearly three times the rate of white women. The statistics are disproportionate despite data from the Human Rights Watch showing, for example, that African Americans commit drug offenses at the same rates as people of other races. This evidence leads to the conclusion that racial profiling has made its way into the criminal justice system. Indeed, it has been reported that police target geographical areas that are primarily resided by African Americans.

Does the criminal justice system play a role in the disproportionate incarceration of African Americans? What factors do you believe play a significant role in such incarceration rates? Are there systemic changes or other solutions that may amend the crisis?

Terri Jett: It’s important to look at the connection between our educational system and the criminal justice systems because we can see a direct correlation between the heightened number of African American youth and the increasing policing at the education level. In addition to this, economic inequality has played a significant role in the disparity.

David Shaheed: In 2014, the Indiana Legislature did a major revision of the criminal code with the purpose of addressing some of these issues. The essence is to decriminalize non-violent offenses so that offenders will serve their sentences through community corrections, home detentions or probation.

Douglas Hairston: The thirteenth amendment was suppose to abolish slavery, but there is a clause in the amendment that says “except for those who are convicted on felonies,” so in effect it is almost a reinstitution of slavery on those who are incarcerated.

Robert Turner: When you look at crime, most people don’t think about the fact that the drug houses are only in neighborhoods that tolerate it, such as those with high unemployment. When a crack house opens in a neighborhood that neighborhood becomes infected. Most people think that drug offenses are non-violent but crack is so addictive, the crack house will be a target for violent crime. This causes people to associate crime with the people in the neighborhood rather than the crack house, which led to the crime.

QUESTION TWO:

A law known as the Terry Stop, also referred to as the Stop-and-Frisk law in New York, essentially allows Police officers to briefly stop, question and frisk a person based on a reasonable suspicion that the person may be involved in criminal activity. Many civil rights groups have more recently been challenging these laws in court.

Critics say the law targets minority communities, specifically African American and Latin communities. A district court in New York even went as far as to hold the law unconstitutional. However, the decision was later overturned by the Court of Appeals. Are the concerns surrounding the Stop-and-Frisk laws justified? Is it the law itself, or perhaps how the law is applied? Can you please shed some light on the current concerns or challenges surrounding these laws and provide some insight on how they can be addressed or remedied?

David Shaheed: The problem is not with the law, but with how it is applied. The NYPD would issue a daily arrest quota, which led to running warrant checks on random people and then arresting them.

Douglas Hairston: Stop and frisk is meant as a shortcut for community policing. When a community has officers from that community working in that community there is a level of accountability of individuals who live there that holds people in check. We don’t have this as much in Indianapolis, as many of the officers have come from outside of Indianapolis. Oftentimes these officers do not have respect for the community, it causes police officers to have a disdain for the community. The officers that are able to form a relationship with the community have much better results at gaining respect.

Robert Turner: The law came out of the idea that it would be unreasonable for an officer to interview a person who could potentially be concealing a weapon. The law enabled officers to frisk the person for weapons before interviewing. However today, the law has been expanded with officers finding drugs instead of weapons, leading to arrest.

QUESTION THREE (Part One):

Allegations of the use of excessive force by police departments towards African-Americans continue to generate media headlines. On an individual level, in Ferguson, MO, Michael Brown was shot dead shortly after stealing a few cigars from a convenience store and engaging in an altercation with a police officer. In New York, Eric Garner died after police were in the process of arresting him for selling loose cigarettes. Police put him in a chokehold, brought him to the ground, and he died of suffocation. In Phoenix Arizona, Rumain Brisbon was shot dead after an altercation where the police officer mistook a pill bottle for a gun.

This all begs the question—are police engaging in excessive use of force? Is this a growing trend, and is such force being applied unequally to different races?

Douglas Hairston: There are some police officers that have a history of excessive force, but the majority does not. There are police officers that need additional training or who are not suited to be in a uniform, but by and large it comes down to the training and the application of the training.

David Shaheed: It helps the community appreciate the concept of community policing, because when these incidents take place, the one common denominate is that the officer felt uncomfortable or in fear for his life. That speaks to both a training issue and a cultural sensitivity issue.

Terri Jett: I think it is so true in regard to community policing and cultural sensitivity because we have so many white police officers killing unarmed black men. We need to think about why this is happening. The police are getting more types of military equipment that is seemingly unnecessary. If you receive this equipment, of course you are going to use it, so this is defiantly a factor in use of excessive force.

QUESTION THREE (Part Two):

Additionally on a departmental level, there are countless stories of police departments purchasing assault weapons, drones, and other military grade equipment that were used for war in Afghanistan and Iraq for use in our communities here in the U.S. This was best exemplified in Ferguson, MO, where in response to protests and civil unrest, police came out with riot gear, tear gas, and rubber bullets.

Do you think use of military weaponry by police is justified? Is it circumstantial, and if so, under what circumstances is it justified?

David Shaheed: In a street environment, the body cameras would potentially have a constructive role. The difficulty is when the cameras are used inside an individual’s property. If the cameras are live, there is a potential for abuse for that footage to be used by the police to find incidences of unrelated criminal activity.

Robert Turner: This comes down to an issue of training, in that the police officers should have been able to judge that the minor crime of selling a cigarette was not worth killing a man.

Douglas Hairston: There is such a thing as having the appropriate gear so that officers are not outgunned but it comes down to the training to ensure the individuals using the gear are using it well.

QUESTION FOUR:

In addition to Michael Brown, in the past year, there have been several incidents of unarmed people of color killed by the police. To name a few, Victor White III (allegedly having committed suicide while handcuffed, despite evidence indicating otherwise), Tyree Woodson (who allegedly shot himself while in police custody), and others, including Ezell Ford, Kajieme Powell, Akai Gurley, Rumain Brisbon and, more famously, John Crawford III, Tamer Rice and Eric Garner.

Recognizing that each case is unique and happened in different circumstances, should any importance be given to highlighting these cases either individually or collectively? Are there any factors or common themes that should be highlighted here?

  1. For example, in the Garner case, there was video footage of the killing. Such footage may have played a role in the fact that statistically, more people felt the force used in the Garner case, as opposed to the Brown case, was excessive and the death unjustified. Do you believe the footage played a role in this difference? Would some of the existing tension and mistrust be alleviated by police wearing body cameras?
  2. Additionally, grand jury trials involving police officers seem to rarely produce an indictment as was the case with Darren Wilson in Ferguson. In that case, the prosecutor was criticized for allowing Wilson to testify and for presenting exculpatory evidence. In the 1992 Supreme Court case, U.S. v. Williams, Justice Scalia explained that the main role of a grand jury is to only examine the foundation a charge can be made upon by the prosecutor. The suspect under investigation by a grand jury was never “thought to have a right to testify or to have exculpatory evidence presented.” According to the US Attorney’s Manual, the subject of a grand jury can be permitted by the prosecutor to testify. Do you believe there were any irregularities in the way that the Wilson grand jury trial was conducted? If so, in what ways?

David Shaheed: The simple answer is no because prosecutors have wide discretion with how they do their jobs. It appears that the prosecutor did not want to have criminal prosecution and there are many reasons for that, such as the close working relationship between the prosecutor and the police department. There were a number of issues at work that caused the grand jury to proceed as it did in Ferguson.

Robert Turner: In the situation in Ferguson, the prosecutor was between a rock and hard place. Had he charged the police officer, the police would have been mad at him. Had he not charged the police officer, the community would have been mad at him, which is why he decided to use a grand jury.

QUESTION FIVE:

What our conversation today seems to highlight is a continued problem of racial profiling in this country. We discussed how racial profiling is likely a factor impacting the mass incarceration of African Americans. Proponents of racial profiling have argued that it helps to identify criminals and fight crime. However, statistics have shown that racial profiling actually makes police less accurate in catching criminal activity—because resources are wasted on false positives. The focus becomes on race, rather than on the clues that could lead to identifying the criminal. Additionally, though the goal of racial profiling is to make communities safer, what in effect is happening is communities become less safe because individuals have a mistrust of law enforcement and do not feel safe reporting criminal activity.

Both current and past administrations have recognized this, and conversations have been ongoing both at the national and local levels about this. When President Bush took office, he introduced the End Racial Profiling Act, requiring federal agencies to stop the practice, and local agencies that wanted federal money to do the same. The events of 9/11 put the plan on halt as some agencies felt the need to profile Muslims in airports. The recent shootings of African Americans previously mentioned tonight have revived the discussion on the need to end racial profiling, as evidenced by Attorney General Eric Holder’s response to the tension in Ferguson. However, it seems that the progress is incremental.

What do you believe is the next step in addressing, and one day eradicating, racial profiling by state and federal authorities? Do you believe it starts at the federal level with legislation, or is there something else that can be done initially at the local level? Is there a place for a reconciliation process to help address the mistrust between the African American population and the police?

Robert Turner: We have to understand what racial profiling is, which is characterizing a person because he looks are certain way. That is a concern in terms of policing, but its not just police, as you can see with Trevon Martin.

Terri Jett: When we have all the statistics that suggest that people of color are being unfairly targeted, then we all need to work together to address all the laws that we have in place that are violating peoples rights and making our society unequal.

David Shaheed: In many respects, there are cultural issues at play when it comes to racial profiling. The more we understand about people who are different from ourselves, the better the overall environment will be. Instead of profiling them, we will look at them as our neighbor.

Douglas Hairston: As a black man in America, I have been witness to racial profiling. We live in country where racism is still prevailing. Until we get to a point where we are not teaching our children how to be racist, where the equality of an individual is not in question, and instead have a dialogue about the humanity of all individuals, we will never solve these problems.

Desmond Tutu center panel discussion February 26, 2015.

Desmond Tutu center panel discussion February 26, 2015.

Desmond Tutu center panel discussion February 26, 2015.

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