Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Justice Summit: Race and Reform

 Some take aways from today's Justice Summit on Race and Reform of the Criminal Justice System in San Francisco:

1. Implicit bias is a huge issue at all points in the legal system - from stops, to arrests, to bail setting, to conviction and sentencing. African-Americans are 6% of the population of San Francisco, but constitute 47% of arrests and 56% of the jail population. Black youth are 50 times more likely to be arrested than white youth in SF. Similar disparities in bail setting and sentencing for the same crime exist as well. It is isn't just a problem with police officers, but with prosecutors and judges too. The problem is SYSTEMIC.

2. Police abuse of power and corruption is ubiquitous. It is a function of the monopoly on the justified use of force that comes with the office. Some of the problem is racism, some of it the problem is sheer psychopathology - some cops are just equally opportunity bullies. Those folks just need to be weeded out. Period. The problem is that the system as it is now structured is reactive rather than proactive about this necessary weeding.

3. Racism is structural - it is not about personal prejudices per se, but about how we are all socialized to associate certain negative and positive qualities with particular racial groups regardless of individual differences, and the way in which those associations work to privilege some groups and not others. Here is the news: black cops share much of the same racial bias against black folks as white cops; same for lawyers and judges. Hiring more black police officers is a necessary but not sufficient part of the solution: we all need to be trained to recognize and account for our implicit biases.

Solutions . . .

1. Implicit bias training on an ongoing basis should be required of all law enforcement professionals - from beat cops to Federal judges.

2. Stats must be kept on the racial demographics of people stopped, arrested, and killed by police; as well as the racial demographics of bail hearings, convictions, and sentencing. This is the only objective tool at our disposal to look at patterns of bias. Such stats should be required by law.

3. Transparency - complaints against police officers and the outcome of investigations by independent community review boards should be a matter of public record. Yes, that means sunshine laws should apply to police just like any other public official or professional. Such complaints and outcomes are a matter of public record for professionals like stock brokers and certified financial advisors. Such accountability should come with the enormous responsibility and public trust that comes with being given a monopoly on violence in our society. If you don't want to be accountable - don't become a cop.

4. Police officers should be required - and provided the wherewithal - to live in the communities they serve. Personally, I think this is even more important than requiring police to use video cameras. It is about building relationships and a sense of connection to a place. Video cameras do provide an important level of accountability, but they don't foster relationship or break down the us vs. them dynamic of too much police work. I know as a parish priest what a difference living in the community I serve has made to my work.

5. Everybody in San Francisco - D.A., Sheriff, Public Defender, Police Command staff - all think requiring video cameras as part of the police uniform, recording all interactions with the public, is a good idea. It protects police as well as the public. The D.A. wants to require videotapes of arrests to accompany each police report. I'm a little more nervous about the growth of the surveillance society - even if Big Brother is watching Big Brother. I'm waiting to see if it actually leads to different outcomes.

A big shout out to San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi and his office for hosting this important public conversation.