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Braintrust Seeks Grassroots, Legislative Solutions to Police-Community Relations

U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson is a Democrat that represents Georgia’s Fourth Congressional District. (Courtesy Photo)

Repairing the fractured relationship between communities of color and law enforcement continued to be a central topic on the third day of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s 45th Annual Legislative Conference.

On Sept. 18, U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson (D), who has represented Georgia’s Fourth Congressional District since 2007, convened the braintrust, “Do Black Lives Matter in the Congress?: Activism and Action Restoring Trust Between Community and Police” at the Walter A. Washington Convention Center. Throughout the session, Johnson reminded attendees that they have a responsibility on their end to stop police brutality.

“People need to register and vote,” Johnson said. “If people voted, we could have people in the Congress and in state legislatures that will be sensitive to the concerns of those who have been mistreated by the police.”

The braintrust was organized into two parts. The first dealt with how to foster constructive dialogue between the police and the community, while the second focused on what could be done legislatively and politically to make law enforcement and people of color allies instead of adversaries.

In the first part, Texas State Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) said that while Republicans seem to be insensitive to minorities’ concerns about police misconduct, they aren’t the only ones.

“We are also being hindered by the Democratic Party,” West said. “The Democratic Party has been slow to have this conversation about police brutality because many Democrats think that these same issues are being discussed over and over and there is never a resolution.”

West and Johnson were joined on the first panel by Justice League, NYC leaders Angelo Pinto and Carmen Perez; Brittany Packnett, of Campaign Zero; Benjamin Ndugga-Kabuye, of New York City’s branch of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration; Angela Rye, principal and CEO of IMPACT Strategies; and Faye Cofield, an Atlanta-area human right activist.

Packnett said that people must be politically and civically active. “What is really hurting Black people is our lack of access, lack of knowledge and lack of engagement in the criminal justice system,” she said. “Too many times, Black people just accept what is given or said to them and that shouldn’t be the case. If we [as Blacks] understand how the process works we can use it to our benefit.”

One of the byproducts of the Black Lives Matter movement is legislation that requires police officers to wear body cameras. West understands that there is federal legislation on that topic, but he offers another viewpoint.

“The truth is that body cameras are a state and local initiative,” the senator said. “People must understand that body cameras are more effective when they are implemented on the state and local levels. People must understand the game and how it is played.”

Another tool for fighting police misconduct are citizen review boards that are charged with investigating and sometimes, punishing rogue police officers. However, Pinto doesn’t see that much value to them.

“In New York, we have a civilian review board but it is useless,” he said. “I know of instances where a police officer will get as many as 20 complaints and they do absolutely nothing. That is why people become cynical about government and politics.” 

Cofield said her experience with police citizen review boards is that they are often political tools of the mayor or county executive and are designed to address police issues.

“A real citizens review board would have people from all over the community and those who have undergone civilian training,” Cofield said, talking about programs that offer citizens training in what police work entails.

In the second part, former New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller, who presently serves as editor-in-chief of The Marshall Project that writes and distributes articles about criminal justice issues, participated in the panel with Georgetown University law professor Paul Butler; Tanya Clay House, of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights under Law; Michele Jawando, of the Center for American Progress; and Daryl Parks, who has served as the attorney for slain Black young men such as Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown.

Jawando noted that when African Americans enter the criminal justice system, they rarely see someone in the process that looks like them.

“Ninety-five percent of all prosecutors in the United States are male and 90 percent of them are White,” Jawando said.

Butler, who used to work as an assistant U.S. attorney in the District, said he got out of being a prosecutor because “[he] got tired of locking up Black and Brown people.”

“If you go to D.C. Superior Court, you don’t see any White people,” Butler said. “One could get the impression that White people don’t commit crimes and that’s not true.”

Parks said that Black male incarceration is “a systemic problem” but the good news is that the world is watching.

“The incidents about Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown and the others are known throughout the world,” Parks said. “The United States government is aware of this because they are sensitive about their image.”