Protests Build Momentum for Police Accountability, Reforms to Address U.S. Structural Racism

Interview with Darius Charney, senior staff attorney with the Center For Constitutional Rights, conducted by Scott Harris

Two weeks after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd, a 46-year-old unarmed African-American man, massive, nationwide protests continue to demand accountability for police violence and justice for their victims.

The protesters in the streets are demanding a range of actions to address systemic and institutional racism in America, that too often leads to injury or death for people of color in their confrontations with police. Specific demands include making chokeholds illegal in all 50 states, removing special legal protections for officers and defunding or disbanding police departments as a first step in reimagining of how law enforcement could be conducted in this country. On June 1, House and Senate Democrats introduced police reform legislation called The Justice in Policing Act of 2020, which addresses some but not all Black Lives Matter activists’ demands.

Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Darius Charney, senior staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, who was lead counsel on the case that ended the New York City Police Department’s racially discriminatory stop-and-frisk program. Here, he discusses the current wave of protests and some of the most important reforms needed to root out police violence and institutional racism.

DARIUS CHARNEY: For CCR, I think even though we’re lawyers and we spend a lot of our time in the courtrooms, we have always believed – and we try to practice law based on this belief – that it’s really the grassroots social movements that have to lead us, right? Lawyers clearly have a role to play, but the demands for reform, the goals for the movement, the goals for any kind of reform effort have to come from the directly impacted communities.

You know, one thing that’s become clear, I think, is one of the major demands that we’re seeing around the country is that police departments need to be shrunk, if that makes sense. Police departments are already, I think too big. And they’re asked to do many things that they really have no business doing, whether it be responding to calls of people and having, you know, emotional distress or domestic violence situations or things that really require, I think a type of training and skillset that really, police don’t have. But yet it seems that most municipal governments’ answer to any kind of social problem is law enforcement and punishment.

And so I think police are just doing too many things that they shouldn’t be doing. So that’s why I think the defund ask that we’re now seeing in a lot of places is a really important one and taking that money and diverting it to other programs that are actually, I think, going to be effective and addressing those problems and increasing safety. So that’s one.

I think the second is increasing meaningful accountability for officers who do break the law or violate rights. And that involves a couple of things. It means that you really need to have an independent civilian oversight body that investigates misconduct that’s separate from the police department that the officers work in. I think it’s been proven time and time again that police departments don’t know how to police themselves. So, having an independent investigatory body to investigate police misconduct — that body has to have, I think, the power to actually when they do find this conduct to hold the officer accountable.

And then I think the third thing I would say is community control. And by that, I mean, there’s no one model that works. But I think what is key is that you have to have within the governing authority of a police department, you have to have representatives from the communities that are being policed. I mean, it seems logical when you say it, right? But the police are out there impacting people’s lives in so many ways. And in so many communities – immersed in so many communities. We really need to trust those communities to tell the police department what its priorities should be in terms of law enforcement — ways that they need to change their behavior to in fact gain the trust of the communities they’re policing. And so, I think there has to be a governance model that has direct input from the communities. And there are a few police departments in the country that have that model. It’s definitely not a panacea. It’s not going to solve all the problems, but I think it’s one of the key components along with some of the other ones I mentioned.

SCOTT HARRIS: There seems to be a culture within a lot of police departments that tolerate, if not celebrates white supremacy, as well as tolerating abuse and violence of the people in the communities where these officers patrol. A lot of emphasis on training – both bias training and cultural sensitivity – doesn’t seem to have worked in many, many cases. What else is there? What can be done to change the way police on the beat think about the communities where they’re working?

DARIUS CHARNEY: This is the root of it, right? I mean, I think there’s a number of aspects of that that are important to consider for that question. I think one is – who are being hired or who are taking the job as police officers, right? So one issue – I think, and again, none of these by themselves solves the problem, but I think these are all pieces of it. I think one piece of it is, you know, you have oftentimes people working for a police department and policing communities that they themselves don’t come from. And it doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t do the job.

But I think because so much of policing is really about interacting with communities for better, for worse, the less understanding you have about a community, I think the more chance that a stressful situation is going to go south. Because if you don’t have a trust on either side there, you don’t have that kind of familiarity with kind of how conflicts are resolved in this neighborhood and who the people are to talk to, you know, who help. So I think that is a piece of it. But another piece of it is I think we really have to shift the whole kind of philosophy of American policing away from that warrior mentality. If you’re viewing the public as the enemy, I think the results are going to be not so good.

For more information on the Center for Constitutional Rights, visit ccrjustice.com.

 

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