What Attorneys Can Do to Help Police/Citizen Relations

What the Legal Community can do to Restore the Faith of the People and Police in each Other. 

Chicago Bar Association 2/5/15

Greetings and thank you to Noah Graf and the Constitutional Law Committee of the Chicago Bar Association for inviting me to speak.

First of all, let me say that I find this topic both intriguing and very difficult to answer or even attempt to answer since profound changes are required if we hope to improve relations between the police and citizens. 

This program is being held due to the recognition of the profound problem that exists throughout the U.S. and certainly in Chicago with the police. To try to resolve this problem, it is essential to define and attempt to understand the source of the problem. The source of the problem is the police attitude to and behavior towards African Americans and Latino people. 

Although the topic is defined as the police and "the people", we need to define who are the people whose faith needs to be restored in the police. To posit a universal police/public dichotomy ignores the reality of many white people's generally positive interactions and perception of the police versus the nature of African American and Latino people's negative dealing with the police. Because of this sharp division, I want to focus on police treatment of and attitude towards people and communities of color in the U.S. 

There are two main reasons for bad police relations with African Americans and Latinos. 

The first is undeniably racism directed by the police towards African American and Latino people since the reality of African American and Latino people's interactions with the police are too often a produce of racism by the police. Racist treatment or even mistreatment by the police is not the reality experienced by most, though not all, white people and this certainly impacts white people's attitude towards the police. Research and polls document that racist police encounters are the reality for many Black and Latino people but not for most white people. 

Historically, polls and research have consistently shown that white people are less critical of the police than are African Americans and Latinos. Yet, recent events such as Ferguson, the death of Eric Garner on Long Island and Tamir Rice, the 12 year old boy in Cleveland shot by the police in a public park 2 seconds after they arrived at the park, have not only sharply eroded support for and trust in the police among African Americans and Latinos but also among white people. 

For example, in a study by the International Association of Chiefs of Police published in 2001, the Association found the following: 

One of the most persistent findings in public opinion polls about the police is that whites are more satisfied with police than nonwhites. This finding has been consistent over the past four decades, emerging from dozens of studies and polls, both in the United States and abroad (Bayley and Mendelsohn, 1969; Bradley, 1998; Cao, Frank, and Cullen, 1996; Huang and Vaughn, 1996). For instance, in a study of citizen satisfaction with police in 12 cities, conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 1998, 90% of whites were satisfied with police, compared with 76% of blacks and 78% of those of other races (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1999). 

Contrast those findings with a Gallup poll conducted 8/20/14, in the aftermath of Officer Wilson's murder of Michael Brown. The poll found that 59% of white people vs. 37% of Black people had quite a lot or a great deal of confidence in the police. Additionally, 24% of young Black men between the ages of 18-34 and 22% of Black men between the ages of 35-54 who were interviewed said the police had treated them unfairly in the last 30 days. Almost 25% of Black men between the ages of 18-54 said that they had received unjust treatment from the police within the last 30 days! One wonders what would be the percentage if they had been asked if the police had mistreated them within the last year. 

Astudy directed towards Latinos' views of the police published in 5/13 by the Department of Urban Planning and Policy at UIC found that: When asked how often police officers stop Latinos without good reason or cause, 62 percent said very or somewhat often, including 58 percent of US-born respondents, 64 percent of foreign-born respondents, and 78 percent of undocumented immigrant respondents.

Are these attitudes justified? In my experience as both a criminal defense and civil rights attorney, I have found that the mistrust of the police is justified. For example, I work in the Puerto Rican community on Division Street. Although gentrification of the area has reduced the number of Latinos in the area, I would routinely see the police stop and search young Latino men who are doing nothing other than walking or hanging out. 

When I go to criminal court, the vast, vast majority of defendants are Black and Latino, as are the vast majority of my clients. Hopefully we can all agree that Blacks and Latinos are not biologically disposed to commit more crimes than are white people. Thus, we need to admit that a disproportionate number of Blacks and Latinos are arrested due to their race, not their criminal behavior. 

For example, a recent study by the ACLU in 2013 entitled the War on Marijuana in Black & White starkly established the racial disparities in arrests between African Americans and white people. As the findings show, and I quote, 

Despite the fact that marijuana is used at comparable rates by whites and Blacks, state and local governments have aggressively enforced marijuana laws selectively against Black people and communities. In 2010, the Black arrest rate for marijuana possession was 716 per 100,000, while the white arrest rate was 192 per 100,000. Stated another way, a Black person was 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person a disparity that increased 32.7% between 2001 and 2010. 

In addition to racism, the other major problem with the police is the almost unlimited power they have in the communities they patrol and their frequent abuse of that power. They have the power to stop, question, frisk, arrest and charge individuals. That is an incredible amount of power that is too often misused. Their actions commence the induction of African Americans and Latinos into a criminal justice system that, just like the police, is often racist. 

I will give you three examples drawn from my own cases to illustrate the point. I have a pending case in which the police pulled over the car in which my client was a passenger, claiming he didn't have on his seat belt. He is a young Puerto Rican man who was in a car with another Puerto Rican man and woman. The police ordered him out of the car based on the oft-used police justification that he was making "furtive movements". When he and the woman challenged the actions of the police, he and the woman were both arrested for resisting arrest and assault. He now has to go to court and face possible jail time based on the actions of the police. 

One other example. On a hot summer night, a group of African American men was hanging out on the street corner in the Humboldt Park area of Chicago. Four police officers drove by and shortly thereafter returned. The police had received no complaints from neighbors; there was no loud music, disruptive noise or behavior from the group. Nevertheless, the police stopped and got out of their car, claiming in their arrest report that prior to exiting the police car, they knew that the liquid in plastic cups held by some of the men was vodka. Let me remind you that vodka is transparent, has no odor and is often mistaken for water. Things escalated and my client ended up tasered with injuries to his eye and ribs, which the police were unable to explain. Does anyone think this would have happened to a bunch of white guys? Possible, especially if the white guys were poor, but unlikely. 

Another example is another pending case I have. My client was a passenger in a BMW driven by a friend with another friend was in the back seat. The police pulled the car over and searched everyone in the car. The justification the police offered was that the driver of the car passed in a bus lane. Photos of the scene establish that there isn't a bus lane located where the police claimed one was located. Additionally, the ordinance under which they charged the driver does not apply to the driver's alleged action. My client was searched and the officers claim they found a controlled substance on him. They claim he resisted arrest. Yet, he was so badly hurt by the police that he was taken to emergency hospital and needed extensive medical treatment. Is it a surprise to know that the three men in the car were Black? 

In the face of a system that allows and even supports racism and abuse of power by the police, what can we as lawyers do? 

There are individual and systemic actions we can take. 

Individual actions:

1. When we are in court, at work, or really anywhere, if we see the police abusing people, we need to do/say something. As lawyers, we have enormous privilege that enables us to challenge what the police do. Many of us like to avoid challenging anyone, particularly the police, but it makes a difference when we do. We might have an impact on their behavior. And, we feel better about ourselves to know that we have stood up and challenged racist behavior.

2. Write letters to the editor opposing police misconduct. Support reparations for victims and survivors of torture by Burge. Volunteer to represent a prisoner in a parole hearing. Volunteer with the State of Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission to investigate prisoner's allegations of police torture. In fact, it was due to the efforts of lawyers that the torture used by Burge was initially exposed. 

Systematic Actions: 
In reviewing a series of articles and reports on problems with the police, quite a few articles suggested that police training could sharply reduce many of the bad interactions citizens have with the police. I think the culture of the police department is so entrenched around issues of racism and power that training alone won't solve the problem. However, it could make a difference. Here are some issues that the police could use training on: 

-Cultural, racial, gender and sexual diversity and how to understand and respect it.
-How to treat people with mental or physical illnesses who may be slow or unable to respond to police requests or orders.
-Alternatives to arrest such as mental health, addiction, alcohol treatment. 

3. Police do not need to have guns. If they didn't have guns, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice would be alive today. We can organize for a use of force model that does not permit and severely punishes excessive use of force by the police. For example, the Economist magazine recently reported that British citizens are about 100 times less likely to be shot by the police than are American citizens. Easy access by the police to a weapon frequently leads to unjustifiable homicides by the police that are so rarely punished by the police that police murders appear to be sanctioned by the police. 

Hopefully, others will share their ideas about what lawyers can do to change the police/citizen dynamic.

The changes I have suggested could help ameliorate the police/citizen interaction. However, until the police department as an entity changes its nature and structure, these changes may improve but not resolve the contradictions. By this, I mean that far too often, the purpose of the police is to preserve and maintain an unequal society that relies on the criminalization of entire sectors of its population in order to concentrate power and privilege in the hands of a few.