Racial justice

  • May 4, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Tom Nolan, Associate Professor of Criminology, Merrimack College; 27-year veteran of Boston Police Department

    I applaud Marilyn Mosby's swift and decisive move in charging the six Baltimore police officers on Friday, May 1 with crimes ranging from second-degree murder to manslaughter, assault and false imprisonment, and I'm hopeful that she'll get the result that she's seeking, if that’s what the interests of justice determine is warranted.  However, I don't believe that the Baltimore officers will be convicted of any murder or manslaughter charges and that this likely result will lead to more civil unrest.  According to The Washington Post, in order to secure a guilty finding in Maryland for second degree murder in the death of Freddie Gray, (the “depraved heart” murder), the judge or jury must agree that there is proof beyond a reasonable doubt of three necessary elements for conviction: (1) that the defendant (here the police transport van driver, Officer Caesar Goodson), actually caused Freddie Gray’s death; (2) that Officer Goodson’s conduct itself posed a very high risk to endangering Gray’s life; and (3) that Goodson, aware of the risk he was causing to Gray’s life, acted with extreme disregard of the life endangering consequences of his actions.

    To secure a manslaughter conviction, even for involuntary manslaughter, prosecutors must convince a judge or a jury (and these will likely be jury trials), that the officers in Baltimore knew or should have known that their actions were a direct threat to Gray’s life and that what the police did in arresting, subduing and transporting Gray was something they knew was inherently dangerous or that it was done with a reckless disregard for human life.

    Prosecutors will face an uphill and arduous battle in securing convictions against these six police officers, even given the current climate of public skepticism, mistrust, and suspicion (and even disdain) of the police that began in earnest in Ferguson last August.  For what the police engaged in on April 12 in Baltimore, even in its violence, brutality and senselessness, was nothing if not the routine and mundane activities of the police, particularly in communities of color in cities across the United States. What happened to Gray, we may very well learn from defense counsel in the upcoming trials of the officers, was standard operating procedure (with an unintended, accidental and tragic result), perhaps even in compliance with police policy, as well as tactics and strategies that the officers were trained in, and all in a day’s work in the perilous, violent and dangerous world that the police believe that they toil in selflessly, thanklessly and courageously every day.  This is the police narrative, always and already, and one that prosecutors will need to challenge vigorously in order to secure any convictions against the “Baltimore Six.” 

  • May 1, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Atiba R. Ellis, Professor of Law, West Virginia University College of Law. Follow him on Twitter @atibaellis.

    The New York Times recently published a story entitled, “1.5 Million Missing Black Men.” The graphic portrayed how the war on drugs, American policies of mass incarceration and other structural forces, have left these African American men and their communities oppressed in the United States because these men are incarcerated, disabled from full citizenry or deceased.

    A purely academic discussion of this data and its meaning was what this blog post was supposed to be about.  But over the past weekend, we saw the city of Baltimore, Md. react to the fact that Freddie Gray is now missing forever.  Gray’s fatal injuries, inflicted during his custody of the Baltimore Police Department, provide us a specific case of an African American man going missing. Mr. Gray’s death puts into relief how one person loses his life due to the policies and structures of inequality, and the Baltimore police officers involved have now been charged in Mr. Gray’s death.

    Yet it isn’t simply Gray’s death that teaches us something about structural racism. The uprising that occurred in reaction to Gray’s funeral, the reaction to opinion leaders and the Internet opinion-sphere all teach us something about how our language regarding racism falls prey to a gap of misunderstanding and misperception. This is a multilayered problem reflective of the complicated tableau of race in America.

    On one level, Gray’s death is one more tragedy that we can add to the long list of tragedies that seem to target African American men. Gray is forever missing, along with Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown and many more. And, as Professor Elwood Watson points out, black women like Dr. Ersula Ore or Kathryn Johnston similarly suffer violence, abuse and death due to this same system of oppression.

    Though the factual circumstances vary, it appears that all these people I’ve named are the casualties of either the war on drugs, the effects of declaring poor minority neighborhoods “high crime neighborhoods,” police bias against people of color or all of the above.  This results in their individual and communal struggles against siege policing and its short and long-term effects. Because of these factors, these men and women lose their lives or their livelihoods in a manner not subject to due process. 

  • April 29, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Tom Nolan, Associate Professor of Criminology at Merrimack College and 27-year veteran of the Boston Police Department

    Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the “bad old days” of policing, we called them “screen tests” in the Boston police department—slamming the vehicle brakes suddenly to force a handcuffed prisoner’s head into the Plexiglas (or screen) barrier that separated the rear prisoner transport area from the front of the police vehicle.  Prisoners who flunked the “attitude test” were often administered these “screen tests.”  Apparently the equivalent referent in Baltimore is “rough ride” and in Philadelphia the “nickel ride.”  It appears as though Freddie Gray may have been subjected to a Baltimore PD “rough ride” that led to his spine being severed and to his subsequent death on April 19.

    After years of settling excessive force lawsuits against the police in Boston that resulted in significant payouts in tax dollars to plaintiffs, the Boston police department in the late 1980s and early 1990s instituted a training regimen that emphasized constitutional protections and respect for civil rights and civil liberties.  Even more importantly, police administrators conveyed the severity with which they took allegations of excessive force and police brutality in imposing unprecedented sanctions against officers found to have engaged in such practices.  Officers received suspensions without pay for months at a time; some were terminated and even sent to federal prison.  The message went out to officers in the Boston police department: Engage in excessive force practices and brutality at tangible risk to your career, your future and maybe even your liberty.  So-called “screen tests” became largely a relic of the past.

    The message apparently never made it to Baltimore (or New York City, or Cleveland, or North Charleston, or Albuquerque or Ferguson).  Although the Boston police have had their share of excessive force allegations in recent years, strict accountability and a robust disciplinary process have seen the sustention of excessive force allegations sharply curtailed.

  • April 29, 2015

    by Caroline Cox

    Mark Walsh of SCOTUSblog provides a view of the oral arguments for the consolidated same-sex marriage cases. Among the commentary on the arguments comes are Jess Bravin and Brent Kendall in The Wall Street Journal, Adam Liptak in The New York Times, and Robert Barnes and Fred Barbash in The Washington Post.

    Elias Isquith argues at Salon that the Baltimore riots should help Attorney General Loretta Lynch as she shapes her agenda.

    Also at Salon, Jay Driskell discusses how the influence of respectability politics means that the important questions and lessons of the Baltimore riots are being ignored.

    Peter Baker of The New York Times reports that 2016 presidential candidates have all declared their interest in reforming the criminal justice system and tackling mass incarceration.

    The Brennan Center for Justice publicizes a new book on mass incarceration from American political leaders on both sides of the political spectrum.

  • April 21, 2015

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Sheryl Sandberg and Anne-Marie Slaughter have drawn much attention for their thoughts about the professional working lives of women.  But Sandberg and Slaughter have failed to recognize or willfully ignored the stations of the vast majority of working women – those women who do not have the luxury of “opting out” or “leaning in.”  The inadequacies of our workplace laws leave many working women behind and perpetually struggling to survive.

    American Constitution Society for Law and Policy (ACS) President Caroline Fredrickson, a former labor lawyer and a longtime leader in the legal progressive community, declares a powerful response to “leaning in,” or “opting out,” which dominate discussion of inequalities facing women in the workforce.

    The discussion of workplace equality for women now focuses almost exclusively on white-collar professionals.  This discussion needs broadening.

    Fredrickson’s compelling book, Under the Bus: How Working Women Are Being Run Over, tells the stories of many women, who do not have the protection of our laws or the ability to stand up to their employers’ often illegal demands.  Indeed, for too long many employers have ignored or been exempted from laws meant to protect workers against corporate malfeasance.  Fredrickson also notes the inadequacy of our laws is ingrained in a history riven with racial and gender biases.  Time after time, Fredrickson notes that historical progressive movements to improve the lives of working Americans have left women behind.  If our nation fails to embrace collective solutions to collective problems, inequality will continue to fester in America while democracy suffers.