As America awaits a verdict in the trial of the officer accused of killing George Floyd, the NAACP president and Floyd’s family attorney in a local panel discussion urged the public to support a federal policing reform bill, while DeKalb County’s police chief took a moderate stance on some of its provisions.
Hosted by the Buckhead/Cascade City chapter of The Links, Incorporated, a national volunteer service organization, and the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE), the April 18 virtual discussion focused on reforming “implicit bias” in policing. Benjamin Crump — the attorney who has represented the families of Floyd, Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor and several others killed by police in controversial cases — said that reforms are needed because authorities often justify such incidents by saying they followed current policies or laws.
“Slavery was legal — that didn’t make it right. Segregation was legal, but that didn’t make it right,” said Crump, who also cited Hitler’s system of genocide against Jews. “… They continue to say it’s legal when they continue to kill our children.”
DeKalb County Police Chief Mirtha Ramos did not support every reform idea discussed by the panel, but backed Crump’s general criticism. “I agree with the whole [concept that] it may be legal but it may be not right,” said Ramos, adding that some policy changes will help and “make sure we hold our own people accountable.”
Ramos is a member of NOBLE. “It’s not always easy being a department head and looking like me,” she said in discussing the challenges of recruiting and retaining minority police officers.
Other panelists included Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP; NOBLE president and former U.S. Secret Service agent Lynda Williams; and Kimberly Jeffries Leonard, national president of The Links. Judge Kenya Johnson of Fulton County Probate Court served as moderator while openly supporting the panelists’ policing reform ideas, at one point saying, “Please keep preaching, attorney Crump.”
George Floyd Justice in Policing Act
The discussion came the day before closing arguments in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis Police Department officer who faces murder, manslaughter and other charges in last year’s death of Floyd. Much of the discussion focused on the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, a package of policing reform laws that passed the U.S. House Representatives last month and is now before the U.S. Senate with support from President Biden.
Most panelists said the legal reform is necessary to address systemic racism. “This is not about, ‘All police are bad,’” but rather about “implicit bias,” said Leonard.
Crump said the need for reform is shown in the April 11 police killing in Minnesota of Duante Wright, a Black man shot by an officer who said she confused her gun with her Taser shock weapon. The officer is charged with manslaughter.
“I cannot believe, I literally cannot believe, that during the Chauvin trial — which I think is the most consequential civil rights, police excessive force case in our history, definitely in the 21st century — that you would have a police officer within 10 miles of the very courthouse where that proceeding is taking place shoot yet again another unarmed Black man in Duante Wright,” Crump said.
Crump and Derrick Johnson were in or traveling to Minneapolis for the Chauvin trial verdict and gave differing predictions on how they think the jury may decide.
Crump said he hopes Chauvin will be convicted, “but far too often… the American legal system has broken all of our hearts.” He said he expected that a not-guilty verdict would spark “a very emotional response” and cited Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” He criticized leaders who say looting is unacceptable without also saying it is “unacceptable to kill unarmed Black people.”
Johnson had more faith in the jury and said a guilty verdict would make the federal legislation all the more important.
“He will be found guilty. Let’s start there,” Johnson said of Chauvin. After the verdict, he said, “we must pivot. There must be federal policy in place.”
In its current form, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act contains a bevy of major legal changes to policing at the federal, state and local levels. Among the major changes it would make are:
- Creating a federal registry of police misconduct reports and national accreditation standards for police departments.
- Opening more cases of police misconduct to criminal prosecution as federal civil rights violations by reducing the standard from “willfully” violating rights to “knowingly or recklessly.”
- Opening law enforcement officers to more civil lawsuits from individuals for alleged rights violations by eliminating their coverage under “qualified immunity,” a U.S. Supreme Court legal doctrine that currently makes it difficult to sue government officials unless a virtually identical case was already ruled unconstitutional.
- Restricting the sale of military equipment to police departments.
- Banning the use of chokeholds by federal law enforcement officers and requiring the same of state and local police agencies that receive federal money.
- Banning “no-knock” search warrants, where police can enter a home without warning, in federal drug cases and encouraging states to do the same.
- Requiring independent investigations and prosecutions of police misconduct and providing grants to create local task forces and commissions about public safety policy.
- Criminalizing “sexual acts” between police officers and any person in their custody.
- Requiring body cameras and dashboard cameras for federal police agencies, and for state and local agencies that accept federal money, while banning facial recognition technology in them.
- Requiring state and local police agencies that receive federal money to do anti-bias training
- Providing incentives for police officers to live in the communities they patrol.
- Changing the use-of-force policy for federal agents to be more restrictive and secondary to “deescalation” techniques, and requiring state and local police departments that receive federal money to have similar policies.
Panelists react to the bill
Ramos was the only panelist to give a mixed reaction to some ideas in the legislation, and she was not directly asked about most of them. On no-knock warrants, she said she generally opposes their use when the point is to seize property, but that she generally supports their use when the point is to save someone’s life. She said no-knock warrants should be available but evaluated “at the highest level of the police department” before officers request a judge’s approval.
On the concept of officers living in the communities they serve, Ramos said, “I see both sides,” as it could develop good local ties but could also create bias or spark threats. Living in the patrolled community “doesn’t allow you to turn yourself off… [and could] create a sense of not being safe because now you’re surrounded by the same people you’re enforcing the law on,” she said. Such a requirement could limit the applicant pool in a time when police departments are struggling with hiring and retention, she said.
Williams, the NOBLE leader, agreed with Ramos on the “pros and cons” of officers living in the community, but likened it to the “difference between a renter and a homeowner.” She said that “when you’re invested in [the community], more comes from it.”
Many metro Atlanta police agencies already ban chokeholds except when deadly force is authorized, and Ramos said she opposes them as well. “I really am not a fan of the chokeholds and so I do agree with banning chokeholds,” she said, saying it can too easily “risk someone’s life.”
Crump emphasized the need for national databases on police misconduct. “It’s crazy that in 2021 we don’t have a national registry dealing with police performance like we do with lawyers and doctors and engineers,” he said. He also noted the lack of a national database on people killed by police officers, which means “we have to go to the newspapers and try to figure it out. It’s asinine.”
Johnson, the NAACP president, focused on the need for independent prosecutors, saying that many district attorneys are elected and often closely tied to police departments and police unions. “We must embrace the notion that not everyone wants to see change,” said Johnson, alleging that every police agency has someone “aligned with white supremacist organizations and doctrine” and that federal investigation can “weed those individuals out.”
Not mentioned by any panelist was the DeKalb County Police Department’s own notorious case of a police officer killing an unarmed Black man, which resulted in a then unusual conviction of the officer. In 2015, Officer Robert Olsen shot and killed Anthony Hill, who was naked and unarmed while suffering a mental health crisis. The case drew national attention and sparked protest marches. Olsen was convicted of aggravated assault and other charges and is serving a lengthy prison sentence. The shooting happened before Ramos was police chief.