Attorney General Merrick Garland: Three defendants were convicted of committing federal hate crimes in connection with the murder of Ahmaud Arbery.
Melissa Harris-Perry: On Tuesday, Attorney General Merrick Garland delivered these remarks.
Attorney General Merrick Garland: On February 23rd, 2020, Mr. Arbery was targeted, chased, shot, and killed while running on a public street. Today, a jury of the defendant's peers unanimously found beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendants acted because Mr. Arbery was Black.
Melissa Harris-Perry: This federal hate crime conviction adds another measure of accountability for the three men convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison last November. It's an accountability many observers felt was missing last week when Judge Regina Chu sentenced Kim Potter to only two years in prison. Potter is the former Minneapolis police officer who killed Daunte Wright during a routine traffic stop when she claimed she mistook her sidearm for her taser. The two-year sentence is far less than the standard manslaughter sentence of seven years.
Judge Regina Chu: To those who disagree and feel a longer prison sentence is appropriate, as difficult as it may be, please try to empathize with Ms. Potter's situation. Officer Kimberly Potter was trying to do the right thing.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Judge Chu defended her decision, saying Potter was "a cop who made a tragic mistake," not one who committed murder as in the case of former officer Derek Chauvin. Now, there are many differences marking the circumstances of death for Ahmaud Arbery and Daunte Wright, but among the most consequential is simply that Wright was killed by a police officer, Arbery was slaughtered by civilians, and that critical distinction dramatically changes the likelihood that anyone would be held accountable for their death.
See, it might make sense to think the police officers would be held to a much higher standard, they're agents of the state. They receive professional training, they are paid a salary, and armed by tax dollars. Civilians are in fact required to stop and engage with officers when told to do so. It might make sense to assume that given the profound asymmetry in power that it is police officers who would face the highest possible bar for justifying the use of lethal force, but that's just not the reality in this country.
Indeed, it was a rare moment when former police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murdering George Floyd and sentenced to 22 and a half years in prison. According to data from the Washington Post Fatal Force Project, police officers shoot and kill about a thousand people each year, but fewer than 2% of officers involved in these shootings are ever even prosecuted.
The Police Integrity Research Group at Bowling Green State University found that since 2005 only seven officers have been convicted of murder for fatal shootings that occurred while on duty. Yes, that two-decade sentence for Derek Chauvin, that's a nearly singular example of an officer in our system being held criminally accountable. It was a hard one accountability. Chauvin's conviction and sentence came after he murdered an unarmed civilian in broad daylight in front of witnesses.
It's a conviction and sentence that came after the world watched the brutal nearly 10-minute video of this murder played on repeated loops for months in our media. It's a conviction and sentence that came only after the largest protests in our nation's history.
Melissa Harris-Perry: The trial began for three other officers involved in Floyd's death. The trial is now in jury deliberations and the officers are accused of violating Floyd's civil rights by not intervening as they witnessed Chauvin murder him. Even as we collectively steal our spines to revisit the horrors of that May afternoon in Minneapolis, we also find ourselves living in a nation with rising crime rates. As both property and personal crime climb in America cities, media coverage and lived experience have left many feeling vulnerable, and in our country, fear of crime is accompanied by public policies that increase the number of police and increase their access to evermore deadly tools of law enforcement.
How much has policing changed in recent years, and what are the challenges of making lasting change in policing? I'm Melissa Harris-Perry and this is The Takeaway. Let's talk now with Tracey Meares, the Walton Hale Hamilton Professor of Law at Yale University School of Law and Founding Director of The Justice Collaboratory. Professor Meares, great to have you here.
Tracey Meares: So good to hear your voice, Melissa.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Also with us is Nia T Evans, writer, organizer, and fellow at the Boston Review, her recent piece is titled Blue Lies Matter. Nia, welcome to The Takeaway.
Nia T Evans: Thanks for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Professor Meares, I want to start with you. You were actually part of movement to reform policing or an effort to reform policing well before 2020 when you served on the White House Commission for 21st-Century Policing Reform during the Obama administration, can you tell us any of the key recommendations of that report that have actually been implemented, that we've seen take effect over this past decade?
Tracey Meares: I think what we were trying to do, it was a multifaceted group of people, including police executives, folks like Brian Stevenson, other folks who are activists still out there on the streets. We're trying to come up with some low-hanging fruit recommendations about accountability, independent prosecutors for the kinds of activities you're talking about, changes in police training, thinking about ways in which police could better protect demonstrators' first amendment rights.
All of those recommendations were in that report, and I do think there were some initial take up of those recommendations, but then we had an intervening four year period of the Trump administration which halted a lot of support for those changes federally and left it to the states to make or try to make some changes.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Some of those changes, Professor Meares, were made after 2020. We saw some states change their use of force standards, some established a duty for police officers to intervene, which is part of what's being prosecuted in this moment with the three other officers in the Chauvin case. I'm wondering if those post-2020 changes have caused any real effects in how policing feels to people on the ground?
Professor Meares: It's a really important question, Melissa, and a difficult one to assess. Let me just run it down quickly for you. In the last six or seven years, we have had something like 25 states make changes roughly in three areas, use of force, as you mentioned, limitations on deadly force, specifically pinpointing chokeholds and other kinds of neck restraints, establishing state legislative requirements that every agency in a state adopt policies on duty to intervene. There have been changes in decertification. All of these things you can find in a database, the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Very few of these changes have been made in the south, most of them have been concentrated in the band around the great lakes, absent Michigan and Ohio and the Northeast and in the west. These laws have been passed, but the difficulty of course is because policing agencies are municipal and local and these laws are passed at the state level, we lack an infrastructure for ensuring that the municipal agencies actually carry out the changes that the state mandates.
So let me give you a quick example. If a state bans the use of a certain kind of deadly force, chokehold, neck restraint, it's difficult, almost impossible, for the state to ensure that a municipal agency has done that without having a data infrastructure that requires each one of these agencies to report any use of force. There's no auditing mechanisms. The kind of boring stuff that ensures that regulation works is often absent and there's often very little resources advanced by the state for municipal agencies to do that work.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Nia, I want to shift to you a bit and put you in conversation here as Professor Meares is talking about the so-called boring stuff, the municipal resources to actually hold any of these policies and ensure that they're actually being implemented. In your latest piece, you point to something a little different but connected, kind of the culture of policing. You draw our attention to what you call blue lies. What are blue lies?
Nia T Evans: Blue lies I would say are the various different ways deceit and lies operate in our policing system. There are different channels for that. There are legal channels for police to lie and this isn't a groundless claim, police lie in their work all the time. They lie on reports, they lie to their supervisors, they lie to judges and juries. They lie so often that they created their own term for it "testilying".
There are legal channels for police lies and they have devastating consequences, typically institutional ones. People are funneled into the prison system, revenue is extracted from communities unjustly, but there are also lies in the public arena. Policing is not just simply a legal matter. It is a public matter. Police talk to the press, they talk to communities, they are frequently in conversation with our society about what safety looks like, about what harm looks like, and we see consistently, we saw this on display in the summer of 2020.
We saw the gap between what was happening in protests. We saw people in the streets demanding justice and we saw police unleashing an avalanche of violence yet many of the reports said quite the opposite, said that protestors were the ones being violent. We saw that gap between reality and blue lies on full display in 2020.
What the essay is really trying to do is to get us to reckon with the way lies by police officer shape our politics, our understanding of what we should do in moments of rising violence. We're living through increased homicide rates right now and police officers are often the ones at the microphone, guiding and shaping the conversation about what the response should be and lies are a core part of that.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Nia and Professor Meares, pause for me for just one moment, and Nia, when we come back, I've got a follow-up for you. I want you to give us some core examples of these lies as soon as we're back on The Takeaway.
We're continuing with our conversation about American policing with Tracey Meares, Professor at Yale Law School, and Nia T Evans, Fellow at the Boston Review. Nia, you wrote and you were just telling us about the ways that dishonesty, deception, lies by police officers have these institutional and community-based effects. Give me one example to make that concrete for our listeners.
Nia T Evans: Sure. I think one example at a macro level is this example of bail reform. Again, homicides have spiked. In 2021, they were on the rise. They were on the rise at the end of 2020 and you had a lot of people coming together to ask why? Why are homicides going up? We know that the social and economic impacts of the pandemic are a part of that. We know that violence thrives within economic precarity but you did see a lot of police officers really 'basisly' connecting the homicide spike to criminal justice reform and bail reform became a really popular target.
You saw in Chicago, in New York City, in cities throughout the South you saw police officers alongside lawmakers saying that the homicides are being carried out by people who were released on bail reform. There's just no data to support that. Many of the bail reform laws that have passed in the last two years they're not focused on violent offenders. Judges still retain the power to set bail in cases of violent charges.
There is no evidence linking bail reform, which, again, keeping people locked up pretrial it's racist, it's classist, it's expensive. Bail reform has no measurable impact on public safety but you have seen police officers champion the opposite without any evidence. It's led to a wholesale rollback and review of bail reform in states around the country. It's led to a real culture of fear. It has pitted common sense criminal justice reform that is backed by a wall of evidence. It has pitted that against public safety without any evidence.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Professor Meares, I want you to take this piece that Nia is giving us around the culture of policing even the dishonesty in policing, and connect it with the pieces you were talking about around action policy, even low-hanging fruit nearly a decade ago in the attempt to move towards police reform. What is possible at this moment?
Tracey Meares: A couple of things. I think the point Nia makes about lies is definitely-- I can give you another example. The Supreme Court has, in multiple occasions, actually sanctioned the ability of police to lie to suspects being interrogated and called that constitutional, and the confessions achieved in that way are deemed voluntary for purposes of constitutional law.
Here's the thing. I think that's a great example and the ability of people to tell these stories in public and manipulate the longstanding public appetite for making policy out of fear around issues related to safety is consistent with the idea that I was mentioning about the fact that policing lives in a data-free zone. We have very little systematic public evidence about what police do, and so that infrastructure I was talking about.
When you are talking about reform, it makes it very, very difficult to get this done. You add to this the federalism problem, that is, every policing agency exists in its own municipal bubble. The best regulatory structures usually come at the federal level with lots of resources but even your own data that you mentioned at the outset of this segment, the fatal force project, that's a journalism project essentially.
In other countries, there are official data about the number of fatalities that police cause or just the interactions that police have with civilians. We need actual data to make progress, serious progress on this problem, which would then change the issue around how we deal with what I like to call following Vesla Weaver safety deprivation. Violence is a problem and the state should be addressing it.
I feel every citizen in this country has the right to be free from safety deprivation. The state should be involved in this but the best way to address it is not emergency armed first responders, we know this too. Until this country makes a serious investment in just accounting for what police do, it's hard to have the front end regulation of these particular actors and any other actor that we focus on to deal with safety deprivation to make sure that it's done in a way that's publicly accountable.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Nia, as we enter into this case where the three other officers involved in the death of George Floyd may presumably be held accountable, I wonder if these individual cases of potential accountability or real accountability make any difference in this blue lies practice?
Nia T Evans: I understand the desire for police accountability. We want Black lives to matter as much as any other life, but I think that these individual cases are not actually giving us the justice that we deserve. I think that's best exemplified by the fact that Amir Locker was just murdered by police in his home. They used a no-knock warrant which was a policy that lawmakers restricted. It was a reform lawmakers restricted November 2020, Amir was still killed by police as we have this case that is trying to hold these officers accountable.
These individual cases holding officers accountable in the courts, quite frankly, I think the same legal system that grants police officers the right to kill is not going to be the one that holds them accountable for misconduct. I think that we need more than just accountability through the courts through a system that is already predisposed to protect officers. We deserve justice, not just accountability and justice does not rely on the legal system. We can create justice ourself, we don't need a judge to give us justice. Justice can be created through building healthy, resourced communities.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Nia T Evans is a writer, organizer, and fellow at the Boston Review. She's also an alum of the Anna Julia Cooper Center. Tracey Meares is the Walton Hale Hamilton Professor of Law at Yale University School of Law and Founding Director of The Justice Collaboratory. Thanks to both of you.
Nia T Evans: Thanks.
Tracey Meares: Thank you.
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