By Lilia Rodriguez 2L, BLSA and La Raza member
In light of Black History Month and the growing national concern about the nature of law enforcement’s interactions with community members of color, TJSL’s Center for Law and Social Justice, the Black Law Students Association (BLSA), La Raza, Earl B. Gilliam Bar Association (EBGBA), and the Diversity Committee under Crawford Law Institute Mentorship Bond Program (CLIMB) sponsored “Bridging the Gap between Police Practices, Youth, and Communities of Color: A Vision for Change.” The interactive panel, held on Wednesday, February 18, 2015, brought together students from Crawford High School and community figures for a candid discussion about their experiences and thoughts on local law enforcement practices. The discussion began with an introduction by Professor K.J. Greene and was moderated by co-founder and Chair of the Diversity Committee of the CLIMB Program, Professor Maurice Dyson.
After playing a portion of FBI Director James B. Comey’s recent remarks on the assumptions veteran police officers make regarding citizens of color, panelist, former criminal defense attorney, and international human rights scholar and advocate, Professor Marjorie Cohn noted, “Racial profiling starts at the stop. Who do they stop? They stop people of color. That racial profiling infects the system from the beginning to the end. Who is charged with crime at a greater rate? People of color are arrested, charged, convicted, and receive the death penalty at a greater rate.” Panelist 3L Devendra Raj Ghandi Rajan proposed a closer examination of the implicit biases that affect both law enforcement and communities as a whole. Panelist Kellen Russoniello, a staff attorney with the ACLU of San Diego, introduced to the conversation the controversial implementation of body cameras on police officers. Panelist Mack Jenkins, Chief Probation Officer for San Diego County, responded, “There is a significant movement…to equip officers with body cameras, so that they can see that officers are delivering their services in the way that they’ve been trained.”
In addition to discussing law enforcement training and the need to combat implicit biases by law enforcement officers, panelists addressed how citizens can help contribute to bridging the gap. Panelist and executive officer of Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board, Patrick Hunter explained, “We accept complaints against the San Diego Sherriff’s Department and the Probation Department. We try to make sure that what happened was that the officers involved followed the departments’ policy, their procedures, and the law.”
Former New York state police officer and vice-chair of the Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board, Jason Kaplan ‘11 added, “We review the whole process that the police department’s internal affairs department conducts. If we disagree we have an opportunity to sit down with internal affairs and work out some sort of agreement, occasionally we cannot work something out and in that case the disagreement will go to the mayor’s office. We receive nothing for our service; we are just individuals interested in holding the police accountable.” Discussion also branched out into the programs, such as Shop with a Cop, available to the community to help transform the implicit biases that are formed against law enforcement officials.
"I was very excited about having students from Crawford High School participate in the panel discussion,” said BLSA President Phlyicia Coleman. “Because they are the future, this was the type of panel I felt was extremely important for them to hear. A few of the students made very enlightening comments that added to the overall discussion. It just goes to show that they are aware of what is going on, and they have opinions about it. They simply need the proper avenue to be able to voice those opinions freely. I’ve worked with the students through volunteering with CLIMB, and they're brilliant kids who have the ability to break cycles and bridge the gaps that our discussion concerned.”
“The forum allowed for some honest moments that highlighted challenges but also helped bridge concerns,” said Professor Dyson. “Students of CLIMB and TJSL law students alike looked at the issues with nuance, recognizing good policing practices where they exist yet remaining vigilant to eradicate systemic and individual harmful biases to building mutual trust between communities of color and law enforcement.”