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What about the quality of justice from Blacks?
by Ron Walters, NNPA Columnist
January 07, 2006; sfbayview.com
As I looked at the Black superintendent of police in New Orleans, Warren Riley, on television recently, justifying the killing of a Black man on the streets of the city by his police force — perhaps by bullets fired by the lone Black policeman among the three — I knew that this was not a result for which the civil rights movement was fought.
For some time, a major goal of the movement has been to obtain more Black police, more Black judges, more of everything, in the hope that the quality of justice for Blacks would improve, but it doesn't seem to have made much difference. This hints at the failure of many Blacks who have become law enforcement professionals to take the civil rights movement inside the institution with them.
Looking through a number of websites and statistical sources, it is difficult to say whether police killings of Blacks is rising or falling. But the facts gathered by INQUEST show that reported police shootings reached a peak of 400 in 2001 and dropped to 200 in each successive year thereafter.
Nevertheless, these killings disproportionately involve Blacks and Hispanics, 57 percent of whom reported in 2001 that they've had violent encounters with police, a rate twice that of whites. The number of violent incidents has grown all over the country — in Cincinnati, New York, several cities on the West Coast, Florida, and repeatedly in New Orleans.
Are Black police officers part of the solution in these cases, or are they firing their weapons at the same rate, trying to fit into an often violent, racist police culture? And even where Blacks are leaders, have they adopted that culture as a way of insuring their mobility in the system?
Ostensibly, they have some weapons, both in the law and in the principles that should govern police conduct. For example, the U.S. Department of Justice "Principles of Good Policing," which focus on avoiding violent encounters, suggests that police culture is clearly a problem and recommends that police departments adopt a set of values that discourage the use of force.
One of those is that "the police department places it highest value on the preservation of human life." But the repeated use of deadly force has been criticized by the National Black Police Officers Association, headed by Ron Hampton, and the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Executives, as devaluing the lives of other Blacks in many crises situations.
But what would happen if Black police officers began to object, disrupt and legally challenge these practices from the inside? In other words, rather than joining the dysfunctional police culture, what if they took the civil rights movement inside the institution?
In this connection, I have also wondered about Black judges. While I have heard about the occasional Black judge who has exercised mercy in cases clearly involving an injustice to a Black defendant, why would the incarceration rate be as high as it is, with many of them serving on the bench now?
We know that Black judges have spoken out against racism in the criminal justice system, as indicated by a recent book, "Black Judges on Justice," recognized as the first reader where judges have spoken out against racism in profiling, incarceration and sentencing etc. Moreover, one is also aware of the outstanding civil rights work of the National Bar Association and Black law student organizations.
But I also ran across a study in Social Science Quarterly, published December 2001, in which there was a study of 10 Black male judges, who sentenced 4,374 people, and 80 white male judges, with 34,668 sentenced, in Pennsylvania counties between 1991 and 1994. It found that Black judges were 1.66 times more likely to incarcerate offenders than white judges, even though the average sentences given by Black judges were one month shorter.
This made me wonder how representative this study might be nationally, how hard Black judges buck the established system of sentencing in the guidelines, how hard they fight the death penalty, and how hard they fight for probation for prisoners like Tookie Williams who have been rehabilitated and how hard they fight with the legislature and the governors to restore the voting rights of convicted felons.
In other words, now that we have a significant number of Black judges, are they part of the problem?
We should continue to push for Black policemen and policewomen and Black judges and excoriate the Bush administration for its paltry record of having elevated only 15 — seven of them replacing other Blacks — of 200 Blacks to the federal bench. But we should demand the judicial and intellectual firepower of Black judges be turned up on the racism in the justice system rather than benefiting from their mobility within it. They have been too quiet on nominations for the Supreme Court that may change the nature of justice for generations.
In this era, we should look for the civil rights movement within institutions like the criminal justice system rather than always in the street.
Ron Walters is the distinguished leadership scholar, director of the African American Leadership Institute, and professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland College Park. His latest books are "White Nationalism, Black Interests" and "Freedom is Not Enough."
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