In the two years since the acquittal of a neighborhood watchman for the killing of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin, there have been nearly a dozen episodes nationwide of an African American in a fatal encounter with law enforcement.
In the majority of these cases, the families of the victims have found themselves powerless against police departments with no legal standing to bring criminal prosecution against the officers involved in their deaths.
But a panel of lawmakers at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference on Thursday said law enforcement professionals and activists said a change in policy requires lobbying at the federal and state levels as well as work with local police departments.
Members of Black Lives Matter say they have met with Justice Department officials at the Department of Justice but their response was that they were imited in what they can do.
“They said their hands were tied because the standards are too high. We said how do we change that. They said Congress,” said Alicia Garza, co-creator of Black Lives Matter movement.
Even as the DOJ found a pattern of civil rights violations by the police department in Ferguson, Mo., it couldn’t bring federal civil rights charges against the police officer involved in the death of Michael Brown.
“After a careful and deliberate review of all of the evidence, the department had determined that the evidence does not establish that Darren Wilson violated the applicable federal criminal civil rights statute,” the DOJ wrote in March in its 100-page report on the investigation into Brown’s death.
CBC leadership and panelists said that activists working for criminal justice reform must also work at local levels of government to bring change to the standards for prosecution and have a dialog with local law enforcement about hiring and training officers for officers who police their community.
“You’ve got to put pressure on state legislature’s and state governments,” CBCF Chairman Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-NC) said.
Analysts of the 2013 verdict in the death of Trayvon Martin have said that Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which allows armed citizens to use deadly force if they feel their life is threatened, influenced the jury’s verdict even though it wasn’t formally used by the defense.
“With criminal justice reform you are dealing with state issues, county issues, city issues. Most states deal with state law. That means the game is different,” TV One’s NewsOne Now host and town hall moderator Roland Martin said.
Calls for reforms in policing and criminal justice have become a major campaign issue for the 2016 presidential election as tensions rise with what appears to be a lack of justice. Even when deaths have been captured on camera, official reports law filed about the deaths have been found to include misleading statements and attempts at gaining justice through federal and state legal systems have failed to lead to formal charges or a conviction.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) says that the prosecutors, including those at the Department of Justice, should use their legal discretion to try these cases even if there may be a high proof of burden.
“The DOJ needs to make a legal leap of faith,” Jackson Lee said. “I want a more extensive review to say this case deserves to be tried because of the moral basis of it.”
Lawmakers at the Town Hall said voters must also hold their communities accountable and work to elect lawmakers who will try these cases.
“Baltimore has elected in Marilyn Mosby a young lady who had the guts to make sure that justice was done and charge these six officers,” Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said. “Baltimore elected a state’s attorney who was sensitive and did what the law required her to do…we have been able to maintain a level of peace [in Baltimore] because of the prosecutor.”
As they discussed what to do move forward, the panelists also said the country needs to work toward upending criminal justice policies deeply rooted in assumptions about African Americans.
A belief by law enforcement that a Black person likely is a criminal is embedded in the fabric of American society. “We would argue that the criminal justice system isn’t broken. It is designed to work exactly as it is supposed to.” Garza said.
Butterfield says criminal justice reform can’t be divorced from poverty and persistent deficits in educational attainment among African Americans.
“When I was a trial attorney 80 percent of the African American men who appeared before me in court dropped out of high school in the ninth grade and 80 percent of the women dropped out in the tenth,” he said. “You’ve got to make sure they stay in school. Poverty in the African American community is unacceptable. One out of every for Black Americans lives in poverty one out of three black children lives in poverty.”