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Hard year’s signposts in quest for justice

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Even for those of us who found a measure of joy during the year whose end we now mark – taking delight from a child’s birth, perhaps, or from a marriage, a graduation, success at work – Americans will remember 2020 chiefly as a showcase of conflict and sorrow.

It brought of course the rampage of the coronavirus, costing upwards of 330,000 lives with many more in the balance.

The virus shaped the presidential election, both in spurring new, more convenient methods of voting and in convincing a majority of citizens to hold the dysfunctional White House incumbent to account. Its economic damage – rippling down to families who struggle for food and shelter – will persist at least until vaccines allow us to resume activities we fondly recall as normal.

Intertwined with the pandemic’s spread were racially fraught confrontations with law enforcement officers. Perhaps it was no coincidence that amid the virus danger and its climate of frustration and fear, the killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, and the near-fatal shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, loomed large in a national reckoning across the spectrum of racial injustice.

Yes, it was a reckoning that in many instances devolved from orderly mass protests into the kinds of mayhem that have left cities such as Raleigh still scarred with boarded-up storefronts and bitter memories of the sting of tear gas.

But in North Carolina, at least as conspicuously as anywhere else, the outrage led also to a constructive response freighted both with profound symbolism and deep practicality.

At the symbolic level, monuments to the state’s Confederate heritage – a heritage inextricably tied to racial oppression, whatever virtues it also may have embodied – were deemed no longer worthy of honored display on the grounds of the old Capitol and carted off to an uncertain fate.

The practical upshot couldn’t match the drama of century-old statuary being summarily dismantled by workers with their bucket trucks, slings and forklifts. But actions taken at the behest of Gov. Roy Cooper could and should have significant effects.

Only a few days after downtown Raleigh saw large protests against the killing of George Floyd by a police officer who kneeled on his neck, Cooper in June created the Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice. As formerly the state’s attorney general for 16 years, the governor was well-versed in the challenges at hand. His charge to the panel [2] was to find “solutions that will eliminate disparate outcomes in the criminal justice system for communities of color.”

Now the task force has issued its report with recommendations that are sweeping, detailed and well-informed. Click here [3] for the full document and here [4] for the executive summary.

Many of the recommendations will require changes in long-established practices and attitudes – within police and sheriff’s departments, in the courts and among elected officials who set budgets and priorities. But a failure to act will continue to corrode the state’s social fabric and endanger its civic health – even if we are so lucky as to never experience another fatal episode of unjustified force wielded by those whose duty is to serve and protect.

‘Grotesque’ flaws

The task force — chaired by Attorney General Josh Stein and Associate Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls – framed its Dec. 14 report to Cooper in terms at once reassuring and alarming. “North Carolina can re-imagine public safety to provide accountability for victims and safety for communities without the grotesque racial disparities that manifest in so many ways in our criminal justice system,” Stein and Earls wrote.

Even if the shocking misuse of force, as in the Floyd incident and others on the same grim roll, is far from routine – thank heavens – the report describes how the day-to-day application of authority by ordinary cops and deputies via traffic stops, searches, arrests for low-level offenses and so forth is unfairly skewed against people of color. And once embroiled in the system, minority defendants on the whole can expect to be treated more harshly at the hands of prosecutors, juries and judges.

The report zeroes in on the ill effects of the cash bail system – a particular concern of the N.C. Council of Churches – which unnecessarily imposes pre-trial confinement on many defendants, especially persons of color, and has the effect of making poverty a crime in and of itself.

The task force, whose 24 members included representatives from law enforcement, makes thorough recommendations for police reform. The keys involve leadership, careful recruitment, proper training and enhanced accountability.

Officers whose lives may depend on decisions reached in an instant need a full range of options so they can do their jobs while avoiding unnecessary risks. There will come situations when force, even lethal force, must be brought to bear.

But training can and must prevent those officers from assuming that interactions with Black people, in particular, are ones in which their mindset has to be that of a warrior. The task force calls instead for an approach rooted more in service than in confrontation and domination.

That may not be the path of least resistance. But when the present law enforcement culture, along with the culture of the state’s courthouses, yields a North Carolina prison population that’s 51 percent Black – compared with 22 percent in the population at large – it’s a tip-off that our justice system in at least some aspects needs a reset.

Agenda for reform

All told, the group spools out 125 recommendations covering the entire criminal justice gamut. Police department rules covering the use of force and accountability for that use would be tightened. The criminal code would be streamlined to downgrade penalties for non-violent offenses of the kind that members of racial and ethnic minorities may be disproportionately and unfairly charged with committing.

More teenage offenders would be spared from prosecution and punishment as adults and thus from the hard-to-overcome drag of criminal records. “No-knock” searches that can go tragically awry, such as the one that resulted in the death of Breonna Taylor, would be more closely regulated.

Law enforcement agencies are urged to shift tactics in the use of traffic stops. “Black drivers are twice as likely to be pulled over as white drivers,” the report notes. “Once pulled over, Black drivers are twice as likely to be searched, yet less than 10 percent of these searches lead to arrest.” The report says officers should shift their focus away from minor infractions that can become excuses to stop Black drivers – the prototypical busted tail-light – and concentrate more on obvious safety threats like speeding.

Police agencies should coordinate to prevent the rehiring in other jurisdictions of officers fired for misconduct, the task force asserts. It calls for higher salaries to help attract capable candidates drawn to the work out of a commitment to public service.

The group is well aware that some of its suggestions carry price tags and that budget writers – whether in the General Assembly or on municipal councils – must balance competing demands.

But the costs of forcing the justice system to subsist on a relative shoestring are borne by every citizen who comes up against pervasive and embedded racial bias. That bias, as the task force makes clear and as the Council of Churches long has recognized, unfairly penalizes some of us while it taints a system that struggles to adequately protect any of us.

As the racial equity panel pursues its recommendations, working with law enforcement officials, legislators and local leaders, memories of how North Carolinians and Americans everywhere rose up in 2020 to demand criminal justice reform should never be far from mind. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake and other people of color who down the years have suffered needlessly at the hands of the police or who have been otherwise betrayed by a system that mocks the principle of equality before the law cannot be allowed to have sacrificed in vain.

[5]Steve Ford, former editorial page editor at Raleigh’s News & Observer, is now a Volunteer Program Associate at the North Carolina Council of Churches [6], which first published this commentary.