Addressing Systemic Racism in the Aftermath of George Floyd’s Murder

By Christian Nolan

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In the aftermath of the tragic murder of George Floyd while in the custody of the Minneapolis police, NYSBA’s Women in Law Section held a timely panel discussion on systemic racism and police reform.

The distinguished panelists agreed that recent and ongoing criminal justice reforms are necessary but that the momentum must continue beyond legislative change to combat centuries of institutional racism.

“There’s been a recognition that there are symbols of slavery and racism that help perpetuate the belief in white superiority and many of those are being removed after years of discussion,” said former NYSBA President Seymour W. James, referring to statues of Confederate leaders and noting that NASCAR will no longer permit Confederate flags to fly at their races.

“But I think most importantly, white people throughout the country are acknowledging the severe inequities that exist and are calling for reform,” continued James, a partner at Barket Epstein Kearon Aldea & LoTurco and a criminal defense lawyer for over four decades. “So I don’t think it’s going to be a miraculous overnight change but I’m hopeful that fair-minded people will continue the discussion and work to change the culture.”

The virtual discussion looked at the history of systemic racism history, institutional racism and the path forward, including proactive steps lawyers can take to effect change and eliminate racism beyond just legislation.

Terri A. Mazur, chair of the Women in Law Section, moderated the event, along with Frettra de Silva. The other panelists were Carrie H. Cohen, a Morrison & Foerster partner and former assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York; Betty Lugo, of Pacheco & Lugo and chair of NYSBA’s Trial Lawyers Section; and Gloria Browne-Marshall, a professor of constitutional law, race and the law, gender and justice, and evidence at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Browne-Marshall, when presenting the history of systemic racism, explained that the civil rights movement has gained progress in many ways except criminal justice.

“Unfortunately the criminal justice laws are still based in what we had during slavery, what we had as far as segregation laws, and even our police forces were an amalgam of the militia that were created to put down native American uprisings, the slave catchers from the time period of slavery and the bobbies from England,” said Browne-Marshall. “And this is why we’re wrestling with this issue today because we’ve never reformed the criminal justice system in the same ways we’ve reformed other systems.”

The professor opined that litigation, legislation and protests are the three things that can bring about social change. She noted the estimated demographic change by 2050 where it is estimated that people of color will be the majority.

“If we can’t get it together in 2020 what are we going to do in 2050?” said Browne-Marshall.

Cohen feels this will be a turning point for prosecutors’ offices and that they will work even harder to build the best cases they can to bring corrupt police officers to justice. However, Cohen said we cannot just pass laws over the next three weeks, feel good about ourselves and become complacent.

“I’ve always felt that lawyers are the ones that can bring about really great societal change,” said Cohen. “We have the ability to do it, the courts are a great place to do it and we should be pushing forward.”

Lugo, a founding partner in the first Latina-owned law firm in New York City, agrees.

“We have to keep on pushing for change… We have to continue the conversation and encourage young people and mentor young people of color to get involved in the process, to become lawyers, and to fight for justice,” said Lugo. “That’s why I became a lawyer.”

When it comes to law enforcement, Lugo believes there needs to be diversity training, sensitivity training, as well as “cultural awareness training” so police can learn about different religions and ethnic backgrounds.

“I think history shows that police officers don’t like to be trained about this,” said Lugo. “We have to insist. It’s sort of like lawyers with continuing legal education, it has to be a requirement. It can’t just be given at the academy and that’s it.”

James said racist remarks are too commonly accepted in police departments and officers ignore regulations.

“If you don’t discipline people engaged in brutality, then that brutality is going to continue,” said James. “The individual officers have to be held accountable, but I think in addition we need to hold their supervisors accountable. They are responsible for what their officers do… I think if they’re held accountable, then they’re more likely to monitor them and insist that procedures are followed.”

Click here to watch the full discussion.

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