Fighting the Scourge of Racial Injustice

By Scott Karson

Lawyers Are the Guardians of Justice

I grew up in Great Neck, a suburban community on the North Shore of Long Island. At that time, Great Neck was a hotbed of progressive thinking and concern for social justice.

As a boy, my parents brought me to numerous demonstrations in opposition to the Vietnam War and in support of the civil rights movement, including Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial as part of the 1963 March on Washington. My parents instilled in me from a very young age the importance of racial equality.

The civil rights movement of the 1960s has informed my thinking to this day. It is why all these years later it infuriates me to see the scourge of racial bigotry and the egregious inequities in how people of color are treated in our criminal justice system and society at large.

Make no mistake, George Floyd’s death at the hands of law enforcement and its aftermath were not aberrations; they were the culmination of a long history of racism and inequality that continues to plague our nation.

It is now up to us, as a society, to seize this important moment and make sense of what must come next. The protest movement in the wake of the death of George Floyd is a call for bold action, including institutional and cultural reform – in law enforcement, as well as within the broader criminal justice system.

While I earnestly believe the vast majority of police officers are dedicated and honorable public servants, the repeated incidents of police brutality demonstrate that there is a far-reaching problem that must be addressed. We cannot dismiss these incidents as being isolated and simply look the other way. The status quo is plainly unsustainable.

Police violence against people of color is just a symptom of the broader and more complex deep-seated racial disparities within our criminal justice system that undermine the rule of law. Meaningful change will thus require much more than addressing the issue of police brutality but instead rethinking all aspects of our justice system – from investigation to arrest to trial to sentencing and incarceration.

I applaud both the governor and the legislature for quickly enacting reforms that will help bring about meaningful systemic changes, especially the repeal of section 50-a of the Civil Rights Law, an action which was supported by our association. For too many years, section 50-a has been utilized by police departments as a shield to prevent the release of critically important information regarding police misconduct and disciplinary actions taken against police officers.

Task Force on Racial Injustice and Police Reform
While they are a step in the right direction, these statutory reforms alone are not enough to combat years of systemic racism. There is much more that can be done, and NYSBA is uniquely positioned to play a role in that effort.

With respect to police misconduct, there must be greater transparency and better accountability within the police force itself, through the use of body cameras and other data-gathering techniques, along with better and more rigorous training.

The oversight of police conduct should also be more inclusive. In particular, there should be greater civilian participation in the review of police conduct.

And when laws are broken, independent and impartial prosecutors who are not influenced by their relationship with law enforcement must investigate and respond to police misconduct swiftly, transparently and fairly – as with any other crime.

In order to achieve these and other needed reforms, I have asked two distinguished members of the New York State Bar Association – President-Elect T. Andrew Brown and Taa Grays, a former Association Vice President from the First Judicial District – to co-chair a new Task Force on Racial Injustice and Police Reform.

The task force is already hard at work developing strategies to combat the repeated incidents of police brutality and inequality in our criminal justice system that we have all witnessed.

The task force is engaging a diverse team of stakeholders and is also working with advisory groups from around the state, including diverse bar associations.

The task force will review why racial bias persists in policing and will provide recommendations to policymakers, law enforcement and the judiciary to end policing practices that disproportionately impact persons of color.

NYSBA welcomes this opportunity to be an active and positive force for reform, and we look forward to working with New York state and local officials to effect the kind of robust and meaningful change that is needed to restore justice – and faith – in our criminal justice system.

By asking and struggling with difficult questions and listening to those who bear witness to and suffer from the consequences of racism, we will learn, and we will act.

Many people of color face daily the possibility of being targeted, threatened, maligned or worse while engaging in the normal daily activities that the rest of us engage in with impunity, for no reason other than their race.

The threat of having one’s peace or life destroyed has nothing to do with class, education or income and everything to do with race. This has long been morally and legally unacceptable, yet the needle barely moves.

It is time for lawyers to step up and to take a different tack. Why? Because lawyers are the guardians of justice and protectors of the rule of law. We must never lose sight of that.

By reason of our licenses to practice law, we are singularly positioned to fight for justice. On paper, the law and the legal system are colorblind, but in practice they are not.

It is time for lawyers to collectively stand on the front lines of the fight for full and fair implementation of the promise of the law. It is our job.

Scott Karson can be reached at [email protected].

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