Panelists Suggest Better Transparency and Mental Health Response During Second Racial Injustice Forum

By Christian Nolan

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Maritza Ming, an assistant district attorney in the Brooklyn DA’s office, says the relationship between the police and their communities is broken in many areas because people do not feel safe when they see a police officer.

“People in all communities should feel safe when they see a police officer and that’s not happening,” said Ming, who is chief of staff to Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez. “… If people fear the police, the system can’t work.

“I know the community is not asking for no police, because we get calls all the time in the office that people want to see police officers, but what they want is fairness and what they want is justice,” Ming continued. “We’re not going to solve crime without the police -this is a police and community partnership – but if one part of that is broken then the whole system is broken.”

Ming’s comments came during the New York State Bar Association Task Force on Racial Injustice and Police Reform’s second public forum on Sept. 30. The mission of the task force is to understand the issues leading to police brutality and to provide recommendations to policymakers, law enforcement and the judiciary to end deleterious policing practices that disproportionately impact persons of color.

The task force is chaired by NYSBA President-Elect T. Andrew Brown and Taa Grays, a former association vice president from the first judicial district. They moderated the two-hour virtual forum, which focused on the often circuitous and complex criminal justice process that must be navigated by alleged offenders.

In general, Ming said she would like to see prosecutors do a better job of building trust with the community and being more transparent with the community so that people have the information they need to make their own opinions and form their own judgments about the job local prosecutors are doing.

The conversation alluded to the Breonna Taylor case – a 26-year old Black woman shot multiple times in her home by police – as outrage led to protests after only one of three involved police officers was charged criminally with a low-level felony wanton endangerment.

“How do we balance grand jury secrecy versus the community’s right to know,” asked Jose Perez, a former prosecutor, who has been LatinoJustice PRLDEF’s (Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund) legal director since September 2007. Perez wondered that in instances where there is not an indictment, can certain testimony be disclosed in a way that doesn’t harm or violate any confidentiality.

Ming agreed with Perez that perhaps there was a way to issue a redacted report that protects the identity of witnesses and other evidence but provides a better explanation to the public.

“The one thing that is clear is the community is demanding more,” said Ming.

Another panelist and former prosecutor, Lucy Lang, most recently served as director of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where she worked with prosecutors, police, and families who lost loved ones to police violence to develop national protocols for police accountability. Lang said transparency is necessary from the outset when a civilian is killed by a police officer.

“It was incredibly alarming to us at [the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution] to discover how many instances involved a civilian being killed by law enforcement and a total absence of communication with the family,” said Lang. “So regardless of the outcome, that initial contact is incredibly important. The concept of procedural justice is never more critical than in cases of officer involved fatalities, and then really within 48 hours maximum, there should be clear – and as transparent as possible – communication with the media.”

Lang said police departments are encouraged to provide services to families, whether or not the officer is charged, and to establish a communications infrastructure that enables clear communication with the community in order to ensure that everyone is heard and that people are aware of what’s happening within the appropriate legal parameter.

Terrence P. Dwyer, who spent 22-years with the New York State Police and is currently an attorney in private practice in New York and Connecticut while also teaching legal studies at Western Connecticut State University, said there are studies that show women are less likely to use deadly force.

“So the question becomes why don’t we have more women in policing in the United States,” said Dwyer.

Dwyer spoke to the police culture problem, which he said would need to change for more women to go into policing, and that there’s too much of a “warrior mentality” that leads to the use of force.

“It becomes problematic because police officers are constantly told they’re in a war,” said Dwyer. “It’s a war on crime. It’s a war on drugs. It’s a war on terror. And this feeds into that mindset.”

Another panelist, Don Kamin, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist who has held a variety of positions at the interface of the mental health and criminal justice systems. He is a former police academy instructor and is the director of the Institute for Police, Mental Health and Community Collaboration in Rochester.

Kamin believes that police should not be the ones responding to mental health crises unless there is a safety concern or illegal activity.

“Simply put, if there’s a mental health crisis, we should have a mental health response,” said Kamin. “As we know, police have become the default first responders to many societal problems, many of which have nothing to do with concerns about illegal or dangerous behavior.”

Kamin noted that about 25% of fatal police shootings involve individuals with mental illness and that persons of color with a mental illness are especially susceptible to poor outcomes in their interactions with law enforcement, “which is another reason we need to have non police responses to individuals in distress,” he said.

Shannon Wong, the director of the Hudson Valley Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, agreed with Kamin.

“The police should not be the primary responders to issues that are related to public health and social services in nature,” said Wong. “Only as a last resort, and really only when there is an imminent threat of bodily harm to oneself or others, should the police be the first responders…Police are trained to command and control a situation or to investigate and assume a crime could be committed. Police are not trained and do not have the skillset to de-escalate and diffuse situations that implicate social issues. And many law enforcement professionals recognize that they are actually ill positioned and ill resourced to provide appropriate responses to these situations.”

The first forum held by the task force on Sept. 22 focused on the City of Rochester, which has been rocked by revelations regarding the death of Daniel Prude, a mentally ill Black man who died of suffocation in March after police officers placed his head in a “spit hood” and pressed his face into the pavement. His death was not disclosed to the public for five months, sparking widespread protests and condemnation. After video footage of the encounter was released, Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren fired the police chief and the rest of the department’s highest-ranking officers either resigned or were demoted.

A third public forum will be scheduled for later this fall.

To view the first two forums or to find out more information about the task force, go to www.nysba.org/racialinjustice.

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