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Our country is on fire after yet another unarmed black man, George Floyd, was killed by a police officer who kneeled on his neck until he was dead. Protesters have come to streets all over America, rightly furious, over this latest sordid chapter in the sadly recurring history of police brutality on minority communities.
We’re well aware that policing and the criminal justice system as a whole disproportionately touches the lives of black Americans. In our hometown of Virginia Beach, 49% of those charged with disorderly conduct and 57% charged with possession of marijuana are black despite being less than 20% of the city’s population.
If we’re going to make positive changes to how black communities are being treated, it requires that we all reflect on how we can individually contribute to break the current cycle. As criminal defense attorneys, we’re in the courtrooms almost every day and have seen how the courts subtly -- and sometimes not so subtly -- condone police conduct that targets minority communities.
We wrote previously about the case Hill v. Commonwealth in which police yanked a black man named Patrick Hill from his vehicle in broad daylight at 2:30 P.M. when he had done nothing illegal. The Supreme Court of Virginia recently gave their seal of approval ruling that the officers reasonably feared personal harm because they were in a “high crime” neighborhood and Hill was reaching down between the seats and could have been going for a weapon.
It’s not hard to see how cases like this one have a disproportionate impact on black communities. “High crime neighborhood” is often nothing more than a transparent code for black neighborhood. Subjective police fear is often nothing more than unfounded fear of “scary black men.” Trial courts and appellate courts need to do a better job of calling bullshit on this type of testimony.
Can you imagine the outrage if the police yanked a white Supreme Court judge from his car in broad daylight because he was reaching between his seats? Would we blindly accept an officer’s claim that he feared for his safety? Of course not. The fact that courts often accept that explanation when the case involves black men is nothing more than court sanctioned endorsement of the idea that black men are scary and thus less entitled to the protections of the law.
Let’s identify this for what it is and permanently cast it from our courtrooms. Testimony regarding “high crime” aka black neighborhoods needs to become a thing of the past. Testimony concerning officer safety needs to be tied to specific observations of criminal activity and not some vague notion of the defendant looking “nervous” or “reaching for an unknown item” that somehow never materializes.
So what can you do to help ensure that black and minority Americans get the legal representation that they desperately need and deserve? Considering the majority of black and minority defendants are represented by court-appointed attorneys, one step in the right direction is to DEMAND EQUAL PAY FOR PUBLIC DEFENDERS.
One of the biggest problems with the public defender system is that it’s underfunded and PDs are severely underpaid and under-resourced. Virginia Beach provides a perfect illustration of this pay disparity. An entry-level PD is paid somewhere around $52,000. An entry-level prosecutor is paid over $70,000. The city of VB financially supplements prosecuting attorneys but not public defender attorneys.
Now ask yourself the following: Which position is more valued by the system? Why do we allow a system that blatantly and disproportionately favors one side of the scale of justice over the other? Finally, who is to blame and what can you do to fix this problem?
The answers we've come up with are as follows:
Educate yourself and others on the issue;
Organize a peaceful protest at your local courthouse;
Attend city/town council meetings and demand to be heard on the issue of financially supplementing your locality’s public defender office; and
Demand that elected officials – including prosecutors – support pay equality.
Rapper/activist Killer Mike from Atlanta gave one of the most moving and inspiring speeches in the immediate aftermath of George Floyd's murder. Holding back anger through tears, he stated, “Now is the time to plot, plan, strategize, organize, and mobilize to beat up the prosecutors you don’t like at the voting booth.” That statement beautifully captures the dimension of calmness and coordination required in a time of inflamed passion.
VOTE on the issues that matter. DO something. SUPPORT equal pay for public defenders.
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