Toward Racial Justice speakers look to possibilities for police and policy reform in 2021

Too often, said retired police captain Sonia Pruitt, leaders form commissions and identify the same problems, but fail to follow up by making any changes.

  • Alanna Elder

Join us for the next installment of our Toward Racial Justice series of community conversations on WITF’s YouTube channel. On Thursday, Feb. 18 at 7 p.m., we’ll explore racial disparities within the COVID-19 pandemic and look at the hesitancy regarding vaccines. 

(Harrisburg) — Shortly before WITF’s first Toward Racial Justice conversation of the year, retired police captain Sonia Pruitt said, she testified before the Maryland legislature on a use-of-force bill.

“What was really difficult for me is the pushback that we are still getting [in reference  to] police reform,” she said.

Too often, she added, leaders form commissions and identify the same problems, but fail to follow up by making any changes. Pruitt and other criminal justice and policy experts spoke with moderator Charles Ellison about the trends they are watching in 2021.

“Policing took center stage for everyone in 2020,” Ellison said, despite the ongoing, deadly pandemic, after police killed George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Jonathan Feinberg is Vice President of the National Police Accountability Project, which is based in Philadelphia. He has noticed a shift where people outside the legal world are talking about qualified immunity, a doctrine that makes it difficult to sue police or any public official for what they do while working. More people are now calling for an end to what once was an obscure concept, he said.

“That I think is something that is a hugely positive development in policing,” Feinberg said.

Less positive, he said, is the reality that some police officers have connections to white supremacist groups. The FBI wrote about the issue dating back to 2006, and the participation of more than two dozen off-duty police in the Capitol insurrection brought it back to the forefront.

Sonia Pruitt said these connections are no secret within law enforcement, and well-meaning police leaders and politicians need to be willing to see extremism in their ranks.

“There’s some sort of cognitive dissonance about wrapping your head around the fact that these are real people, they have these radical ideas, and they are part of your police department: What are you going to do?” she said.

When it comes to holding officers accountable generally, Feinberg said, there’s room to put more pressure on those in charge of discipline.

“It’s the mid-level supervisors, sergeants, and lieutenants, who are supposed to take responsibility for disciplining officers under their supervision. And when they’re not doing it, what we’re not seeing is discipline of those people,” he said.

If some reforms target the middle of the ranks, wresting power from police unions starts at the top, Feinberg said.

“What we need to find a way to advance is leadership in police unions with intellectual honesty,” he said.

Pruitt said she does not believe the answer is to get rid of police unions, because they serve an important role in negotiating for pay and health care benefits, but added she understands the desire to do so.

“I’m not sure what the answer is, in terms of how do we make these changes, but they have to be a part of it,” she said. “Or they may have to be disbanded.”

As a public defender, state House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton said she has seen how bias from judges further prevents accountability.

“It’s what happens in court, when a judge and sometimes juries do not even question whether or not an officer is being straightforward, and I don’t mean on just any given day, but when the story doesn’t add up, when there are inconsistencies,” she said.

Another bias, McClinton said, manifests in how some judges receive public defender’s arguments.

“You know, you’re representing everybody. So they say, ‘Oh, you’re going to make this argument ten times today,’” she said. “So it goes in one ear, out the other, and they do not care and always give you the patience to just listen to what you’re saying the way they would private counsel.”

Such prejudices make it harder for people who can’t afford a private attorney to win their cases, she said.

One way Pennsylvanians can have some influence on the judicial system, McClinton said, is by voting for judges in this year’s election.

McClinton, who represents parts of Philadelphia and Delaware counties, is also supporting efforts in Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposed budget to distribute money to schools through the state’s fair-funding formula and raise the minimum wage, two policies she cited as efforts to make life in Pennsylvania more equitable.

 

Alanna is part of  the “Report for America” program  — a national service effort that places journalists in newsrooms across the country to report on under-covered topics and communities.

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