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September 01, 2018

2018 Fall Member Op-Ed

Advocating for Justice: The Obligation of Lawyers to Prevent Police Brutality

By: Melanie Bates, Council, Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice

“Mere access to the courthouse doors does not by itself assure a proper functioning of the adversary process.”  This profound quote by Thurgood Marshall succinctly illustrates the source of my passion to fight for justice. As lawyers, it is incumbent upon us to ensure that every person, regardless of socioeconomic status, has access to quality legal representation. Poverty, lack of education, and other social issues should not feed the pipeline to prison or to the grave. Through consistent advocacy, lawyers should strive to alleviate the factors that force many people to become a part of the system.

Lawyers everywhere should be outraged that yet another unarmed Black man has been fatally shot to death by police. Earlier this month, Amber Guyger, an off-duty Dallas police officer shot and killed Botham Shem Jean, her neighbor, in his very own apartment, claiming she thought the unit was her own. As if this unconscionable circumstance was not enough, a myriad of other unfathomable developments have since have occurred, including:

  • The officer who killed Mr. Jean was processed and released from custody within two hours. The individuals protesting his death were behind bars for days.
  • The officer’s claim that the door was ajar has been effectively contradicted.
  •  In a ridiculously clear attempt to smear his character and credibility, a search warrant for “any contraband, such as narcotics,” was executed on Mr. Jean’s home.
  • Senator Ted Cruz has said “we should not jump to conclusions,” and that “democrats are quick to always blame the police officer.”
  • The Police Chief has refused to fire the officer, claiming she does not want to interfere with the ongoing criminal investigation.

“I feared for my life.” These five words are routinely asserted by police officers as justification for slaughtering innocent citizens. The countless police killings in recent years prove that the law does not adequately protect Blacks. These instances are teaching us that if you are Black, you are a threat and therefore free game to be killed. When in fact, Blacks are the ones who are in constant fear for their lives. For example, if I am driving and see a police officer behind me, my stomach flips. I get nervous and shaky. I am worried that I will be pulled over for no apparent reason and endure undue emotional stress during the encounter. It does not matter that I am an attorney and know my rights. All it comes down to is that I am Black and perceived as dangerous. The murder of Mr. Jean shows us that Blacks are not even safe in their own homes. If Blacks are not safe behind the walls that they pay for, where are they safe?

The American Bar Association’s Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice is in a unique position to demand change. Its mission is to raise and address often complex and difficult civil rights and civil liberties issues in a changing and diverse society as well as ensure that protection of individual rights remains a focus of legal and policy decisions. It should therefore be our duty to require accountability and transparency on the part of our government so the senseless cycle of police killings does not repeat itself over and over again. We need to call for independent prosecutors, implicit bias and cultural awareness training for police departments, and improved police-community relations. If transformation will not come from our elected officials and others in power, we must serve as the influencing voice to advocate for justice. 

There are more than one million lawyers in this country. Each of us are obligated to fight to ensure the protections afforded under the U.S. Constitution are applied fairly to all people. This includes protecting Blacks from the use of excessive force by police officers, who are paid by our tax dollars to protect and serve. 

Melanie Bates is an attorney based in Washington, D.C. She believes that poverty, lack of education, and other social issues should not feed the pipeline to prison. Through consistent advocacy, Melanie desires to alleviate the factors that force many people to become a part of the criminal justice system. The views expressed here are her own.