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August 18, 2021

George Floyd, Breonna Taylor attorneys: Wish list for police reform

Judges, prosecutors, legislators, law enforcement and the public all have a role to play in police reform. That was the consensus of the panelists for the CLE Showcase Program “The Future of Policing: Ending Senseless Violence and Igniting Transformative Reform,” presented Aug. 5 at the American Bar Association 2021 Hybrid Annual Meeting.

Noted activist-lawyer Benjamin Crump, who represented the families of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery as well as others in high-profile police cases, was among the panelists who raised the clarion call to push for accountability of law enforcement officers. “This is what America is all about — having equality and justice,” Crump said. “We can’t just have it be rhetoric. We have to make it reality.”

Lonita Baker, co-counsel for the family of Breonna Taylor, called for limits on qualified immunity for police, a ban on no-knock warrants and holding police officers accountable, both professionally and criminally.

“Court systems and prosecutors have allowed police officers to skirt around the Fourth Amendment,” which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures and sets requirements for warrants, Baker said. “We can’t have situations where officers are comfortable lying in front of judges, under oath and not getting prosecutorial approval for a warrant.”

Lynda R. Williams, president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, agreed. “Qualified immunity is not a shield to do wrong,” she said. “There has to be accountability and consequences” for wrongful actions taken by police officers.

Along with holding police responsible, Madeleine Landrieu, dean of Loyola University New Orleans College of Law, pressed for law schools to lean into the work of police reform and partner with law enforcement agencies to bring about change. Landrieu is chair of the advisory committee of the ABA Legal Education Police Practices Consortium, a collaboration between the ABA and dozens of U.S. law schools to examine and address legal issues in policing and public safety, including conduct, oversight and the evolving nature of police work.

“Law enforcement has to be trained — or retrained and rewired — to understand that intervening before harm occurs is courageous,” Landrieu said. Loyola’s law school has partnered with the New Orleans Police Department to create a forum for sharing best practices for policing through research and scholarship. Georgetown Law has done the same with the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C., she said.

Baker also called for training young lawyers to stand and speak up not only when they see wrongs but also when they hear about them. “When we hear these things, we have to be just as outraged,” she said.

“Our collective voices are our strength,” said Williams, who is also professor of practice of criminal justice at Middle Tennessee State University. She called for a national standard for police departments to follow, including establishment of a national database so that a bad officer “cannot skirt from one department to another.” She added that it is also important for officers to get to know people in the communities where they work in order to build mutual trust.

A combination of policing and legislation reform are needed to “hopefully prevent the unnecessary, unjustified and unconstitutional killings of our most precious assets like Breonna and others,” Crump said.

Also appearing on the panel were Tamika Palmer, mother of Breonna Taylor, and moderator Wayne McKenzie, general counsel of the New York City Department of Probation.

“The Future of Policing: Ending Senseless Violence and Igniting Transformative Reform” was sponsored by the Litigation Section and Standing Committee on Gun Violence, and co-sponsored by the Center for Diversity and InclusionCriminal Justice Section and Civil Rights and Social Justice Section