LOS ANGELES — Seeking an end to police brutality will be the National Bar Association’s primary focus as thousands of black lawyers, judges, educators and law students convene for an annual convention here beginning July 18.
The nation’s oldest and largest association for predominantly black professionals in the judicial system has already activated an initiative, titled the “War on Police Brutality,” according to Pamela J. Meanes, president of the association.
“African-American lawyers have the choice to be social engineers and tackle issues to help move the community forward,” Meanes said.
The 90th annual convention, held at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel and Suites, will feature prominent speakers such as professor and activist Cornel West, Marilyn Mosby, state’s attorney for Baltimore; Collette Flanagan, founder of Mothers Against Police Brutality; California Attorney General Kamala Harris and more.
While topical issues include education, immigration and health, the discussion for excessive police force comes on the heels of deadly police brutality cases seen during the past year in Ferguson, Missouri, with Michael Brown and Staten Island, New York, with Eric Garner.
Locally, excessive force has either led to death or serious harm in the cases of Marlene Pinnock, Clinton Alford, Jamar Nicholson, Ezell Ford, Charly Leundeu Keunang and Brendan Glenn.
Prior to the death of Brown, the bar association began to look at states with high rates of police abuse in areas largely populated by African Americans. The search created a list of 25 states and cities. Since last fall, the bar association has toured the country with its outreach program, “Know Your Rights Because It Could Save Your Life.” The last stop will be July 18 at Angeles Mesa Presbyterian Church, where Paula Madison, vice president of the Los Angeles Police Commission, will join attorneys and activists for the discussion.
“When we look at what is going on today with young people, police brutality is nothing new,” Meanes said. “The only thing is now we can see it with our own eyes [through viral videos] and we can’t deny what we see.”
Longtime bar member and president of an affiliate chapter in San Diego, Dennis Dawson, has also implemented a similar community outreach.
“What we did was specifically target three high schools where there were a lot of African-American students enrolled,” Dawson said. “We conducted panel discussions where we demonstrated role playing with police officers on what we don’t want them to do when they get contacted by the police.”
Dawson said he supports the convention’s role in facilitating a dialogue on how to protect black youth in volatile police encounters.
“We don’t want to be relegated to complaining over brutality that happened after the fact,” he said.
Meanes believes the National Bar Association and affiliate chapters do not have all the answers in the fight against excessive police force, but together they do play a role in offering solutions.
The bar association supports federal legislation regarding officers using body cameras, national standards for use of force, re-training in de-escalating situations and officers interceding to prevent the use of excessive force when responding to a call, according to the bar association’s website.
Meanes says re-defining the federal standards for use of force plays a pivotal role in the war against police brutality. In 1989, a Supreme Court ruling in the case of Graham v. Connor set a precedent and a narrative commonly heard in police departments across the country.
“A lot of the reasons you hear the narrative, ‘I feared for my life,’ is because there’s a Supreme Court case that says an officer can use any level of force if they believe it’s reasonable,” she said. “It’s very subjective because if they perceive danger in their minds, then it’s a reality.”
Attorney Benjamin L. Crump, president-elect of the bar association, says he has a heavy heart when it comes to unarmed men of color involved in deadly police encounters.
For him, the topic is worthy of discussion in and out of the courtroom.
“We have to let our children know that their lives matter,” Crump said. “It’s very important that we’re willing to speak up for them because if we don’t do it, then no one else is going to do it for them.”
Crump has or is representing the families of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice of Cleveland, Ohio.
As officers of the court, lawyers need to make sure their communities receive due process and are treated equally in the system, he said.
In Crump’s experience, sometimes black attorneys have to fight twice: first, for their client and secondly, for their right to fight for their client.
“They don’t always acknowledge your presence unless you make them acknowledge you,” Crump said.
And that same attitude applies on the streets, according to Meanes.
“The community has to make this a movement, not a moment,” she said. “There has to be sustaining change.”