SF, East Coast cities announce commissions on systemic racism in justice system

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday July 1, 2020
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San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, lower left, took part in a Zoom call Wednesday with prosecutors in Massachusetts and Philadelphia. Photo: Screenshot via Zoom
San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, lower left, took part in a Zoom call Wednesday with prosecutors in Massachusetts and Philadelphia. Photo: Screenshot via Zoom

San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin joined the top prosecutors in Philadelphia and Boston, along with two civil rights advocates, to announce the formation of truth, justice, and reconciliation commissions in all three cities in a Zoom call Wednesday.

The commissions will review and officially acknowledge long-standing systemic racial inequities in the criminal justice system, particularly those that were ignored or covered up. The commissions will also chart strategies for going forward.

Boudin was joined by Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner; Suffolk County, Massachusetts District Attorney Rachel Rollins; civil rights activist Shaun King; and civil rights attorney Lee Merritt.

King and Merritt are co-founders of the Grassroots Law Project, which seeks to combine grassroots activism and legal expertise to "radically transform the American legal system to end abuses of authority."

"Often, we who fight for meaningful reform don't take into account how old [the legal system] is — it's hundreds of years old — and how complicated it is," King said. "Small reforms have hardly led to any measurable gains. Many of us have felt uncomfortable even calling it 'the justice system.'"

King said that system is designed to repress people of color, particularly Black people.

"It's easy to look at it and say 'it's definitely broken.' Instead, it's more nefarious than that," King said. "Instead, it's actually functioning on all cylinders. It's doing exactly what it's supposed to do."

Boudin said that irrespective of whether the criminal justice system is inherently racist, it is not delivering justice.

"You can call it broken, or you can say it is doing what it is designed to do, but either way it is not working," Boudin said. "We have not just weeks or months or years of problems to address but we have to address centuries."

Boudin said that the recent protests over police brutality and racism following the police killing of George Floyd in May will only come back stronger if the issues being raised by demonstrators are not addressed.

"The tear gas, the billy clubs, and the arrests are not going to allow us to move forward," Boudin said.

Boudin said the commissions are inspired by a similar restorative justice panel — the Truth and Reconciliation Commission — that occurred in post-apartheid South Africa.

"In South Africa they understood that given the enormous wrongs, there had to be a formal process to address those harms," Boudin said.

Boudin said that he is open to listening to the community, because the credibility of any reconciliation process needs the involvement of all voices, especially those who have been the victims of police violence and discrimination — an old colleague used to remind him "you have one mouth, but two ears."

Boudin said that he has a good relationship with San Francisco Police Chief William Scott. As the Bay Area Reporter previously reported, Scott said he would be open to police department budget cuts in an online panel discussion with Boudin last month.

"I have a really good relationship with the chief of police in San Francisco. He was brought in after hunger strikes and protests following high-profile incidents," Boudin said.

Boudin — along with the other two prosecutors on the July 1 Zoom call — noted that he does not have as rosy a relationship with police unions. The San Francisco Police Officers Association, he said, has "an utter resistance to any kind of change."

Boudin noted an op-ed that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on June 30 written by a member of the POA's executive board in which he argues that the San Francisco Police Department is "at the forefront of change" and a "national model for policing."

"That's not true," Boudin said, saying that the police department is compliant with less than 15% of 272 reform recommendations made by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2016.

"That's four years," Boudin said. "That's unacceptable."

Boudin, who was opposed by the POA during his successful campaign last year, joined a coalition of present and former district attorneys last month in calling upon the state bar association to ban candidates for district attorney from accepting police union contributions. In the Zoom call, Boudin said a friend of his compared police union attitudes toward police reform to the National Rifle Association's attitude toward gun control.

The POA did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Oakland's Lee supports national commission

King said it would be nice if there could be a truth, justice, and reconciliation commission on the national level, but Congress has failed to act on more baseline issues such as providing health care and a functioning immigration system.

Still, last month Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) introduced legislation calling for the creation of a truth, racial healing, and transformation commission.

"This inequality is at the heart of every crisis we're dealing with right now — the crises of police brutality and mass incarceration, the COVID-19 public health crisis which is disproportionately affecting communities of color, and the crisis of poverty excluding so many minority families from the American Dream," Lee stated in a June 1 news release. "This is a matter of survival for countless Americans. Only by understanding our past, and confronting the errors that still haunt us today, can we truly move forward as a people and a country."

Merritt, who testified last month before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, said that many conservatives have "a hard time understanding the concept of systemic racism."

"The justice system that is supposed to provide protection to communities has built into it systemic racism: laws that ensure harsher sentencing for African American people," Merritt said. "We have to do what we can within the system."

The panelists hoped that the commissions will spur more jurisdictions to undertake similar efforts.

Rollins, the first Black person and the first woman to be district attorney of Suffolk County, Massachusetts (home to the city of Boston), said on the call that many people aren't talking about the behavior of prison guard of people who are already incarcerated.

"One of the massive elephants in the room is the corrections world — a mini-police department out of sight," Rollins said. "And they don't have cellphones [in prison]. That community is discredited by the very fact of where they are."

Rollins said she hopes the commissions will lead to "deep and uncomfortable conversations," and said she has written letters of apology to people falsely accused of crimes.

Krasner, Philadelphia's district attorney, said that his office "prosecuted a police officer for something he did on duty" and told the family of the victim that "you may not win; the system does not work for you," to which the family responded "we already won — you're trying."

Krasner also said that his office has exonerated about a dozen innocent people who'd been incarcerated, all but one a Black man.

"We have apologized to those people in open court and the effect is magical," Krasner said. "The weight being lifted is amazing."

Krasner said that part of the reconciliation process has to be recognizing everyone's individuality. Many Philadelphia police officers don't share the hardline attitude of their union, he said.

"They [union leaders] come from a different generation. They can sit in a La-Z-Boy and watch 'All in the Family' and identify with Archie Bunker," Krasner said, referring to the old sitcom. "There's a difference between the management and unions, when it comes to police."

The Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police Lodge did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Still, Rollins wanted to point out that widespread mistrust of police leads to a lack of justice for victims in crimes committed by civilians, too.

"[Community members are] members of our grand juries, our trial juries, witnesses to crime," Rollins said.

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