Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and the Federal Civil Rights Statute

Columbia Law School Professors Jeffrey Fagan, Bernard Harcourt, Olatunde Johnson, Daniel Richman and Kendall Thomas Explore the Role of the Federal Government in Investigating Alleged Civil Rights Abuses

New York, February 16, 2015—Federal civil rights laws provide important but limited tools for confronting alleged violations of citizens’ constitutional rights, said a group of Columbia Law School faculty at a panel discussion Feb. 4. The professors explored potential next steps in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner shooting death cases in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York after local prosecutors declined to indict the police officers involved.

Dean of Students Michelle Greenberg-Kobrin opened the conversation by asking the panel how the legal community can respond to the “heartbreaking, disheartening, and disillusioning events that have taken place in Ferguson and elsewhere.”

Professor Olatunde Johnson, a leading civil rights scholar, said she has been encouraged by the energy and passion that the controversies have elicited around the country.

“As frustrating as these incidents have been, they are also an invitation to think about our roles as lawyers and law students,” Johnson said.

Professors Jeffrey A. Fagan and Bernard E. Harcourt discussed the specifics of the Brown and Garner cases. Fagan described statistics he has examined showing that Ferguson, Missouri relies on what he described as aggressive policing to cover its municipal budget. Harcourt, who directs the Columbia Center for Contemporary Critical Thought, explained his view that precedent more than justified an indictment against one of the police officers involved in the Garner case.

Professor Daniel C. Richman, a former federal prosecutor, said that federal civil rights enforcement is rare and difficult, especially without local or state charges.

“Federal involvement must be part of a larger project coming from either the local or state level or from a national movement,” Richman said. “In 2012, there were only 152 cases across the entire country. These cases have a very demanding standard for willfulness, so you tend to see primarily the most egregious crimes.”

Professor Kendall Thomas, director of the Center for the Study of Law and Culture, said that law and legal tools should be seen as part of a larger struggle to take on structural and systemic injustices.

“I want to offer a cautionary angle of the limits of law and legalism in addressing larger social problems,” he said. “For me, the question is what is to be done if this is as much a political challenge as a legal one. Look beyond the courts to politics, and claim the word ‘justice’ politically as something different than law.”

The conversation continued with an array of student questions examining the nuances of the Brown and Garner cases in addition to broader questions of using federal law to narrow racial and ethnic disparities. Students and faculty lingered long after the official event concluded, exchanging insights into achieving a more equitable system of criminal justice. 

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