Policing the Police: The Conversation Continues

Just weeks after Broadway artists of color came together at Columbia in support of the Black Lives Matter Movement, Dean Gillian Lester ushered in the first fall 2016 event in the Law School’s new conversation series, “Lawyers, Community, and Impact.” Students came out in large numbers during their lunch break on Sept. 14 to engage in a lively discussion of police actions and accountability, featuring nationally recognized expert in crime, law, and social policy Professor Jeffrey Fagan, with Vice Dean Olatunde Johnson as moderator.

Dean Lester, the Lucy G. Moses Professor of Law, acknowledged the exceptional nature of the debate over police conduct and reform, and noted the many thoughtful discussions that continue to take place on campus in task forces, committees, and organized convenings—as well as informally, in hallway conversations among faculty, staff, and students each day. 

The overarching goal of the series, Dean Lester reminded students, is to build community by bringing deeper context and perspective to our work both inside and outside the classroom. “People crave the opportunity to think about what they’re learning in law school, and to be able to understand it in the context of the world around them,” she said.

Fagan began his talk, “Policing the Police: The Future of Reform,” by acknowledging the recent spike in high-profile killings of unarmed African American men, and the public’s outcry for greater police accountability. While acknowledging widespread calls for body cameras to hold police accountable, Fagan said surveillance devices are no panacea.

Body-camera video often offers vague evidence or disappears completely, Fagan stated, questioning the value of this technology as a potential driver of increased police accountability. Many police officers who resort to force will continue to presume the law will protect them, whether there a camera is present or not, Fagan noted.

“It’s great that there are body cameras, but to use that data to monitor what police are doing is going to be extremely hard,” said Fagan, who directs the Center for Crime, Community, and Law.  He noted that body cameras may curtail bad stops that violate civil liberties; however, they do not serve as deterrents to more egregious acts by the police.

Empirical data can shed light on the performance of police departments and individual officers, Fagan said, in response to a student’s question. For example, Fagan cited a study of “broken windows policing” that revealed this aggressive, racially discriminatory method rarely yielded felony arrests or charges that produced convictions in court.  Studies of police actions should not only analyze the number of stops and arrests – this data should also be compared with the number of court summons issued, the professor said.

“We need to think really carefully about who the police are in this day and age, and how they manage people and how they view the law,” Fagan said.

As event moderator, Johnson described policing as a “critical” topic that students and faculty yearned to discuss in greater depth. “For many of us, this is a deeply emotional issue, one in which we have strong feelings, especially about police-citizen encounters, because we have lived experiences of this,” said Johnson, who earlier in her career served as a litigator and legislative advocate at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. 

The next event in the “Lawyers, Community, and Impact” series will be a Sept. 29 discussion of voter ID laws with election law expert Professor Richard Briffault and Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project.

Posted September 20, 2016