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Activists, police officers and scholars from across the country packed yesterday's opening panel on "Race, Police and the Community," part of a conference on race and police brutality sponsored by Harvard Law School's Criminal Justice Institute (CJI).
About 400 people are expected to participate in the three-day conference, which features panels on racial profiling, the juvenile justice system, police leadership and police brutality.
The nine-member panel, which included political activist Rev. Al Sharpton, Philadelphia Police Commissioner John F. Timoney and Boston City Councillor Chuck Turner, condemned racism across the law enforcement system.
CJI Director and Climenko Professor of Law Charles J. Ogletree, the panel's moderator, said in his opening remarks that people of color face discrimination in the criminal justice system.
"Hispanics and people of African descent are disproportionately represented in every aspect of the criminal justice system," Ogletree said. "As we begin a new century, it is appropriate for CJI to revisit this discussion and bring together a broad cross-section of activists, academics, members of law enforcement, and others to seek solutions."
Iris Baez, whose son was fatally choked by a NYPD officer in 1994, started the discussion by saying that police seem to be above the law.
"I figured this police officer who murdered my son would go to jail, because if my son murdered a police officer he would go to jail," Baez said. "It's a double standard."
Sharpton, a well-known activist against police brutality in New York City, urged minorities to take a more active role in their self-defense.
"When you are constantly brutalized and have no redress, then you must mobilize and protect yourself," Sharpton said.
The discussion was fast-paced and covered a broad range of topics, including cultural misunderstandings, lack of respect and stereotypes. Ogletree pushed panelists to address provocative questions on topics such as the role of blacks in law enforcement and whether the speakers would discourage black people from joining the police force.
Ronald Hampton, a longtime police officer in Washington, D.C., said that blacks should join the police force, despite the discrimination he experienced as an officer.
"We need to be there. We need to be the guardians of our community," Hampton said. "If we're not going to be there, then I can imagine the worst, brother."
While most panel participants focused on police-based discrimination, Professor David Cole of Georgetown University said the discrimination extended to the courtroom.
Cole said that state-appointed defense attorneys are often inadequate, and that prosecutors have too much discretion in deciding whom to punish--and to what extent. He said the courts have taken a "see no evil, hear no evil" approach to racism within the criminal justice system.
At the end of the discussion, panelists offered suggestions for how the system can be improved. Northeastern University Law Professor Deborah Ramirez said that the police must learn "to build community" and make that one of their major responsibilities.
"Now, they've got to go beyond the traditional role of policing...and form a symbiotic relationship with the community," Ramirez said.
Ogletree called the weekend's conference a "historic gathering," and said it is rare for law enforcement officers to come to a meeting "where they're likely to be subject to criticism and challenges."
And though yesterday's discussion was civil, it did feature a few tense moments.
In his opening remarks, Timoney--the police chief of a city with one of the worst reputations for police brutality--drew snickers from several audience members as he spoke.
"Police departments are resistant to change," Timoney acknowledged. "What's needed is enlightened leadership at the top that will get ahead of the curve."
After a few audience members interrupted him, he hastily defended himself. "Are they perfect? No," he said.
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