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Race & Justice News: “To Protect and Slur?” Law Enforcement & Social Media

July 24, 2019
Black homicide victims' families less likely to receive victim compensation, increased racial disparity in Missouri traffic stops, San Francisco and Connecticut tackle racial disparities in prosecutions, and more in Race & Justice News.

Race and Justice News is a monthly electronic newsletter produced by The Sentencing Project. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.

Black Homicide Victims’ Families Less Likely to Receive Victim Compensation

Oklahoma’s Victims Compensation Program denies aid to the families of black homicide victims more often than to other racial groups, according to a recent analysis by The Frontier. The compensation program was created to assist families with funds for funeral expenses, counseling, and loss of support. The analysis found 38% of applications involving black homicide victims were denied funds, compared to 27% for whites between 2014 and 2018. Denials are often attributed to the victim’s “contributory conduct”—meaning that the victim was somehow responsible for their death because of factors such as their alleged gang membership. “Black people are automatically considered or assumed guilty or associated more than our white counterparts all the time. I think it’s those same systems of bias and racial inequity at work in those denials,” said Rev. Sheri Dickerson, director of Black Lives Matter OKC.  

The racial disparities that impact aid for victims’ families are not limited to Oklahoma. Past reporting from the Marshall Project, Reveal, and USA Today found seven states—Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Rhode Island, North Carolina, Florida, and Ohio—deny victim compensation to people with prior criminal records.

“To Protect and Slur?” Law Enforcement and Social Media

The Plain View Project examined 3,500 personal Facebook accounts of current and former police officers from eight departments and found that one in five current officers, and two in five retired officers, had posted public messages displaying bias against people of color, Muslims, or women, applauded violence, scoffed at due process, or used dehumanizing language. Buzzfeed News reported on the findings of the research team, which was led by Philadelphia lawyer Emily Baker-White. An investigation by Reveal, titled “To Protect and Slur,” found that hundreds of officers are members of hate or anti-government militia groups on Facebook. When ProPublica found troubling sentiments in a private Facebook group of current and former Border Patrol agents, Professor Manisha Sinha reflected that these agents “appear not only to be following orders but … have paraded their own racist, misogynistic, and sadistic tendencies in Facebook posts.” 

The Plain View Project shared its data with Injustice Watch, a nonprofit news organization, which found that many of the officers who posted offensive messages were also involved in brutality or civil rights violations lawsuits. Many police departments have social media guidelines that prohibit officers from making derogatory remarks. Recent reports have triggered internal investigations and disciplinary actions

Increased Racial Disparity in Missouri Traffic Stops

Black drivers in Missouri were even more likely than white drivers to be stopped by law enforcement in 2018 than the prior year, reports St. Louis Public Radio. Statewide, black motorists were 91% more likely than whites to be stopped by police in 2018 compared to 85% more the prior year, according to reports by the state Attorney General. The total number of traffic stops did not change significantly across these years. The recent report represents 98% of the 678 law enforcement agencies in the state. 

Contraband was found in 35% of searches statewide last year. Although searched white drivers were found to possess contraband more frequently than black and Hispanic drivers, black and Hispanic drivers were searched far more frequently. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial board concluded: “The NAACP issued a travel advisory on Missouri in 2017, citing in part the high disparity in traffic stops between blacks and white. Since then, the disparities have worsened. If Gov. Mike Parson truly cares about the state’s reputation and its ability to attract new business, he should make reversing these numbers a top priority.” 

The Death Penalty in Los Angeles and Philadelphia

During Jackie Lacey’s nearly seven-year tenure as District Attorney of Los Angeles County, all of the 22 individuals sentenced to death in the county were people of color, according to an ACLU report covered by the Los Angeles Times. In addition, while whites comprised 12% of LA County homicide victims between 2000 and 2015, 36% of death sentences during Lacey’s administration involved at least one white victim. The ACLU also found serious problems with the quality of legal representation in these cases: “Nine defendants had lawyers who were previously or subsequently disbarred, suspended or charged with misconduct.” A majority of Los Angeles voters supported recent ballot proposals to repeal the death penalty. Lacey has continued to allow death penalty trials to go forward even after California Governor Gavin Newsom issued a moratorium on executions in March 2019. The ACLU is circulating a petition asking Lacey to stop seeking the death penalty and George Gascón, San Francisco’s district attorney, may return to Los Angeles to run against Lacey

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office is asking the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to declare the death penalty unconstitutional because it is racially biased, arbitrary, and discriminates against the poor, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer. “The most jaw-dropping statistic,” from his office’s review of 40 years of death sentences in Philadelphia, “is that out of 155 Philadelphia death sentences, 72% of them have been overturned,” explained Krasner. His office’s brief, filed in response to a petition from two men on death row, asks the state Supreme Court to address systemic problems and to hold that the death penalty violates the Pennsylvania Constitution’s ban on cruel punishments. Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro is arguing that the legislature, not the courts, should resolve the issue. The Inquirer’s editorial board has written:“Whether it is through the state’s Supreme Court or bipartisan legislation, this upcoming fall could finally offer the best chance for Pennsylvania to abolish the death penalty.”

San Francisco and Connecticut Tackle Racial Disparities in Prosecutions

To address the disproportionate prosecution of African Americans in San Francisco, prosecutors are testing out the process of “blind charging” defendants by concealing race and related information when making charging decisions, reports the New York Times. African Americans comprise only 6% of San Francisco’s population, but 38% of cases filed by prosecutors from 2008 to 2014. In blind charging, prosecutors have access only to the reason a person was stopped, evidence that the person committed a crime, and witness accounts. They can access all other information after making their initial decision. San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón explained: “The question we want to ask ourselves is, ‘Would you charge based just on the behavior, without the race and other demographic information?’” 

Legislators in Connecticut are also taking a closer look at the role of prosecutors in their state’s criminal justice disparities by becoming the first in the nation to collect prosecutorial data, reports the Associated Press. Unanimously approved legislation will require prosecutors to submit data that includes information on how many defendants were sent to prison, received plea bargains, or accessed diversion programs, and to report demographic data on race, gender, and age. The state’s Office of Policy and Management will receive the data beginning in 2021, and will issue annual reports of its analyses to the Judiciary Committee.

Canadian Inquiry Recognizes Genocide of Indigenous Women and Girls

national commission investigating violence against Indigenous women, girls, and LGBT+ people in Canada concluded that they were victims of a genocide driven by “state actions and inactions rooted in colonialism and colonial ideologies.” The report is a culmination of a three-year inquiry drawing upon statements from over 2,380 people. Indigenous women and girls make up 4% of Canadian females but 16% of those killed between 1980 and 2012. Police recorded 1,181 deaths and disappearances during this period, but the exact number may be closer to 4,000, with many deaths or disappearances likely unrecorded. 

The report identified a context of “multigenerational and intergenerational trauma of colonial violence” including the practice of forcibly sending thousands of Indigenous children to residential schools where many were abused, the disproportionate levels of poverty and inequality experienced by Indigenous communities, and the failings of the Canadian criminal justice system to adequately address violence against Indigenous women. An editorial in the Globe and Mail rejected the charge of continuing genocide: “While Ottawa often moves too slowly to address the many interlinked issues facing Indigenous people … the policy of the federal government for at least two decades has been one of reconciliation and redress.” 

 
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