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Scott Karson: Seizing The Opportunity

I grew up in Great Neck, a suburban community on the North Shore of Long Island. And while it might seem hard to believe for some, at the time it was a hotbed of progressive thinking and concern for social justice.

My parents instilled in me from a very young age the importance of racial equality, bringing me to demonstrations opposing the Vietnam War and supporting the civil rights movement, including Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.

Those formative experiences informed my thinking to this day. It is why all these years later it infuriates me to see the scourge of racial bigotry and the egregious inequities in how people of color are treated in our criminal justice system and society at large.

George Floyd’s death at the hands of law enforcement and its aftermath were not aberrations; they were the culmination of a long history of racism and inequality that has plagued our nation. And there are far too many others, including Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake, and right here in Rochester, Daniel Prude – just too name a few.

It is up to us, as a society, to seize this important moment and not let it go to waste. The protest movement sparked by Floyd’s death is a call for bold action and reform in law enforcement, as well as within the broader criminal justice system.

I believe the vast majority of police officers are dedicated and honorable public servants, but the repeated incidents of police brutality prove there is a far-reaching problem that must be addressed. We cannot dismiss these incidents as isolated. The status quo is plainly unsustainable.

Police violence against people of color is a symptom of the broader and more complex deep-seated racial disparities within our criminal justice system that undermine the rule of law. Meaningful change requires rethinking all aspects of our criminal justice system – from investigation and arrest to trial, sentencing and incarceration.

I applaud both the governor and the state Legislature for quickly enacting reforms that are a step in the right direction - especially the repeal of section 50-a of the Civil Rights Law. For too long, section 50-a has been utilized by police departments as a shield to prevent the release of critically important information regarding police misconduct and disciplinary actions.

These statutory reforms alone are not enough to combat years of systemic racism. There is much more that can be done, and NYSBA is uniquely positioned to play a role in that effort.

With respect to police misconduct, there must be greater transparency and better accountability by law enforcement agencies through the use of body cameras and other data-gathering techniques, along with more culturally sensitive training.

The oversight of police conduct should be more inclusive, with greater civilian participation.

And when laws are broken, independent and impartial prosecutors must investigate and respond to police misconduct swiftly, transparently and fairly – as with any other crime.

To recommend how to best achieve these and other needed reforms, I have asked two distinguished NYSBA members – President-Elect T. Andrew Brown and Taa Grays, a former Association Vice President from the First Judicial District – to co-chair a new Task Force on Racial Injustice and Police Reform.

The task force is developing strategies to combat the repeated incidents of police brutality and inequality in our criminal justice system. Members are engaging a diverse team of stakeholders and working with advisory groups from around the state.

The task force will review why racial bias persists in policing and will provide ideas to policymakers, law enforcement and the judiciary on how to end policing practices that disproportionately impact people of color.

NYSBA welcomes this opportunity to be an active and positive force for reform. We look forward to working with state and local officials on the robust and meaningful change necessary to restore justice – and faith – in our criminal justice system.

By asking difficult questions and listening to those who bear witness to and suffer from the consequences of racism, we will learn, and we will act. The threat of having one’s peace or life destroyed has nothing to do with class, education or income and everything to do with race. This has long been morally and legally unacceptable, yet the needle barely moves.

It is time for lawyers to step up and to take a different tack. Why? Because lawyers are the guardians of justice and protectors of the rule of law. We must never lose sight of that.

Scott M. Karson is president of the New York State Bar Association.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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