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Law school hosts panel discussion on law enforcement, racial equality

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The Stanford Law School hosted a panel discussion Tuesday to discuss the recent issues of law enforcement and racial equality and what role law schools and students can play in today’s social turmoil.

The panel, well-received by many students, professors and community members, was mediated by Dean Elizabeth Magill. The panelists included Director Ronald Davis, a former law enforcer who was appointed by Eric Holder in 2013 to head the national Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) office, Professor Tracey Meares of Yale University who has recently been appointed by President Obama to head the new Task Force on 21st Century Policing and professors David Sklansky and Ronald Tyler of the Stanford Law School who are both renowned in their fields.

Magill opened the discussion by stating how proud she was of the Stanford response to the occurrences of police brutality in the past few months. Magill described the December “Die-In” and the Black Lives Matter vigil on campus this week as “profoundly powerful expressions of protest.”

She commended students and said, “I’ve never been more inspired by the people around me and especially the students their courage, their brilliance and their passion.”

Tyler began by impressing upon the audience that the problem with racial targeting and discrimination in the police force and criminal justice system is not a new problem.

“One of the lessons that must be drawn from this [is that]…there is nothing new going on here. We are observing the sequel of an age-old malignancy that lies deep within the heart of American society. These killings are among the latest examples of the barbaric dehumanization that fueled 250 years of slavery,” Tyler said.

Tyler told the audience of his twin brother, a very successful lawyer himself, who had been pulled over by cops on his way to work recently and told never to drive on that stretch of road again, even though he had broken no law. The same cop pulled him about a week or so later after Tyler’s brother refused to take a different path to work and ticketed him for “passing in a no passing zone,” when the codes of the freeway clearly stated each lane was, in fact, a passing zone.

“These things matter,” Tyler said.

Tyler had an optimistic message for law school students to use their “spheres of influence” and the credentials of their education to change the flaws in the system.

“Because [the killings] happened under the cover of law they are evidence of the stubbornly persistent institutionalize racism that pervades this and other countries around the world. These killings are emblematic of an enduring problem,” Tyler warned.

Sklanksy spoke next and added on to much of what professor Tyler had stated. Sklanksy noted that he had an unpleasant sense of déjà vu when he looks at unarmed African Americans killed by police, protests turning into riots and politicized funerals of police officers.

“It really feels like the clock has been turned back to the 1960s,” Sklanksy said, “And not in a good way.”

The feeling that nothing has changed, Sklanksy argued, saying that his belief has been “reinforced by comments made by people like Rudy Giuliani and Peter King claiming police racism is a thing of the past.”

“Those people were around in 1968 too; they were wrong then and they are wrong now,” he said.

That being said, Sklanksy sees great strides in the increasing diversity of most law enforcement departments which he believes has allowed police to make deeper connections with diverse communities as compared to the largely homogenous straight white male forces of the ’60s.

Sklanksy’s final takeaway was that the police “should not be made into the scapegoat for the entire criminal justice system.” He argued that prosecutors are often the ones to blame and if one were to look at the office of the prosecutor in the 1960s versus today, very little will have changed.

Meares was the next panelist to speak, explaining that programs like Stop and Frisk are created under the idea that police should change the perception of how likely one is to get caught committing a crime. Meares believes, however, that, “people [should] obey the law not because they fear the consequences but because they believe the government has the right to dictate their behavior.”

Meares explained that this theory could be put into work by training police leaders to be innovative and in tune with current issues in their community.

“The federal government is very committed to this idea of changing the national landscape,” she said, and cited the fact that Ron Davis is now the head of the COPS office as evidence.

The final speaker of the night was Davis, who had a unique perspective on the issues at hand as a law enforcer for 28 years and is now heading initiatives to train cops and communities to better understand the idea of racial bias, as well as bringing this conversation to the forefront.

Davis said he was astounded to visit communities like Ferguson, MO, and have community members come up to him and say they never knew racism was a problem in their community until the protests erupted following the Grand Jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson, who fatally shot Michael Brown in August.

“We’re not listening to each other,” Davis explained, “People have to have the conversations we’re talking about. We have ignored the racial problems that still exist.”

Davis stressed the idea that community involvement is key to creating accountable law enforcement.

“Our discussions, our debates, should not target police. It should involve them,” he said.

Students were eager to ask questions of the panelists ranging from whether positive reform is even possible in today’s system to the role of social media.

One law student put Magill on the spot asking, “What is the law school going to do differently, Dean Maguill? Once the panels end, what are YOU going to do?”

Magill explained that the law school was there to “advance knowledge and train great leaders.”

As for improvements? “I’m all ears,” Magill said.

Contact Elizabeth Wallace at wallacee ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Liz Wallace, class of 2018, is a reporter for the Stanford Daily with a love for environmental science, literature, and late night discussions over mugs of hot chocolate. Wallace hails from Winston-Salem, North Carolina and can be contacted at [email protected]