State Reps Speak Out On Shootings of Unarmed Black Males

Legislative Leaders and Members of the California Legislative Black Caucus
Legislative leaders and members of the California Legislative Black Caucus gathered at the State Capitol August 2014 to highlight policies and the issues of violence against communities of color by law enforcement. | Photo: Courtesy of California State Assembly.

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Non-guilty verdicts and decisions not to indict police officers in the deaths of unarmed, black males have prompted widespread protests and calls for justice and accountability. But state representatives and the California Legislative Black Caucus agree that more needs to be done to address the thin ice that exists between law enforcement officers and communities of color.

In recent months, law enforcement agencies have been in the spotlight for incidents that left unarmed black males dead: Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; Eric Garner in New York City; Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio; Dante Parker in Victorville, California; Ezell Ford in Los Angeles; Oscar Grant in the San Francisco Bay Area, and countless others.

"It is troubling to see so many officer-involved shootings across the country involving young men and boys of color," Assemblymember Chris Holden told KCET in an email. "While we honor the courageous work of law enforcement professionals, and understand the challenges of their job, I can't help but wonder what less-lethal option could be used to defuse a tense situation that involves minors."

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In August, the California Legislative Black Caucus held a press conference entitled "Young, Black and Unarmed" at the California State Capitol, condemning the recent trend of violence perpetrated by law enforcement against men of color. The conference began with the names and images of many black, unarmed males killed by the hands of police.

Among those who attended the conference were assemblymembers Shirley Weber, Chris Holden, Reggie Jones-Sawyer, and Steven Bradford. Weber, who facilitated the discussion, noted that in 2012, white officers killed black suspects twice a week in the U.S., or an average of 96 times.

The caucus has called for the expansion of early childhood education, boosting funding for K-12 public schools and enhanced access to rehabilitative services, and increasing the number of Californians who have health insurance. These proposals provide an opportunity to improve the outcomes of young black men and prevent the school-to-prison pipeline, according to the caucus.

Weber says the long-term effects of poverty is clearly an issue in the lives of young people of color. But systemic problems encountered by young people of color and the interactions with law enforcement still needs to be addressed, she explained. "So the more we focus on supporting conditions where low-income children can learn -- including healthcare and nutrition -- the better chance they have of succeeding," she told KCET.

Yesterday, Weber introduced a bill -- AB 66 -- which intends to create a task force to study law enforcement body cameras and develop policies and best practices for departments that use them.

The bill falls in the midst of LAPD's plan to become the first major police force in the nation to equip its police officers with approximately 7,000 police body cameras. It also comes after President Obama's call for $263 million allocated toward equipping police officers in the nation with body cameras and training in the wake of recent verdicts in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York.

Some Angelenos say body cameras are just a cover up or Band-Aid for the troublesome relationship with law enforcement and communities of color. But Weber -- and the California Legislative Black Caucus -- believe that these deep-rooted problems need to be addressed from a policy level so that the public does not end up in the same place a few years from now.

"There is data indicating that body cameras reduce violent incidents involving law enforcement, so I've introduced legislation this week to create a task force so that we engage the affected communities, including law enforcement, and develop guidelines and best practices for their use," she said. "The experience of young black males is that their guilt is always presumed and that they are always seen as a threat -- an imminent danger -- so much so that even when they are unarmed, law enforcement feels justified in using deadly force."

Weber explained that it's not just because of these incidents that have caused anger -- but that there have been deep-rooted, long-standing issues of distrust between law enforcement and the black community. "When attempts were made to bring the killers of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner to justice, the victims' families were faced with a campaign of character assassination by law enforcement and a justice system that was unwilling to convict, prosecute, or even indict. That is why there is such anger now," she said.

Nationwide protests have also spurred conversations on social media, with a series of hashtags condemning law enforcement's treatment of communities of color. Hashtags include #BlackLivesMatter and #ICantBreathe -- the last phrase uttered by Eric Garner who was killed at the hands of police officers.

"Strange that there are protesters carrying signs saying, 'Black Lives Matter.' It reminds me of the widespread motto from the Civil Rights era: 'I Am a Man.' But once again, African Americans feel that they have to reaffirm the simple fact of their humanity because they don't see it reflected in our justice system," Weber added.

For a recent senate hearing on civil and human rights, California Congresswoman Judy Chu urged the passage of the End Racial Profiling Act in addition to updating the Department of Justice's racial profiling guidance to eliminate the use of biased-based profiling relating to race, ethnicity, and religion.

"There is a tide turning in our country. Communities of color are increasingly feeling as if they are being left out and treated unequally before the law," wrote Chu in a written testimony. "But Ferguson and protests around the country tell us that these communities are speaking up and demanding real change."

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