On September 10th, Fordham Law’s Center on Race, Law and Justice, together with the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, the Black Law Students Association (BLSA), and the Latin American Law Students Association (LALSA), hosted a CLE and panel discussion via webinar entitled “Unfinished Work: Black Lives Matter and Policing after the Protests.”
Fordham Law Professor and Director of the Center on Race, Law and Justice Bennett Capers moderated the conversation between four Black legal scholars and practitioners regarding the current state of policing, racism in police departments, and the potential for paths forward. He acknowledged in his welcoming remarks that after the police killings this year of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Daniel Prude—and the attempted killing of Jacob Blake—policing continues to be a hot button issue nationwide, especially in the upcoming presidential election.
Capers opened the discussion by asking the panelists, “Which adjective would best describe your thoughts about the state of policing right now: optimistic, pessimistic, or neutral?”
Benjamin Tucker ’81, who is the first deputy commissioner of the New York Police Department (NYPD), responded that he feels optimistic. “That may sound strange, perhaps, but these events have stimulated what I believe is passionate outrage, as well as a series of conversations that I believe are long overdue,” he explained, noting, “We have work to do.”
Yale University Walton Hale Hamilton Professor of Law Tracey Meares cautiously echoed Tucker’s optimism, with the caveat that optimism required both hope and confidence. Meares, who is also the founding director of the Justice Collaboratory at Yale, said, “I feel that given the work that we have all put into this in the last decade, it would be a disservice to that work not to be hopeful.”
Panelist Kenneth Montgomery was less sanguine. The litigator and founder of his own boutique firm, Law Offices of Kenneth J. Montgomery, PLLC, pointed to the history of policing, which he said is inextricably linked to institutionalized racism. Montgomery, who teaches Trial Advocacy as an adjunct professor at Fordham Law, noted, “I’m much more optimistic about the ideas of young lawyers and young people who are integrating other solutions outside of this paradigm that we so rely on that still hasn’t changed.”
Alexis Hoag, Associate Research Scholar and Lecturer in Law at Columbia Law School, agreed with Montgomery’s analysis, but overall, “I lean on optimism,” she said. “I’m teaching students, and they come to law school self-identifying as abolitionists, and they lean heavily on that framework of reimagining a future in which police and prisons are not the go-to solutions for society’s problems.”
In the lively discussion that followed, panelists discussed abolition, the rule of law, and the potentially dubious possibility of race-free policing.
Hoag explained the abolitionist cause succinctly, explaining, “The struggle for black equality has always been about confronting police and prisons as the enforcement arm of this racist capitalist state that we live in … abolition is really about reimagining another way of addressing these issues.”
Despite the panelists’ differing opinions on abolition, defunding, or reconsidering police departments’ responsibilities, Capers noted, “It sounds like all of you have basically agreed that one goal is to reduce the footprint of the police and to have other entities dealing with issues like homelessness and mental illness.”
Tucker concurred. “Police are the last people you want responding to those calls for service,” he remarked. “Discussions over the past several months have had to do with getting police out of those activities, and I think police would prefer to be out of those activities. The real question is, ‘What does the transition look like?’”
Given American policing’s history and November’s pivotal presidential election, none of the panelists could offer clear answers on what a future with a more diminished police presence might look like. “We’ve not as a country reckoned with slavery and the racial hierarchy [it established],” Meares pointed out, reminding attendees the conversation “is larger than law enforcement. It’s about law enforcement, but it’s larger than law enforcement.”
Montgomery offered concrete advice to the young lawyers and law students attending the panel discussion, cautioning against using their law degrees “as a shield” and urging students to learn how to accept discomfort. “Use your law degree to build communities, to gain knowledge and information,” he exhorted. “But knowledge and information without wisdom mean absolutely nothing, and to gain that wisdom, you are going to have to be in situations where you are learning things that make you uncomfortable.”
In closing, Tucker echoed those sentiments and hoped that students could also understand the nuances of the work that goes on within police departments to answer the public’s demands for reform, remarking simply, “We’re trying to reimagine what could be.”