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[W]hen any part of the American family does not feel like it is being treated
fairly, that’s a problem for all of us. — President Barack Obama
Mothers across this nation have become unwilling members of a club no one wants to join. Police kill over a thousand young men and women every year. “Nearly sixty percent of victims did not have a gun or were involved in activities that should not [have] require[d] police intervention[,] such as harmless ‘quality of life’ behaviors or mental health crises.” Each death, regardless of its specifics, leaves a family grieving.
This epidemic of officer-involved shootings (hereinafter “OIS”) disproportionately affects minorities and the mentally ill or disabled. A young black man is twenty-one times more likely to encounter police who will use force against him, than his same-aged white peers. Black males are 2.8 times as likely to die due to law enforcement action as white males, with Hispanic males 1.7 times as likely.
In August 2014, when Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed an unarmed Michael Brown, his community reflected the long simmering anger cultivated over decades of unfair treatment. “Just thirty-five percent of black Americans believe their local police treat ‘racial and ethnic groups equally.’” The events in Ferguson birthed a renewed civil rights movement in which the protesters asserted “Black Lives Matter.”
Ferguson, however, did not reflect the experiences of white communities. As a result, white communities’ and politicians’ growing response to protests over police violence was reflected in the election of Donald Trump on November 8, 2016. “[M]illions of white Americans, including much of his voting base, are profoundly alienated by black protest movements against abusive police.”10 In President Trump’s inauguration speech, he promised “to save America from a hellish wave of crime and disorder.”11 Jamelle Bouie, chief political correspondent for Slate, cautioned that Trump’s imagery was used “to demonize groups and protest movements organized around police reform.” He pointed out in his January 23, 2017 article, The Meaning of “American Carnage,” that on day one, the White House page on law enforcement was changed to read: “Our job is not to make life more comfortable for the rioter, the looter, or the violent disrupter.” This language demonizes the need to reform. The truth is, if our nation is genuinely interested in reducing violence against citizens, politicians should see civil rights groups as partners, not as adversaries. “Neighborhood safety and police accountability aren’t in tension with each other. Effective police departments are those that don’t tolerate misconduct and that open pathways for officers and communities to work with each other,” Mr. Bouie reported. Police officers and departments that harm and/or kill citizens must be held accountable to build community trust. They must commit to needed reform as outlined in the consent decrees entered in Baltimore, Cincinnati, and Chicago, each of which recognized a widespread injustice.
Narene Stokes-James is one mother who has lost a son to a police officer’s lethal use of force in Kansas City. She is the inspiration for activism in Kansas City dedicated to the memory of her son. She seeks reforms to build community trust and to protect other young men. Like the “Mothers of the Movement,” who inspired a nation during the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Narene Stokes-James “wake[s] up every day thinking about how to parent [her son]. How to protect him and his legacy. How to ensure his death doesn’t overshadow his life.” Narene has stood in public places time and again since Ryan’s death, and she has made us remember Ryan’s life.
*Cynthia Short is a trial lawyer, mitigation specialist, and sentencing advocate. She founded CLS Mitigation & Consulting Services in 2003 to continue her work representing men and women across the country in capital cases. In 2005, and again in 2013, Ms. Short has undertaken civil rights litigation. Ms. Short has been recognized for her work by the Missouri Bar who awarded her the Lon O. Hocker Award and the Defender of Distinction Award. The Missouri Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers awarded her the Atticus Finch Award, and most recently she was selected by Missouri Lawyer’s Weekly with a Women’s Justice Award.