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Julián Castro: Support For Local Changes To Policing, Policies Can Make 'A Big Difference'

Julián Castro speaks during a conference in 2019. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
Julián Castro speaks during a conference in 2019. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

When voters hit the polls in five months, many will have police reform on their minds.

Former presidential candidate Julián Castro made the issue a cornerstone of his campaign — and now presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden is tapping Castro to help shape his police reform platform.

Last week in Philadelphia, Biden outlined a proposal that would include banning chokeholds, demilitarizing the police, setting national standards for use of force and increasing accountability. Castro says he was “impressed” by Biden’s policy suggestions.

“A lot of times politicians talk, and one of the ways that you can tell whether they’re serious or not is, are they specific? And [former] Vice President Biden was specific,” Castro says. “He gets it. He understands the urgency of it.”

Castro has voiced support for House Democrats on the Justice in Policing Act, which outlines reforms around qualified immunity, a database of officer misconduct and a national use of force standard. He credits the work of Black organizers for these reforms.

But some progressives say this reform bill means quailing calls to defund police. The demand to defund the police would reduce law enforcement’s ability to harm Black communities, Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors says.

While Castro says he doesn’t think protesters are calling to abolish law enforcement, Barnard College researcher Andrea Ritchie told NBC that people calling for police abolition want to see a long-term end to policing and shift toward addressing community needs. Castro says he believes the U.S. will always need law enforcement, and Biden also opposes abolishing the police.

In the time since police killed George Floyd, people have grown more willing to make changes to law enforcement, he says. Policy changes such as the bill passed in New York to ban chokeholds speak to a broader shift in public opinion.

“What that tells you is that that many people who before didn’t think of this as a priority or perhaps even were not willing to consider changes actually will consider changes and will support them,” he says.

When it comes to reform, everyone plays a role in creating progress from activists to elected officials, he says.

“The upshot of it is going to be we’re going to make real progress for the first time probably in this country in stamping out a system that too often brutalizes especially young Black men and young Black women,” he says. “And that’s a thing to celebrate.”

Interview Highlights

On whether the issue of police reform could split Democratic voters

“Since the passing of George Floyd, since the murder of George Floyd, there’s been a sea change in public opinion about how African Americans are treated by police in this country and a willingness to make changes. And you’re seeing that all across the country from New York putting forward legislation to ban chokeholds and strangle holds, to local communities putting all sorts of measures in place on use of force and greater accountability and transparency.

“Whenever you see a whole bunch of politicians moving in one direction quickly like this, it’s not in a vacuum. It means that that’s what they’re hearing from constituents, the emails that they’re getting. It represents real change in public opinion. And so I think that this is going to be an inflection point. It’s going to be different. And while we’re not going to get to the point, I don’t think, where we’re ever going to abolish, literally abolish, the police or totally defund the police, we will get to a point where we have smarter law enforcement, effective public safety to keep people safe, but also treats everybody the same no matter the color of your skin or you know, what neighborhood you’re growing up in.”

On people who want to defund the police

“I don’t think anybody’s calling for a complete end to policing in this country. If somebody thinks that that’s gonna happen, that one day, there’s never going to be a need for law enforcement, I don’t think there’s a single place in the world where that’s the case. And I don’t think that that’s what people are calling for. I also think that folks have to remember: Everybody is playing a role in terms of creating progress. Activists have a role to play in creating progress, and oftentimes they’re the ones being visionary and what seems like out there right now. Elected officials also have a role to play. And usually what they do is they translate that and they create what is effective and workable right now, and then look down the road also. And how can we get closer to that vision in that goal in a smart way? And I think what you’re seeing in these last two weeks is all of that mashed up together, figuring it out right in the heat of all of this.”

On President Trump’s reaction to the protests

“Donald Trump has taken every opportunity in his three and a half years in office to fan the flames of division. He did that with a tweet about the 75-year-old elderly man, suggesting that somehow he’s part of a conspiracy, even though we saw what those officers did to him. And, you know, he’s done that in how cavalier he’s been about the life and death of George Floyd, suggesting that George Floyd would somehow be happy about unemployment figures.

“There’s a callousness, there’s a bigotry, there’s an intent to divide that is part and parcel of Donald Trump’s politics. Donald Trump is the biggest, quote-unquote, identity politician that we’ve had since George Wallace. And what he does is play white identity politics. You know, the events of the last two weeks, as tragic as the death of George Floyd was, if there’s anything that comes out of that, it’s that a lot of people out there, including white people that Donald Trump is trying to appeal to with these politics, they realize how off the rails this is. How bad it is for our country. And they want somebody that can actually heal, that can take us in the direction of coming together. And that’s Joe Biden. And I think he’s going to win in November.”

On how to ensure people have access to vote

“We need to make sure that states and counties are equipped to actually provide voting machines, that they have election security in place, both cybersecurity and physical security, that they provide enough information, and during this COVID-19 period, we need [a] universal mail-in ballot. We shouldn’t ask people to choose between their health and getting to exercise their right to vote. You know, I saw what happened in Georgia, the mess that has been created over there because there weren’t even voting machines in some of the precinct locations where people showed up to vote at 7:00 in the morning, which is unbelievable. I also find it funny how the machines that send out the notice to collect your taxes never seem to go missing or get broken down. But just about every time these voting machines somewhere go missing or get broken down, it’s ridiculous.”

On his recently started PAC, People First Future, which supports down-ballot progressive candidates

“As much as we talk about the national level, and there is a lot that can be done on policing at the national level, a lot of the action happens at the local level. It’s at the local level that police union contracts are negotiated, use of force, discipline, transparency, accountability. So much of that happens administratively within police departments, policy is made by city councils and that union contract is negotiated by city councils and signed onto. So if we can get councilmembers, mayors and also district attorneys that are willing to hold police officers accountable when they engage in excessive force, which usually they haven’t been willing to do, we can make a big difference in this problem.”

Cristina Kim produced this story and edited it for broadcast with Peter O’DowdAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.