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Civil Rights Attorneys On Biden Administration Plans For Law Enforcement Reforms

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We've been looking ahead to some of the major challenges facing the upcoming Biden administration, and now we're going to focus on policing. It is no secret that relations between police and citizens in many places have deteriorated, or it might be accurate to say that those tense relations have just become more visible. So we're going to take a look now at some of the strategies the new administration might consider.

To do that, we've called John Choi. He's the county attorney for Ramsey County, Minn. That includes the city of St. Paul, which is the state's capital. He's also a former member of a commission assembled by the outgoing Trump administration to consider these issues, a commission that recently issued a report. And we'll explain why he's a former member in a minute. John Choi, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

JOHN CHOI: Thanks for having me on.

MARTIN: We're also joined by Arthur Ago. He is the director of the Criminal Justice Project for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law. That's a nonprofit that was assembled during the Kennedy administration to gather the nation's legal firepower to advance civil and human rights. Arthur Ago, welcome to you as well.

ARTHUR AGO: Thank you for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: I'm just going to start with you because, as I mentioned, you served on President Trump's law enforcement commission before you resigned last year. And given the - kind of the flood of news we've all experienced lately, I'm not sure that many people know that there was a Trump commission on law enforcement issues. And I just want to talk about what that commission was supposed to do and why you resigned. So as briefly as you can, could you just answer those two questions?

CHOI: Yeah. Actually, I was on one of the working groups, so I was associated with kind of supporting that work. But it became very clear to me that there was very much a predetermined agenda. And what that agenda really was was to kind of continue on with the past failed practices around policing and not really listening to the voices of other perspectives, especially around the issue of reform. And as I became more involved with it, that just became very clear to me. And I think that's not the path forward.

MARTIN: And, Arthur Ago, it's my understanding that this commission was controversial from the beginning in part because it was dominated by law enforcement. There really were no representatives from outside groups. Is that accurate?

AGO: Yes, there were two main controversies. The - what you describe, Michel, was accurate. There were no, as it were, civilian members of the commission. There were no public defenders that were on the commission. There were no activists on the commission. And so nobody that would be protected or served by the police were on the commission. And then the second aspect of it was the government did not provide notice as to when the commission was meeting so that they could get input. So those were the two controversies.

MARTIN: But having said that, though, the fact is the commission did meet. It does seem to represent kind of a center of gravity of thinking around what reform should look like in the law enforcement community. I want to note that, you know, recently, there was a survey of 400 police chiefs around the country. And it seems that their concept of reform very closely tracked with what the Trump administration put forward. But was there any merit to some of the findings that this commission put forward?

I want to note that they - one of the recommendations was every state should require its police departments to have an independent agency to investigate all fatal shootings and other serious use of force incidents, that there should be improvements in recruitment and training of officers. But they also defended the notion of retaining qualified immunity for officers who are sued for their actions. So, John Choi, I'll just ask, since you were closest to that work, even though you disagreed with the overall thrust of it - were there any strategies that they embraced that you agree with?

CHOI: Well, absolutely. I mean, there are things in there that certainly would be good for policing. But here's the problem. The problem is that for decades, police got to decide all of this stuff. And I believe in - very much in this concept of civilian control of our policing. We all are public servants. We work for the people, and we need to reflect the values of our communities that - ultimately, that we serve. And so this whole process, as Arthur talked about, did not include those perspectives and voices. And if we did, I know that we would have gone much, much further with respect to the things that need to change in America.

MARTIN: So let's wheel that around now and talk - and look forward. A new administration is coming in. I just want to ask you, as briefly as you can because this is such a deep topic, what are the strategies that you think the new administration should look to. And, Arthur Ago, why don't you start?

AGO: There are sort of three general areas that the administration might have an effect on reform of policing in the United States. The first is a direct effect which is affecting the federal police forces - setting use of force standards, body-worn and dashboard camera standards, those types of things for federal police forces, like the U.S. Park Police.

The second way that they can do it is going through different agencies, like the Department of Justice, increasing pattern and practice investigations, which is federal investigations of local police forces and problems with local police forces as well as individual prosecution of different police officers that violate civil rights, in particular, where civil rights are violated with a racial animus. And then the last general area is strong engagement with Congress to, for example, advance some of the policies embraced by the George Floyd Justice and Policing Act of 2020.

MARTIN: Like, what are some of those? Give me an example.

AGO: Eliminating qualified immunity in federal cases. This is something that President Trump's commission wanted to maintain. It's creating a national misconduct registry for bad cops, creating a national standard of force - in other words, requiring and limiting when force may be used, including deadly force, limiting no-knock warrants, requiring body-worn camera and dashboard cameras and collecting data on stops, in particular, data related to - and what I mean by stops is detentions of people not just arrests and, in particular, data on race and gender.

MARTIN: John Choi, what about you? I mean, you are referred to as a progressive, and it has to be said that it seems that there's kind of a generation of progressive prosecutors - self-described progressive prosecutors, looking to change law enforcement from within the system. On the other hand, as you saw with the Trump commission, there's a significant pushback against that. I mean, in fact, the commission even called for reigning in elected prosecutors like yourself who want to change some of these enforcement schemes. So how confident do you feel that these systems can be changed in a way that makes all the stakeholders feel heard and satisfied and protected?

CHOI: I think one of the problems, too, is that we've, as a society in America have been conditioned to believe that our solutions are either this or that. It's like that's a binary choice. And it's really that we need to get beyond that. We need to think about how we achieve public safety in different ways. I think we need to think about different strategies to keep our communities safe and thriving. And that means that I think we need to think about other types of disciplines that can work hand-in-hand with the police - public health strategies, thinking about other parts of government that can be deployed to essentially address some of these underlying root causes of things that manifest in our communities.

MARTIN: John Choi, before we let you go, you know, you're based in a state capital. You're a law enforcement officer there. As - you know that there have been numerous warnings by the FBI and other agencies that there are plans for mal actors to cause some kind of trouble. We're in the nation's capital, and it's already become a fortress. And I'm just wondering, what are the preparations in the state capitol in Minnesota?

CHOI: Right. The same thing is happening in our state capitol because there was some intelligence that potentially this weekend, actually, that we were going to have something happen at our state capitol. So our law enforcement has been deployed. National Guard has been deployed. There are lots of police that are stationed on various street corners in downtown St. Paul, which is about four or five blocks away from the state capitol.

AGO: And in addition to what John said, I know that there are preparations across capitals in the United States. I think that part of the - part of what has to continue to happen, though, in terms of police reform is continued investigation into police involvement in these protests, demonstrations and, frankly, insurrections. Police departments have to be vigilant about finding out who among them participated in these things because the community will not feel safe.

MARTIN: That's Arthur Ago. He's the director of the Criminal Justice Project at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. We also heard from John Choi, county attorney for Ramsey County, Minn. Thank you both so much for joining us today.

CHOI: Thank you.

AGO: Thanks for having me, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF APHRODESIA'S "WHITE ELEPHANT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.