A panel of legal, law enforcement and political experts at a Sept. 23 Elon Law forum discussed legal and policy issues surrounding race and policing in the United States. The event was organized in the wake of the Aug. 9 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and subsequent protests and police responses.
Elon Law Professor Robert Parrish moderated the forum. Panelists included:
- Steven Friedland, professor of Law and senior scholar, Elon Law;
- Daniel Harris, associate attorney, Clifford Clendenin & O’Hale, LLP;
- James Herring, chief of police, University of North Carolina at Greensboro Police Department;
- Yvonne Johnson, mayor pro tem, Greensboro, N.C.;
- Barbara Lawrence, associate professor of justice and policy studies, Guilford College;
- James Mayes, interim chair and associate professor, department of political science and criminal justice, North Carolina A&T State University.
Elon Law students reflected on the value of the forum. Blakeney Brown, a member of the Class of 2016 and a Leadership Fellow at Elon Law, said the issue of community policing was an important part of the forum discussion, noting Mayor Pro Tem Johnson’s suggestion that community policing could be part of a long term solution to minority mistrust of police, as well as the comment from Professor Mayes that, “There cannot be an us versus them. We have to build bridges.”
“The Beyond Ferguson panel provoked relevant discussion about the Fourth Amendment, racial tensions and policing,” said Brown. “I thoroughly enjoyed the various perspectives of how our nation can progress while addressing major issues, such as terry stops and racial bias. Our nation has to bridge the gap between the police and its citizens while also recognizing that each person is an individual deserving of his or her freedoms and liberties. Because of this, accountability is a necessary cornerstone to alleviate escalated tensions between the police and citizens. Even though events, such as Ferguson, have occurred, the nation has to begin dialogues, like here at Elon Law, in order to pinpoint the next steps in moving forward with community relations and policing. Once those relations are strengthened, police are offered advanced training, citizens are made knowledgeable of their rights and discussions occur across the nation, then incidents, like Ferguson, would hopefully occur less frequently if at all.”
Ernest Lewis, Jr., a member of the Class of 2015 and a Leadership Fellow at Elon Law, emphasized the need to advance further discussion and action steps to address underlying issues regarding race and policing.
“Hard situations birth hard questions and hard question require hard discussions,” Lewis said. “The discussion at the forum was powerful, pointed and necessary. The panel provided a diversity of experiences and perspectives that need to be heard in this dialogue. A key moment for me was a failure to demonstrate compassion. No one comes to this discussion without pain. Ignoring or dismissing that pain devalues the conversation. Finally, we need to hold ourselves as a law school and as a community accountable. Accountable to not take this step as the entire journey. The journey is complicated and messy and we must have the courage to walk this journey together.”
Meghan Smith, a member of the Class of 2017 at Elon Law, reported that forum attendees expressed strong feelings and asked the panel important questions on controversial subjects like the level of law enforcement bias with regard to race and the fundamental purposes of the 4th Amendment. Smith noted that Friedland discussed “Terry Stops” arising out of a 1968 Supreme Court decision.
“I just don’t like them,” Friedland said, noting that the purpose of Terry Stops is to enable police, under reasonable suspicion, to search citizens for weapons, not for anything else.
“It is now being used as a general regulating tool,” Friedland said.
Chief of Police Herring said that training was an important part of the solution. Daniel Harris, a Class of 2013 alumnus of Elon Law, said, “Training matters but precedent is what is used in the court.”
A community member from the audience asked the panel, “Having lived through ‘driving-while-black,’ how do we move forward in terms of changing our community?”
Johnson immediately responded, “Vote.” Johnson said citizens can be powerful tools of change by voting for our local elected offices.