Editor’s Note: In this BC Law Magazine “Vision Project” series, we are engaged in a lengthy discussion with Boston College Law School faculty about where the Covid-19 pandemic and its attendant medical, economic, racial, and political consequences may lead us. As New York Times op-ed columnist Timothy Egan so eloquently put it recently, “Every crisis opens a course to the unknown. In an eye-blink, the impossible becomes possible. History in a sprint can mean a dark, lasting turn for the worse, or a new day of enlightened public policy.” There are warnings and worries in these professors’ views, but there are also farsighted ideas and strategies for crafting a better future, a more just society, and a world in which each and every human being is equal under the law.
PROFESSOR ROBERT BLOOM
Professor Bloom has had legal experience in legal services, civil rights law, and as a criminal attorney, both a defense lawyer and prosecutor. He also has been a court-appointed master on complicated civil cases. He is the author of numerous publications in the area of criminal procedure and civil procedure.
The coronavirus has graphically demonstrated its great effect on people of color. There are a myriad of reasons for this, including inadequate housing, poor health care, and low-pay essential jobs. The killing of George Floyd provided the ignition for the frustration that had already existed.
Police brutality, coupled with the inequities in the justice system, has had an inglorious, troubled history in this country. Unfortunately, the death of George Floyd and the coronavirus are just further symptoms of the racism that exists in America.
President Obama, facing issues with regard to police killings, got the US Justice Department involved, and it brought civil rights violations against police departments in some of the nation’s largest cities. The resulting consent decrees dealt with many issues, including hiring, training, and protocol for the use of deadly force. This approach was a good beginning, but unfortunately, there was little follow-up by the Trump administration.
There are no easy solutions to the systemic racism existing in police forces. There are many strategies for changing the culture. I believe that this will take years; efforts to date have been unsuccessful. Part of the reason is that there are 18,000 police forces in this country. I would suggest that we start to deal with the ramifications of the problem. We need to find ways to deter bad police officers.
Police unions, with their considerable political power, have done an effective job of preventing firing of rotten apples in the police forces. Often officers who have a number of brutality reports are not fired or can readily get a job in another force. Criminal prosecutions of individual officers are a rarity, as the prosecutors need to work closely with the police. Qualified immunity for civil actions, and reduced exclusionary rule do not provide deterrence. We need effective legislation that would allow for a fairer way to review citizen complaints. Most of these reviews are done by the police; it is like the fox protecting the chicken coop. There are many ideas (restriction of choke holds, body cameras) that would aid in deterring rotten apples but there needs to be a stronger will and desire to change things.
Read all faculty Vision Project interviews here.