This bonus episode of Shades of Freedom is drawn from a February 2021 online event of the same name. The guests discuss how, as a nation, we are witnessing increased public support for re-imagining and transforming policing and the whole criminal justice system, and tackles the question of how we can make change happen in a way that takes into consideration the historic injustice of our legal system.
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This bonus episode of Shades of Freedom is drawn from a February 2021 online event of the same name created by the Aspen Institute’s Criminal Justice Reform Initiative, and the Conversations with Great Leaders Series, in Memory of Preston Robert Tisch. View the full event video on YouTube.
The panel discusses how, as a nation, we are witnessing increased public support for re-imagining and transforming the criminal justice system, and tackles the question of how we, and our leaders, can make change happen in a way that takes into consideration historic injustices, as well as the underlying social, economic, education and health disparities in the United States.
As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, The Aspen Institute is nonpartisan and does not endorse, support, or oppose political candidates or parties. Further, the views and opinions of our guests and speakers do not necessarily reflect those of The Aspen Institute.
Visit us online at The Aspen Institute Criminal Justice Reform Initiative and follow us on Twitter @AspenCJRI.
March 11, 2021
Copyright 2021 Aspen Institute Criminal Justice Reform Initiative
Welcome to a special episode of Shades of Freedom from The Aspen Institute Criminal Justice Reform Initiative.
Roy L. Austin, Jr. (00:08):
Young black people see police officers or young white kids being treated differently than they're treated. And if you don't have a system of justice, then people aren't going to believe in justice and people aren't going to feel the need to follow the law.
Douglas Wood (00:25):
Hi, I'm Douglas Wood, director of The Aspen Institute's Criminal Justice Reform Initiative. For this special podcast, we're bringing you the extraordinary guests we hosted at our February online event titled Beyond Policing: Creating Safe and Just Communities, which we co-hosted with the Aspen Institute's Conversations With Great Leaders series in memory of Preston Robert Tisch. We brought together these three leaders to discuss how we transform, not just policing, but the whole justice system, from the police, to prosecutors, to the courts, to prison, and release programs. They were not shy about sharing their opinions. Our guests are Roy L. Austin, the new vice president of civil rights at Facebook, lawyer, and longtime civil rights advocate, Art Acevedo, chief of police of the Houston Police Department, and Karol Mason, the president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The conversation is moderated by Bill Whitaker of CBS News and 60 Minutes. We hope you'll enjoy this special episode of Shades of Freedom. Here's Bill Whitaker.
Bill Whitaker (01:37):
Thank you everybody for joining us. We have a panel of really smart individuals. We're going to have a lively conversation that I hope will also be illuminating. So let's just get started. It's been more than eight months since the tragic death of George Floyd. We saw some of the largest protests in our country's history calling for criminal justice reform. Roy, let me start with you. What impact have those protests had on social justice? What changes have they brought about?
Roy L. Austin, Jr. (02:14):
Thank you so much, Bill. And I'm so pleased to be here with old friends. Look, the changes are enormous. The entire conversation around policing has shifted as a result of the killing of George Floyd. The largest protest movement in the history of this country most likely, to see those protests carry on across the world. We've seen community after community set up policing commissions to look at how they can reimagine policing, something that was unthought of before. The Justice and Policing Act, which passed the House and I suspect is going to pass the Senate, now that there has been a change in the Senate, is going to create change across everything that we see right now in policing, from how long people are locked up to the influence of police unions on policing. I think we are in the biggest moment of criminal justice reform that certainly I have ever seen in my lifetime.
Bill Whitaker (03:17):
Chief Acevedo, you want to weigh in?
Art Acevedo (03:20):
I've actually talked about this being a watershed moment. I've been a cop for almost 35 years and his death really sparked something in our nation's psyche. So if someone would have told me that NASCAR would have been banning the Confederate flag, and I can just go on down the line, things that we've never imagined prior his death, it just shows you what an impact it's had. But there's still a lot of work to do. And I look forward to this conversation because I worry that we've lost a little momentum with COVID 19 and I think we need to get back on track.
Bill Whitaker (03:53):
Karol, can I ask you led the Obama administration's national initiative for building community trust and justice. In this past election, justice became one of the top campaign issues. But unfortunately it devolved into a divisive one, hitting protestors calling for reform against law enforcement, a lot of trust was lost. But true reform requires trust, so how do you build trust among the stakeholders and get them down to the real business on the floor?
Karol Mason (04:29):
What was troubling is that Minneapolis was one of our pilot sites where it was designed never to have a Michael Brown situation again, and instead we got George Floyd. When that happened, I was devastated. But once I picked myself up, I said, "Okay, how do we get past this? How do we move forward? What do we learn from this?" So one of the things that we did at John Jay, which was founded as a police college in the '60s at a similar period of unrest in the country, and the thinking then, which I think was quite ahead of its time, was that we need law enforcement officers to have a liberal arts education to help them better partner with the communities in which they're serving. We're now much more than a police college, and we've got, what I like to say is we have students who are protesting sitting in class alongside the law enforcement officers they protest.
Karol Mason (05:16):
So as a black woman, the first black woman president of John Jay, I thought, "This is an opportunity that I need to seize." So we started a series of conversations on the future of public safety. Because I think the conversation had gotten into focusing too much on policing rather than taking us back to thinking about what's public safety look like and where do we need to create investments and partnerships in that. So we had a series of six public conversations with law enforcement leaders, union leaders, young people, advocates, everybody, public health officials.
Karol Mason (05:46):
And what we designed was a roadmap for communities to have these kind of conversations. Because I think that the path forward in building this trust is let's all have a conversation about what does public safety look like in our communities and how are we going to get there and what kind of investments do we need to make to get there. As people will tell you, we didn't get to this situation overnight, it's hundreds of years of systemic oppression, and it's going to take time to get out of it. But as Chief Acevedo said, we've got to seize this moment now and not let it pass and really act on it. I'm encouraged by the fact that we're going to have federal partners interested in doing this hard work with us now.
Bill Whitaker (06:26):
Chief Acevedo, you are known for pushing change and reform in your department. How do you lead people to go in a direction that they might not be willing to follow? And how do you make that happen in a system that's often set up to resist change and resist reform?
Art Acevedo (06:48):
Well, I think that's a great question, especially as it relates to police officers and I think human beings in general. People just don't like change. We get in our comfort zones. But I think the key is to explaining the why, why are we trying to change? And how does that impact them? Why it's important for them. And for our officers, we explain to them that the court of public opinion matters, it matters to everything we do the. The trust that build or we fail to build matters. It matters to how they're going to be treated by a grand jury, by a jury, it matters to their pay, their benefits, their staffing, their equipment. So I think the key is to make sure they understand the why and why it's important for them.
Art Acevedo (07:34):
Then the other piece is being clear in what direction we're going. I'm glad to say that in our department, in this big melting pot of a city we call Houston, most diverse city in the country, we're predominantly a homegrown department that is reflective of the community that we serve. So there is a great interest in our men and women to make sure that we're trusted by the community, so it's a win-win.
Bill Whitaker (08:01):
Roy, I know in St. Louis, a prosecutor for the city was elected to bring about reform. And she's been in office for like four years now, she was just reelected with a mandate. A lot of people, more than 60% of the people, voted for her. I think this time more than 70% voted for her. But yet every step of the way, she is resisted by city politicians, state politicians have weighed in to try to take away some of her authority. How do you bring about reform when you are facing such mighty resistance?
Roy L. Austin, Jr. (08:36):
An area that we haven't spent enough time on are our prosecutors, and it is the power of the prosecutors. I think the prosecutors are actually the most powerful figures in the criminal justice system, more powerful than the police, more powerful than the courts. Because they decide what is going to be prosecuted, they decide how much time they're going to ask the courts for, they make enormous decisions day in and day out. The prosecutor that you're talking about, Kim Gardner, an amazingly courageous woman who saw that St. Louis, day in and day out, was failing to protect its black community and was over enforcing in its black community.
Roy L. Austin, Jr. (09:17):
And every change, as you pointed out, that she tried to make, she was hit by the powers that be that actually profit, they profit off of arresting and locking up black bodies for minor crimes where the white community does not face the same system. We've been locking up too many people for too long for the wrong reason for decades now. The impact of that is being felt by our black and our brown and our native communities, and we have to end that. This movement that we saw this past summer is part of ending that system.
Karol Mason (09:54):
So Roy is actually very engaged at John Jay with our Institute for Innovation and Prosecution. And we've been helping prosecutors tackle this. What they need is support, support from the communities, but also support from their colleagues, and that's what we're providing through the Institute for Innovation and Prosecution. We've been having convenings talking about officer involved shootings and how do they handle that so that they've got this community of practice around them supporting them as they're trying to do this difficult work. But I think that, Roy mentioned, we've got a new breed of prosecutors who are thinking about their role in creating safe communities. And that their role is not just to prosecute, but it's to really be just and help support the strength and health of their communities. And by their prosecutorial discretion, that's their biggest tool.
Bill Whitaker (10:45):
Chief Acevedo, you were praised for marching with protestors early in the summer. But at a congressional hearing in June, you opposed some of the protestors calls for defund the police, calling it a false equivalence. You said that, "Meaningful reforms were needed." What are the reforms you consider to be most meaningful and most needed?
Art Acevedo (11:09):
Well, first of all, let me just say that I still go out and patrol at my black and white, spend a lot of time out in the community. And I think sometimes the voices that lead these conversations may not be as close to the community, think they are. My black and brown and poor communities that are most impacted by crime, they don't want less policing, they want better policing. And my false equivalence is this, this country can afford both, they can afford it. If COVID hasn't shown us that, with the trillions that they have printed overnight when it impacted all of Americans. We can invest in socioeconomics, we can invest in education, we can invest in all the things that are so desperately needed, and we can invest in good policing.
Art Acevedo (11:56):
And for me, good policing is about systems of accountability, it's about police departments that are focused on being smart on crime and just on crime and not tough on crime. Because it's not about toughness, it's about effectiveness, it's about keeping people safe. But there are 18,000 police departments in this country. And a lot of the problems that really cause the mistrust are in a lot of these agencies that don't have policies and procedures. So I think that we need to come up with at least national standards, as it relates to use of force, force reporting.
Art Acevedo (12:31):
Think about this for a minute. What we all saw when we saw George Floyd for eight minutes and 46 seconds, which is something you have to be committed to be able to kneel down like that for eight minutes and 46 seconds, especially in full uniform. A man calling for his mom would appear to all of us as a crime that had been committed, a murder. Well, part of the problem is that technique was not only not prohibited, it was trained, it was authorized. And that complicates the prosecution to think that in today's environment we still have departments that authorize these dangerous techniques. And we've got to pay attention to the policies and training and the procedures and all these other things, otherwise, we'll be having this conversation summer after summer and year after year.
Roy L. Austin, Jr. (13:21):
Look, the Task Force on 21st Century Policing provided a roadmap for every police department in this country, it's sitting right there. If every police department in this country would take an honest look at whether or not they're doing everything that, it's like 60 recommendations, we would be in a much better place. But we have a lot of police departments who refuse to hold their officers accountable, and people see. This is the whole idea of procedural justice. Young black people see police officers or young white kids being treated differently than they're treated. And if you don't have a system of justice, then people aren't going to believe in justice and people aren't going to feel the need to follow the law. So we've got to get ourselves there through systems of accountability, through professionalizing policing where it's not professionalized, through moving things out of the criminal justice system into the health system. There are things that we could do, and we can do them immediately, but we need commitment from those 18,000 police departments and from prosecutors who are looking at prosecuting differently and from courts that are looking at things differently.
Karol Mason (14:24):
May I add one thing to this conversation? Because I think it goes back to what Chief Acevedo said earlier about culture change. Because the thing that I don't want people to miss is, we had spent years in Minneapolis and significant money training in procedural justice, implicit bias, racial reconciliation, and we've done that deep work. Everybody in that department, civilian and sworn officers had this training, and it still happened. Why did this still happen with that kind of investment?
Karol Mason (14:52):
And it's culture change, it's hard, it's accountability. But that officer could have been weeded out earlier. Because as Chief Acevedo said, that took intentionality to do what he did. Why was that kind of force even necessary? So I think that we've got to really think about who we have in the police department when people say they're bad apples. Well, this is a profession that can't afford bad apples, and you need to figure out how to make sure you have all good apples. Understanding people will make mistakes, but giving people the tools and the training and the education so that they approach the work as if the sanctity of everybody's life in an encounter is important.
Art Acevedo (15:33):
Can I just say something that I think is really important?
Bill Whitaker (15:35):
Art Acevedo (15:36):
From my perspective…look, the problem with policing I believe isn't the cops, I think it's leaders that do not hold people accountable. No matter what your process is, your systems, your procedures, if you don't hold people accountable, that's what makes people angry. And I'll give you the example of here in Houston, Harding Street. We had a horrible situation where we had a raid and two people ended up dead inside that residence, four officers ended up shot, horrible. But guess what, this police department uncovered the malfeasance, investigated it, one of the officers was charged with murder. The community was angry, but once they see accountability, that's what they want. It's the lack of accountability when people see the lawful but awful or something they know is wrong, that really destroys, I think, public trust.
Bill Whitaker (16:27):
So that's what you are doing there in Houston, how do you make that more the norm?
Art Acevedo (16:32):
I think that part of the problem is that we've got to take a close look at contracts. Because police departments, a lot of times, the problems are as a result of elected officials. So the police department doesn't negotiate contracts across the country, it truly is either a city manager or a mayor and council. And sometimes they give a management rights to the detriment of good policing. And it's almost impossible in some locations to fire people. So I think that the public needs to take a hard look at collective bargaining agreements with some of these police unions.
Roy L. Austin, Jr. (17:08):
Bill, one of the most ridiculous rules that exists for police officers is the fact that when they're involved in a use of force, they don't have to give a statement for 24 hours or maybe 72 hours, in Louisiana I think it's a full week because they are supposedly so traumatized by that use of force. But you name any witness to a crime and you tell the police, "You know what, give me 24 hours to meet with my buddies, to meet with a lawyer, and then I'll give you a statement." It's not happening. But you take the most well trained individuals and you tell them, "Okay, take some time and then come back to us and give us a statement." In many jurisdictions, the police get to look at the body camera video before they make a statement to make sure that they are lighting their statement with that body camera video.
Roy L. Austin, Jr. (17:57):
These are ridiculous rules that police unions have been able to push through. They don't belong, they shouldn't have them. Again, look, it's a hard job, I'm going to grant you that. It's a very difficult job, it is a dangerous job. But when you do something wrong, you got to be held accountable. And then a lot of jurisdictions are just afraid to hold their police officers accountable because the police union is going to build a huge budget to take out the elected official from office, take the elected official out of office. Look, you got to just lead on doing right, and sometimes you're going to lose your job when you do the right thing. But at the end of the day, you have yourself and having done the right thing. So law enforcement needs to be treated like other people. We got to do better, Bill. We got to do better.
Bill Whitaker (18:41):
A few years ago, I did a story about comparing the German prison system with the American prison system. The German prison system is designed to get people out of prison and the whole idea of punishment doesn't really factor in. They have proof that this works. People get out of prison, the recidivism rate is much, much lower than ours. But Americans want the person to be punished of that crime. We put the person in prison so they can pay for their crime. And then after 15 years you throw them back out in the street and they're worse offenders, what do we do about that?
Karol Mason (19:24):
What's interesting when you say that people want punishment, when we've done the work through the officer victims of crime, that's under OJP, and talk to victims of crime, what they'll tell you in most cases is it's not about retribution and punishment, they want to make sure it doesn't happen again and then nobody does that again. So I think that we need to move away from this mentality that the only response to crime is locking someone up. I don't want to lose sight of the fact that one of the things we talked about early on or alluded to early on is we need to be making investments in other places so that we minimize the encounters that police have to respond to for crime, so that they can do the job that they really ought to be doing, which is dealing with violent crime, real crime, not circumstantial crime.
Karol Mason (20:14):
So if you are investing in schools and jobs and communities and safe housing and dealing with homelessness and dealing with mental health, so that we're not asking our police officers to respond to things that they shouldn't respond to, then we can focus in getting people the resources they need so they can thrive. Then we minimize those people who wind up in our criminal justice system. But those that do, then the question is, is prison the right place? There is a lot of movement now about, and has been for a while, about alternatives to incarceration. Prison should not be the default, we ought to be looking at what's happening, how can we support this person, particularly our young people. Get them back on track instead of, as you say, warehousing them in prison and they come back out worse than they went in. How are we shoring up our community so that people have an opportunity to thrive so that they're not winding up in our criminal justice system.
Bill Whitaker (21:08):
We were talking earlier about a culture change. It's even trickled down into the way we talk to each other. It's almost like we can't have this kind of conversation that we're having here on a broader scale. If you say black lives matter, somebody pushes back and say, well, blue lives matter. If you say defund the police, they'll push back and say, well then you live with the crime that happens if you take the money away from the police. And you know that when people say defund the police, they're actually talking about, as you're saying here, police aren't always the best response, perhaps social work. You know that's what defund the police actually means, but people want to make political points by jumping on it and making us all feel bad about the way we're approaching these issues. We can't even talk to each other. So it makes me concerned about how we're going to have the sensible reforms you all are talking about. How do we do that?
Art Acevedo (22:07):
Can I respond? Just to react a couple things. My mind's been going 100 miles an hour. Look, I think the problem with our nation, and I want to pick on the media a little bit, Mr. Whitaker, is that defund the police means different things to different people. There's actually abolitionist and their idea is we should have no police. I think the problem is and the frustration is that voices of moderation and common sense and give and take and focus on policy and not politics get drowned out by the extremes on both end. So I think that we all need to come together, use our intellect, and have a focus on criminal justice that is just, that timely, and that is certain.
Art Acevedo (22:51):
We've got to bring everyone in from their corners and we need to come in here and focus on what makes sense. Because I'm telling you that when I drive around this city and I talk about people are scared, and they're black and brown people, and they're scared because there are those that are not being smart and they're just pushing some really, I think, reckless policies on both ends of the extreme, on both extremes. The throw away the key, lock up and throw away the keys, the let's treat young people and adolescent behavior like criminal behavior, instead of what it really is, is young people acting out. Those are the things we need to be focusing on.
Roy L. Austin, Jr. (23:31):
I think we have to level set here a little bit. The criminal justice reform movement is actually pretty new. I remember being in the Obama administration and for the first four years, it was hard to have any conversation about criminal justice reform. What, do you want to let all the criminals out? You want to let all the murderers out? And it wasn't until the middle of that administration, and former attorney general Eric Holder can tell you the hate that he was faced with, and even starting to have this conversation about reforming the criminal justice system. So the movement is still rather new. And we can't ignore the fact that the law and order nonsense that happened over the last four years really hurt the movement, really and truly hurt the movement. And where you had police officers starting to have this conversation in a way that they'd never had it before, you had them fall back into the law and order.
Roy L. Austin, Jr. (24:25):
So now we got to pick back up from where we were, and I think we can do it. And I see this, I'm involved in a program called Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement, it's called ABLE. And the one thing we didn't talk about with George Floyd is you had the one officer with his knee on George Floyd's neck, but you had three other officers there who didn't do anything. We're talking about empower. Police officer know when their fellow officer is not doing the right thing. And we have to empower them to take the steps to say to their buddy and say, "Hey we shouldn't be doing this. Hey, you need to go get some help. Hey, this community deserves the same policing as this wealthy community over here." And I think we have to turn the table and start getting back in that direction. But we have to undo, honestly, four years worth of damage to the criminal justice reform effort.
Karol Mason (25:14):
Well, I'm just going to respectfully disagree with my colleague a little bit. I do think that we lost some ground because the national voice was different. But most criminal justice issues are state and local, and that's what people don't understand. What you do have is you have a federal bully pulpit that was used irresponsibly, in my opinion, over the last four years. But a lot of good work was still happening at the state and local government level in terms of focusing on being smart on crime. And that's why I'm saying now that we've got some federal leadership willing to partner with us, I think we can make up at that ground quickly and move a lot further. But the work was still happening. And I don't want to lose sight of the fact that there were good people still working hard in their communities to be smart on crime.
Roy L. Austin, Jr. (25:58):
Let me agree with Karol on that, yes. But when you have the message coming from the federal government emboldening some of the worst instincts in your union leadership, in some of your individual officers, it matters, it matters, it makes Chief Acevedo's job that much harder because he's tried to send one message and then from the federal government, you're getting a completely different message. Look at all the programs that you started at the Office of Justice Programs, Karol, where money and resources and the Task Force on 21st Century Policing, those things were pulled back. Where we were talking to POST, Police Officer Standards and Training, around the country that were ready to start adopting those things on a national level, so to touch 18,000 police departments and to start getting some uniformity, it's going to require national leadership. So I don't disagree with you at all, there's some great people who are continuing to do great things, but that national leadership matters so much.
Bill Whitaker (26:56):
I'm here in New York, you're probably going to hear the sirens go by. But we've got some questions coming in from our viewers, if we could start with that. There's one here, what are your views on private prison, the implications for effective reform?
Roy L. Austin, Jr. (27:13):
Get rid of them now. Can't profit off of people being incarcerated. It's an awful idea, they need to be gone.
Art Acevedo (27:21):
Karol Mason (27:23):
You've got unanimity, they need to go.
Art Acevedo (27:26):
Well, criminal justice should never be... you can't have justice as for profit, ever. I think most police chiefs and most thoughtful people recognize that that should not be a for profit proposition.
Bill Whitaker (27:39):
You have another question here, is there a good example of de-escalation training in the country?
Roy L. Austin, Jr. (27:47):
Yeah, I mentioned the ABLE program, which is out of Georgetown, which is not for profit, Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement. And the whole idea is to teach law enforcement officers to pull back. When an officer is starting to lose their cool, their partner taps among the shoulder and says, "You know what, let me take this." It's a different kind of de-escalation, but it's making sure that those who are closest to the officers are the ones who are intervening. And then we just need to make a law on de-escalation. Right now, the law really promotes, if you see someone that's acting up, go ahead, use force on them. The law needs to switch on that and move toward requiring that the first step for an officer is, how do I calm down this situation? It's this whole guardianship warrior mentality where we need our officers to be guardians of our communities and not warriors invading our communities.
Karol Mason (28:38):
It's a little more complicated because the two officers in Atlanta, Georgia, my hometown, with the gentleman who fell asleep at the Pizza Hut, not Pizza, whatever it was, I don't know.
Art Acevedo (28:46):
Wendy's. It was a Wendy's.
Karol Mason (28:48):
Yes, that's what it was. When there were two officers there and one of them was deescalating it, and they had just had de-escalation training. And then one of them just got hotter, and they could have just let the man walk home, he offered to walk home. And the question is, why didn't that happen? The training is just not sufficient in and of itself. And I suspect that part of it is it takes repetitive and accountability and a combination of what Roy talked about as well. But what we're doing is not enough.
Bill Whitaker (29:18):
I have a big question but little time. When we think about the culture of policing, I wonder what you folks can say about the role of white supremacy.
Roy L. Austin, Jr. (29:32):
Well, one place I'd look is, if you see the work of the Plain View Project that looked at the social media posts from law enforcement, it picked six to eight cities, it was awful, absolutely awful. The most vile, racist, sexist, homophobic comments by law enforcement. And too few of those officers face repercussions for that. So the fact that you're seeing significant numbers of law enforcement that are touching on white supremacy, if not fully engaged on it, is something that has to be rooted out. And we have to find it and it has to be removed. Those people don't deserve to be police officers because you have to be representing your entire community, all shades of your community, the genders in your community, everything else. And you can't have that in law enforcement.
Bill Whitaker (30:21):
Chief, Karol, Roy, I knew you'd be a great panel. Thank you.
Thanks for joining us for this special episode of Shades of Freedom from The Aspen Institute's Criminal Justice Reform Initiative. We'll be back soon with more thought provoking guests, so please subscribe on your favorite podcast app. The Beyond Policing event was co-produced with the Aspen Institute's Conversations With Great Leaders series in memory of Preston Robert Tisch, which is supported by Steve Tisch, Lori Tisch, Lizzy and Jonathan Tisch, and the Lori M. Tisch Illumination Fund. This podcast was produced by Erin Slomkski-Pritz, with research assistance by Willem Patrick. It was edited by Ken Thompson. Special thanks to Christian Devers and Wanda Mann. CJRI's programs are made possible by support from the Ascendium Education Group, Arnold Ventures, the Bank of America Charitable Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Ford Foundation, Maya and Mike Crothers, and Google.