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BPR Interviews: Rachel A. Pickens

Rachel A. Pickens is a civil-rights attorney who graduated college from Boston University and received her law degree from Loyola University New Orleans School of Law. She is Executive Director of the National Police Accountability Project [NPAP], a 501(c)(3) organization and a project of the National Lawyers Guild, which was founded in 1937 as the first racially integrated national bar association. NPAP was created in 1999 as a non-profit to protect the human and civil rights of individuals in their encounters with law enforcement and detention facility personnel. The central mission of NPAP is to promote the accountability of law enforcement officers and their employers for violations of the Constitution and the laws of the United States. NPAP has a membership of upwards of 500 lawyers, judges, legal workers, and law students dedicated to ending law enforcement and detention officer abuse of authority.

Amelia Spalter: When you meet someone who says something like, “I support reforming law enforcement, but I’m hesitant to abolish the police altogether, because my ex-boyfriend is violent. If he violates the restraining order, I need someone to call,” what do you tell them?

Rachel A. Pickens: That discussion has been one I’ve been chewing on the most because, while the conversation around abolition has been around since the 1940s, for probably 99% of Americans, the word abolition with reference to the police is brand new. There are still some weighty questions about abolition, especially when juxtaposed to police reform. I would say first that, when it comes to helping sexual assault victims, police have failed. Especially when it comes to stalkers or temporary restraining orders. When someone comes to the police because they are being harmed by an intimate partner, I don’t think it’s unfair to say that the police aren’t helpful, especially if you’re trans or [LGBTQ+]. If it’s not helpful now, what’s the harm in thinking about a different model?

Again, when we juxtapose abolition to reform, it sounds hasty and completely unfathomable, but I’m glad the discussion is happening because when you really dive deep, abolition contains multitudes. This includes defunding the police, which means reallocation of resources from police departments to other entities that have been underfunded for decades. It’s re-examining ineffective structures to reshape the future of policing 10 years from now, 20 years from now. If the word “abolition” by itself scares someone off, then I think that person is losing out on some really important concepts about reimagining everything that makes policing the way it is.

I would also say that we all know that education, food security, job security, and physical and mental health all factor into how a community interacts within itself. If those things are taken care of, and if we refocus on what policing is actually good for, that means police officers would no longer be the ones who respond to distress calls. Police should not be first responders for probably 90% of the calls they receive, but because there’s no alternative, they’re what we get. I can absolutely see why people fear an absence of police, but I hope that they push through that fear and realize that there are some things within the abolition concept that are just as important as those within reform.

AS: What are NPAP’s top priorities for police accountability in the short term?

RAP: Within NPAP, we’re still trying to determine what our next internal steps are. I think it’s fair to say that, moving forward, it’s figuring out how we can make police officers more liable, both financially and legally. Because, as we’ve seen from how the police have interacted with protesters in these past few weeks, even with the cameras on them, they are attacking protesters, bystanders, legal observers, and others. You would think that having this much attention might deter or de-escalate their behavior, especially when it comes to the right of protest, but it hasn’t. So any substantial future change will concern stripping off the insulation that officers get via qualified immunity, via the police unions, and via the insurance that municipalities and cities place on police departments. Right now, if a police officer does get sued and then there’s a settlement, the officer in question is not personally obligated to pay out the settlement.

In addition, we plan to establish that there should be a higher bar of training to be a police officer and to ask if the bar should be lower for someone to be removed from the police force. Those are both crucial things that NPAP will be working on in the future. Once more citizens realize that [the police] are not immune to consequences in their professional capacity, it will really shift the culture and lead towards a better, smaller, more transparent system in the country, one that is not killing people every day, especially Black and Brown people.

AS: Can people who are in favor of abolishing the police also be in favor of reforming the current system, or do most abolitionists see improving the current system as a lost cause?

RAP: Abolition is, again, a heavy, strong word, and in regard to a policing system that’s been around since the 1870s, it’s like a monument just being gone. But here we go, monuments are being taken down as we speak, and with good reason. [That being said,] reform and abolition are going to be living in the same space. The road to abolition is long, I don’t think abolition will be happening countrywide in my lifetime. It could happen in pockets. Minneapolis is trying its best, but there are still going to be roadblocks. So meanwhile, while there is a vision for abolition, it’s okay to also look at the reform and figure out, “Okay if we can’t do abolition now, are there things we can pull from reform now?” For example, the stripping of the strength of police unions, and things that will affect their day-to-day movements. Not just anti-bias training or de-escalation training, because clearly that alone won’t work. The officer who killed Rayshard Brooks had just had anti-bias training and de-escalation training two months prior, so that clearly did nothing.

The way NPAP is trying to go towards reform, actual reform, not just the toothless reform that Minneapolis’ police department had, is about officers facing consequences. Not just facing consequences in a distant report that no one can ever see; the report will be transparent, the community will have access to it. The internal process of disciplining someone will also be transparent, and the officer can’t appeal repeatedly appeal because of their union. They are liable personally, they are liable financially, and the city isn’t paying their premiums. If the city or municipality does not end up paying on their behalf and the police officer does pay premiums, every time there is a case of police brutality, the premium should go up to the point that it is unaffordable.

Hopefully, they will also face criminal charges [when applicable]. Then, if they get fired because of misconduct, they can’t move to a different county or a different state and just be rehired. There would be a national database of all officers who have been fired for misconduct on the job, and they cannot be rehired as police officers. And lastly, they can’t keep their pension. If they lose their job, especially if they are criminally charged and convicted, they can’t pull down a million-dollar pension after all that. So, right now, I’m not asking people to make a choice between abolition and reform, because I see this as a “both.” You have to make room for both conversations, because each one benefits from the other.

AS: As you mentioned earlier, police confrontations with protesters seem to be escalating in frequency and intensity, even when they know they are on camera. Has this surprised NPAP’s members?

RAP: I don’t think anyone’s surprised, especially given the cases our members have gone to court with and the clients they’ve represented. I don’t think anyone’s ever surprised about the behavior of police officers in that context. So, I wouldn’t say surprised, but maybe just wondering, “Why?” What is surprising is that you would think being on video at a protest would be an opportunity for police to showcase, “Hey, we are not what people are saying that we are. We’re not violent. We are here to serve and protect our fellow community members.” Instead, they’re doing the exact opposite, repeatedly. Then they’re shocked that people are angry. Then they get frustrated, so this entity that is trained in de-escalation can’t meet the protestors and say, “We hear you.” Instead, they just respond with more aggression.

AS: Were any mainstream politicians vocal proponents of police accountability before the murder of George Floyd?

RAP: Julián Castro was, even back when there were more than 25 Democratic presidential candidates. I won’t say he’s the only one, but he has probably always had the strongest voice about police accountability. The thing is, police unions have such a stronghold politically, so there has been a hesitancy across the board and on both sides of the aisle, because before now politicians weren’t willing to say anything at all. Police unions really know how to use their numbers of members and their funds to navigate the political nomination process, and it’s something they’ve done for decades. They’re issue based, they’ll support candidates regardless of whether they’re Republican, Democrat or Independent. So, overall, I haven’t heard much. Julián Castro is one of the only ones who really intentionally brings these issues up.

AS: What steps would you recommend people take to continue seeing forward momentum on this issue, even if it is eventually no longer central in the press or even if they can’t participate in protests and volunteering as often once re-opening progresses?

RAP: For those who want to continue to help, voting is going to have to be one of the steps. And not just because it controls the whole Presidency. Starting locally, voting will be really important. I know a lot of people, myself included, are tired of hearing that answer in conversations about revolutionary change, because voting is critically important but it’s not the end-all be all. Demanding more of those who represent you will be helpful because now the conversation of police brutality is not going to go away. It may be quieter, but it won’t ever go away again as it has before. We’ve seen, even with Democrats or whomever you vote for, you’ve got to actively push people to listen to you, to really hear you. That starts by voting, but also going to budget meetings like we’ve seen in other cities like LA and New York. I mean, these police departments get billions of dollars, so convincing city councils, “Hey, I think $7 billion is a bit ridiculous,” has got to be the first step.

If you’re living in a city where negotiations are open to the public, go to those, and provide input. Because then you can really see how it works. Some other things also include supporting any local criminal-justice grassroots activism, because while a lot of nonprofits like ours have been overwhelmed with support, we know that time will pass and things will be quieter than they are now. Organizations that now have funds will still need people to volunteer, still need labor, still need other forms of help. I know that, moving forward, NPAP will try and do more legislative reforms, because we just can’t depend on the federal level to implement change on its own. It’s going to have to be from local on up. So, showing up to the state capitol when these bills come is another great thing you can do. But I also don’t want to deny the points of protest, because let’s be real, the reason all of this is happening is because of these protests. I know at some point people will have to go back to work, but who knows what will happen with COVID in the next few months? Many things are still closed. Protesting is still very important, and I don’t doubt that there will be other police shootings and killings in the future. Protesting is something that has tremendous value and always sets a pace for everything else.

AS: Are there any benchmark cases NPAP members have handled that you feel best encapsulate the type of work the organization does?

RAP: The thing about NPAP, is we do a lot of policing cases, but we also do prison cases, too. Anything that involves government officials is within our capacity. For example, we have John Burris, one of our board members, who has been a titan of this initiative for decades. He’s represented Oscar Grant, Rodney King, and his most recent case was with a young man named Sahleem Tindle, who was shot and killed in Oakland, California. Mr. Tindle was in an altercation with another person over some items he found on the sidewalk. The officer who came through tried to tell both individuals to get their arms up, but Mr. Tindle was still in the altercation and his arms were pinned down so he couldn’t [move them.] The officer shot Mr. Tindle three times and he lost his life. The family sued, it went to trial, and they actually came up with a monetary verdict of $6.3 million. It’s not enough for a life. But it’s a sample, a little tidbit, of justice.

Another case was in Cleveland, Ohio. Three Black men, Ricky Jackson, Kwame Ajamu, and Wiley Bridgeman, were falsely accused of shooting a white man, then convicted and imprisoned for close to 40 years. They only had one witness, who was 12 years old and who was provoked, and again, who was a 12-year-old kid. So the police told him to say what he said, and it was things that weren’t true. The three men were exonerated in 2014. But they moved forward with civil litigation, and just last month, on May 6th, the three gentlemen received an $18 million settlement. Or, technically, two of the men. One of them had passed, so his family received his. It’s really hard to pick cases, because every day, NPAP members, both attorneys and other legal workers, they go through the grind. These cases, including those two I just mentioned, they last years. The three men in Cleveland, Ricky, Kwame, and Wiley, started this process in 2014 and it was just settled in May of 2020. So, most of these cases that NPAP member attorneys represent, they know it’s going to take a long time. Especially the qualified-immunity cases, because qualified immunity can elongate the process and create unnecessary delays.

We have another member who just represented 89 inmates from an Atlanta, Georgia prison who were tased, pepper-balled, thrown into restraint chairs, and basically tortured. They were pre-trial detainees. 85 of the 89 have received a settlement for $3.2 million and he is still representing the other four. I want to emphasize, though: the settlement money does not equate to justice. It’s a semblance of justice, because a monetary settlement is the only avenue that these victims can go through right now. A lot of times, the perpetrators are fired, but it’s very hard for them to be criminally charged, that’s why a lot of people go through civil litigation as an alternative. Even with those cases, I don’t want to focus on the money, because it’s symbolic and it’s important, but money is never enough to undo the harm, the violence, and the loss of life that was suffered.

AS: What is the best way for pre-law students to become involved with NPAP’s work even though they are not yet able to practice law? 

RAP: Email me. One of the long-term goals of NPAP is finding and supporting the next generations of civil rights attorneys. Because even with the ongoing transformation and future reform of policing, people are still going to have their rights violated every day. And being a civil rights attorney is hard work; it can be very isolating, especially if you live somewhere that’s not New York City or Los Angeles. Especially, also, if you decide you are going against the government, which is this Goliath, this endless reserve, of funding. Our attorneys are David. I was just speaking with some of our attorneys, and they’re all awake by 6:00 AM and doing 10- or 12-hour days. It’s really, really hard work. The only way to get through that work, to be encouraged to move forward and continually become a better attorney for your client and their families, is through the aid of your fellow civil rights attorneys. We’re few in number country-wide but we can be very powerful when we come together. So, I’ll say again, for those who are interested, email me, and I’ll make sure that you are supported in the way that you need to be.

AS: What has it been like to live through such a historical surge of awareness of your cause, and how do you recommend activists keep from getting burned out in the wake of it all?

RAP: This has been professionally and personally very difficult for me. The way I have been able to move through these past weeks has been the support of others. Not just attorneys, but those who are the first responders on the front lines, the protesters. And in general, seeing the conversations on Twitter, which can be amazing or horrible depending on whom you ask. For me it has been encouraging and wonderful to go on Twitter and see the conversation suggest that this whole thing is not a moment, it’s a movement. Sorry if that’s cheesy, but it’s a line from Hamilton, which I’m a big fan of.

I know all this can be overwhelming, especially for those who are new to this conversation and new to the realities of what police brutality is and how destructive it is. So it’s okay to, A, not know everything, B, ask more questions and provide answers—but don’t ask your Black and Brown friends—do the work on your own, Google is free. And C, take a little break. Because movements can be everlasting and with movement work, there is always going to be a need for sustainability. I know that this work isn’t going to end for a very long time. For those who want to join, you’re always welcome, and for those who were in it long before I was, thank you. I hope that they will take care of themselves in this time and reflect on how important it is that people are coming out and doing this work during a pandemic. It’s astounding—nothing is going to be the same after this.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.