The Office of the Appellate Defender, Inc. stands in solidarity with the families of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Tony McDade.

We support the protestors in New York City, across the country and throughout the world. We share their outrage at the seemingly endless list of black victims of police and vigilante violence. We recognize that their deaths are a legacy of the white supremacy and slavery that built our nation and evidence of the stubborn persistence of structural racism.
The extrajudicial executions of black and brown people by police and vigilantes are the most overt and horrific manifestations of the ways in which our system betrays the promise of equal protection under the law. As many scholars and historians have explained, mass incarceration is only the current iteration of this country’s history of slavery, lynchings, and segregation.[1] The United States incarcerates more people, both proportionally and in sheer numbers, than any other country on earth. [2] Those who are incarcerated are overwhelmingly and disproportionately African-American.

The extrajudicial executions of black and brown people by police and vigilantes are the most overt and horrific manifestations of the ways in which our system betrays the promise of equal protection under the law. As many scholars and historians have explained, mass incarceration is only the current iteration of this country’s history of slavery, lynchings, and segregation. The United States incarcerates more people, both proportionally and in sheer numbers, than any other country on earth. Those who are incarcerated are overwhelmingly and disproportionately African-American.

As public defenders, we bear witness every day to the ways in which our legal system perpetuates these injustices. Racial disparities exist at every single stage of the criminal legal system—from police stop to arrest to conviction to sentencing to parole. In New York City, broken windows policing and the rampant use of stop and frisk (declared unconstitutional in 2013) have ensured that police officers are much more likely to harass black and brown people in their day-to-day lives. Black people are less likely than similarly-situated white people to be released on bail, to be offered favorable plea deals, or to be granted a jury of their peers; they are more likely receive a longer sentence if convicted. Perhaps not surprisingly, black and brown people are significantly underrepresented in decision-making positions in the police department, in prosecutor offices, and in public defender offices.[3]

Once mired in the system, black people face charges based on the testimony of New York City police officers who are all too often caught lying to judges and juries or withholding key evidence without consequence.[4] Time and again, this misconduct is hidden, overlooked and/or written off as harmless by prosecutors and courts, leading directly to wrongful convictions and unjust punishment. Yet again, this abuse of power is seen more frequently in the reversal of cases involving black people than white people.[5] Tolerance for such misconduct in police investigations and in prosecutions undermines the legitimacy of our criminal legal system.

Racial inequity persists in the trauma of incarceration. Black and brown people are disciplined more frequently and more harshly by corrections officers, whose ranks are drawn from the predominately white rural communities where most New York prisons are located.[6] Acts of excessive force and overt racism by officers go unreported or unpunished. And black people are less likely to be granted parole and more likely to be re-incarcerated for technical parole violations than their white counterparts. Our society can no longer turn a blind eye to these profoundly racialized inequities.

Finally, there is no excuse for the NYPD’s rampant use of force on New Yorkers gathered to express their justifiable anger. We oppose the mass arrests of protestors as well as their detention for over 24 hours, particularly during this dangerous pandemic. Instead, this must become an opportunity for New York City to enact real, robust reforms.

  • We must pass the Safer NY Act, including the repeal of Civil Rights Law § 50-a, which prevents the disclosure of police disciplinary records, and the end to arrests for non-criminal offenses or marijuana use.[7]
  • We must have justice in the NYC budget by reallocating funds from policing priorities to community development.[8]
  • We must end qualified immunity for police officers, whether through legislation or Supreme Court decision.[9]
  • We must demand true reform of the NYPD including, but not limited to, de-escalation and bias training, as well as meaningful accountability including increased support for the Civilian Complaint Review Board.[10]
  • And we must support our clients through the creation of an elder parole law and the reform of New York’s solitary confinement policies.[11]

This moment is not unique. Police impunity was a direct cause of the necessary protests in Harlem in 1943, in Watts in 1965, in Los Angeles in 1992, in Ferguson in 2014, and nationally in 1967 and again today. But our response this time needs to be different; and we must leave behind our tragic and racist legacy by confronting police and officer violence in each and every phase of the legal system.

Christina Swarns
President and Attorney-in-Charge
Office of the Appellate Defender

  1. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/prison-industrial-complex-slavery-racism.html
  2. https://www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2020/01/16/percent-incarcerated
  3. https://nysba.org/the-state-of-diversity-in-new-yorks-judiciary/
  4. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/18/nyregion/testilying-police-perjury-new-york.html
  5. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/07/us/wrongful-convictions-race-exoneration.html
  6. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/03/nyregion/new-york-state-prisons-inmates-racial-bias.html
  7. https://www.changethenypd.org/safer-ny
  8. https://www.changethenypd.org/nycbudgetjustice
  9. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/06/03/police-abuse-misconduct-supreme-court-immunity/
  10. https://www.joincampaignzero.org/solutions#solutionsoverview
  11. http://rappcampaign.com/wp-content/uploads/Updated-RAPP-one-pager.pdf; http://nycaic.org/legislation/.