Elijah McClain’s death in 2019 added his name to a list that includes Eric Garner, Philando Castile, and of course George Floyd – Black men who died after encounters with the police. Confrontations like these – dating back to the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991 – led to the founding of the National Police Accountability Project. The non-profit “promotes the accountability of law enforcement officers and their employers for violations of the Constitution and the laws of the United States.”
Following the verdict in the first trial of the police officers charged in McClain’s death, the NPAP’s executive director, Lauren Bonds, spoke with Colorado Matters host Chandra Thomas Whitfield about the ebbs and flows that come from working to hold police accountable for their actions.
“I think more and more, particularly in the wake of the murder of Elijah McClain, the murder of George Floyd, that we're seeing that police officers are rarely acting alone. There might be one person who's more involved being more aggressive, but there's responsibility to be assigned to everyone who's on the scene. Every officer that doesn't intervene. Every officer that assists the more aggressive police officer in harming somebody,” said Bonds, “And I do think that it's unfortunate when these officers are not seeing the same kind of consequences because they have a legal responsibility, at least in the civil context for sure, to stop harm from happening to civilians in these encounters.”
She continued, “I think in terms of what will it take to actually make progress, I think it's going to take political courage on the part of elected officials to really dig in and say that they don't care if they don't get reelected, that people's lives are more important than their reelection and really pass meaningful accountability measures.”.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Chandra Thomas Whitfield: One of the two officers on trial, Randy Roedema, was found guilty on charges of criminally negligent homicide and assault. The other, Jason Rosenblatt, was found not guilty on all charges. What stood out to you about the verdicts?
Lauren Bonds: I would say one of the most remarkable things about the verdict from my perspective was the fact that it was a split verdict. I wasn't privy to all the evidence that was submitted to the jury, but I did have a general sense of the roles both of these defendants played in Elijah's murder, and it's kind of hard to distinguish their roles and their accountability here when both of them were responsible for using these positional asphyxia holds that are known to lead to serious bodily harm and death. So I do think it is somewhat striking, and I think one of the things about jury trials is juries are made up of humans, and so it could have come down to something as simple as one officer came across as more credible. One officer came across as more likable, and unfortunately those types of things really do influence decisions a lot of the time.
Chandra Thomas Whitfield: While the two officers were co-defendants, the jury had the option of rendering separate verdicts for each of them, which turned out to be the case. What are your thoughts on that in terms of making police accountable for what happened to Elijah McClain?
Lauren Bonds: I think that's part of their protections as criminal defendants, that they do have the right to be judged separately by a jury and to have separate facts about their involvement considered separately by a jury. So I think that's consistent with our criminal legal process. I do think it could undermine police accountability going forward. I think more and more, particularly in the wake of the murder of Elijah McClain, the murder of George Floyd, that we're seeing that police officers are rarely acting alone. There might be one person who's more involved being more aggressive, but there's responsibility to be assigned to everyone who's on the scene. Every officer that doesn't intervene. Every officer that assists the more aggressive police officer in harming somebody. And I do think that it's unfortunate when these officers are not seeing the same kind of consequences because they have a legal responsibility, at least in the civil context for sure, to stop harm from happening to civilians in these encounters.
Chandra Thomas Whitfield: Let's talk a bit about your organization. What led to it being founded and who's a part of this project?
Lauren Bonds: The National Police Accountability Project was first founded actually in the wake of Rodney King's beating and the subsequent uprisings. And it was a group of civil rights attorneys across the country who were suing police officers, suing police departments who wanted to get together, this is very hard work to do, who wanted to get together and really join forces and share resources to be the most effective advocates for police victims that they could be. And so this started out with a group of about 20 attorneys. We've grown to nearly 600 attorneys across the country, and we're really open to anybody who advocates for victims of police violence and people who are harmed in the carceral system.
Chandra Thomas Whitfield: Now, we've been saying that increasingly in Colorado police officers are being charged criminally and facing jury trials for their interactions. What do the numbers look like nationally, and would you say a lot of it stems from the aftermath of George Floyd's death in 2020?
Lauren Bonds: Yes, I would definitely say that there is a similar uptick nationally in terms of that prosecutors would seem willing to pursue charges and those charges getting to the place where they go to trial and a jury gets to decide them. Ultimately, though, I would say that still doesn't represent even a small fraction of the number of people who are killed or harmed by the police. In the grand scheme of things, prosecutors are still declining to press charges in many, many situations, even when there's pretty clear wrongdoing and liability.
Chandra Thomas Whitfield: Now, two years after McClain's death, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser announced his office had investigated the Aurora Police and Fire Departments for more than a year and found a pattern and practice of racially biased policing. In the weeks after, the city signed onto an agreement with the Attorney General called a consent decree. The city and state spelled out a series of specific reforms to hiring and training practices. How familiar are you with consent decrees and is there data on how effective they are?
Lauren Bonds: My familiarity with consent decrees more so comes from federal consent decrees that the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division enters into with different police departments and jails. I know that there are state processes, and it's fantastic that the Colorado Attorney General has that authority to investigate and enter into these agreements. I don't want to say that they're not effective across the board. I don't think that there's great data on how effective consent decrees are. I think one thing that you could look to to determine how much they're changing things is the number of continued lawsuits that you're seeing against a particular police department in the wake of a consent decree or after a consent decree has been entered. The Chicago Police Department has been in a consent decree with the state of Illinois for years now, and you're still seeing millions of dollars being paid out in settlements to victims of that police department. And I think unfortunately, they're definitely not a silver bullet to deal with police violence, but they are an effective tool in coordination with other steps to reel in problematic police departments.
Chandra Thomas Whitfield: Earlier this summer, your organization's blog pointed out that in the three years since the death of George Floyd, the reckoning that many expected when it came to police actions and accountability hasn't really come to pass. Now, we heard one of our legislators, Leslie Herod, talking about the use of de-escalation versus force. What will it take for real change to occur?
Lauren Bonds: That's the million dollar question. I think 2020 was the situation where we had more elected officials than ever before, and more courts than ever before, willing to take a really hard look at our current police accountability systems and at least publicly saying that they're very interested in, and at the very least, making reforms, if not completely re-imagining those systems. I think unfortunately, a lot happened in 2021 and 2022 and continuing today that really blighted some of that progress. And I think one thing in particular is that police unions got very organized. I think there's been a perception that crime has significantly increased, and those things have been really strong barriers to there being any kind of legislative reforms at least.
And I think in terms of what will it take to actually make progress, I think it's going to take political courage on the part of elected officials to really dig in and say that they don't care if they don't get reelected, that people's lives are more important than their reelection and really pass meaningful accountability measures. So I think that's ultimately what it's going to take. I think it's going to take people to continue movements and activists to continue to be able to dedicate time and resources and energy to this as well.
Chandra Thomas Whitfield: Now, we recently did an interview with a professor and Black scholar from the Ohio State University, Osei Appiah, and we asked if the University of Colorado football coach, Deion Sanders, might act as a bridge to help navigate some of the racial unrest that has plagued the campus through the years. This is what he said.
Osei Appiah: “I find it not odd, but disappointing when folks always want to put the burden on the people who are the victims. And what I mean by that, Black people as a stigmatized crew always bear the burden of having to lead the charge. We shouldn't be stuck with the burden of having to lift the load. This is not just a problem for Blacks. It's a problem for America in general. Whites should be leading the charge.”
Chandra Thomas Whitfield: What are your thoughts about the idea of Blacks having to bear the burden, not whites? What are your thoughts when it comes to police accountability?
Lauren Bonds: I think it's an interesting conversation. I think it's a fine line to walk where you don't want people who are most significantly impacted by police violence to not be part of the conversation, to not be able to be the ones dictating and driving the direction of the types of reform and relief they need. But at the same time, I think Coach Sanders is right. The onus shouldn't be on Black people and people of color to deal with the harassment that comes from standing up and advocating for changes, to have to deal with not only the impacts of police violence, but also the work of pushing through reforms. So I think it's a fine line to walk, but I wouldn't say that white people or people with racial privilege should be leading the charge for police reform or racial equity, but I would say that they should be taking on some of the work and the burden and that it should exclusively be placed on Black people or other people of color who are marginalized and impacted by police violence.
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